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The myth of Australian independence

By Peter McMahon - posted Tuesday, 10 November 2015


As Australian service men and women participate in another open-ended foreign conflict, it is well to reflect on why young Australians are so likely to fight and die overseas. To this end in this piece I'll review Michael Dunn's remarkable book, Australia and the Empire: From 1788 to the Present, on the history of this country's ongoing dependence on foreign empires. I'll also comment on how things have gone since Dunn published his book in 1984.

Interestingly, our involvement with overseas powers has been as much about economic factors and business corporations as governments and armed forces, especially in regard to our two great allies, Britain and the US. As a relatively small, isolated but resource rich country, we have relied on overseas finance and expertise to develop economically, and these have been heavily influenced by our formal imperial ties.

While the focus here is on our reliance on the British and American empires, other empires have also played a significant role in this nation's history. Initially the British were spurred on to colonisation of the great south land by fear of the French Empire; federation was partly in response to fear of the Czarist Russian Empire; Australia went through a radical transformation due to the threat from the German and Japanese empires in wartime; and the existence of a Soviet empire seeking a global presence first pushed Australia towards further American entanglement and then provided a new market for Australian primary produce. Now we face the situation of an increasingly expansionist China, our biggest trading partner, confronting the declining global hegemon, the US, our main ally.

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Dunn argues that up till 1984 Australia was dominated by four basic stages of imperial entanglement. The first period was as part of the British Empire and involved three phases. The first phase was mercantilism "where chartered trading companies, or monopolies backed by the State, dominated colonial policy". The second period was one of a shift towards free trade "which overthrew these monopolies in the interests of Britain's worldwide industrial expansion". The third was that of open imperialism under Britain "with the resurgence of new kinds of imperial monopolies for overseas investment, when Britain struggled to fashion its colonies into a defensive bulwark against European, American and Japanese competition". The fourth phase was that of American imperialism "when the 1939-45 war broke up the British Empire and thereby allowed America, with its economic and military strength, to overwhelm British possessions".

Dunn asserts that Australia's origins lie primarily not in the search for an outlet for convicts, but in attempts to bolster the activities of that quintessential transnational corporate empire, the East India Company. The New South Wales colony was set up to support the East India Company, using convicts as slave labour to build basic infrastructure. The colony was a Royal Navy operation under military law and was specifically prohibited from otherwise trading for profit. The main benefit of this arrangement was to wealthy British stockholders, to whom the East India Company paid handsome dividends for centuries.

As British industry developed the push for free trade grew up in Britain to take advantage of British superiority in this field. Mercantilism, the state protection of certain privileged firms, was increasingly seen as hurting the British economy in general. As a result by 1830 all British colonies were free trading, exporting what they could grow or hunt and mostly importing manufactured goods from Britain. Australia was still dependent on British financial and administrative capability, which did not always work to our benefit.

Free trade suited Britain whilst it was the dominant industrial power, but as new industrialised economies emerged, especially the US and Germany, Britain tried to reorganise its empire to maintain economic primacy. At this time the development of Australia was increasingly distorted as Britain pursued its own interests. Such schemes as 'imperial preference' seriously distorted the maturing local economy as Britain pursued its global strategy.

In fact, it was the relative isolation brought on by the two world wars that helped promote a more balanced economic system in Australia, especially as British power waned.

The big shift away from the British Empire and towards an increasingly imperial US, set on the imperial path by victory in the war against Spain, occurred suddenly and dramatically. The signal event was the utter failure of British Imperial defence policy under pressure from Japanese aggression in Asia. New Prime Minister John Curtin bravely defied the British Government (Churchill gave no sign that he thought about own Australia's national interests at all), bought Australia's troops home to defend the country against the marauding Japanese and embraced the US as the new primary military connection.

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Dunn points out that the US increasingly put forward the impression that the relationship was one-sided, that is, the US helping Australia, but that in fact basing the US counter attack in Australia saved the US huge amounts of money. Growing Australian industrial production was skewed to US military needs as Australian forces undertook difficult but inglorious roles determined by a US commander in chief with a low opinion of Australia's fighting abilities.

In fact, during World War Two Australia allied with one empire against another in a fight that was long coming: both the US and Japan had long drawn up strategic plans for what they saw as the inevitable Pacific war. While the level of British (and French and Dutch) military incompetence was a surprise, the imperial rivalry between the US and Japan was not.

The shift from Britain to the US waned somewhat in the immediate post-war years when Australian forces supported British imperial activities in Asia (most notably in Malaya) as British power waned and nationalist forces arose, but subsequently the orientation shifted towards the US. Albeit under United Nations authority, Australian forces supported the US in Korea and later without UN sanction in Vietnam. The ANZUS treaty between Australia, New Zealand and the US supposedly codified the special alliance relationship, but expert opinion questioned this. When push came to shove, in relation to Indonesia, for instance, it seemed that US self-interest would prevail over any formal alliance. US bases, over which Australian sovereignty was dubious, were built in Australia as part of the US global nuclear war fighting system, making Australia an automatic nuclear target in case of war.

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This is a review of Australia and the Empire: From 1788 to the Presentby Michael Dunn (Fontana, Sydney, 1984).



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About the Author

Dr Peter McMahon has worked in a number of jobs including in politics at local, state and federal level. He has also taught Australian studies, politics and political economy at university level, and until recently he taught sustainable development at Murdoch University. He has been published in various newspapers, journals and magazines in Australia and has written a short history of economic development and sustainability in Western Australia. His book Global Control: Information Technology and Globalisation was published in the UK in 2002. He is now an independent researcher and writer on issues related to global change.

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