Australia's Economic Destiny Lies With China

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Gough Whitlam was a great man but could never be described as a great prime minister. He had huge intelligence and was an amazing orator. He inspired a nation and returned the Labor Party to government after 23 years in the arctic waste of opposition.

Unfortunately he had no idea or how to manage a ministry let alone a caucus. Ministers were out of control. Rex Connor was organising huge loans on behalf of the Australian government, using a low-grade Pakistani spiv as the middle man. He had no interest in economics so he gave the Treasury portfolio to Jim Cairns whose view of fiscal responsibility was to tally up with the lists of ministers, give a tick to all of them, and call it a budget.

For all of those failures, Whitlam dreamed big dreams. When you look at Australia's position in the world today we can give thanks to Whitlam. Forty odd years ago, Whitlam outraged the Western world, not to mention a chunk of the Australian population, by jumping on a plane and visiting China. Ever since that day, despite the odd bump, Australia has held a special place in the eyes of those who matter in China. Now our prosperity seems indelibly linked to the Chinese economy.
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Every Australian owes Whitlam who, for all his faults, was a visionary, and Australia has produced few prime ministers whose name could be used in the same sentence as the word visionary.

I raise this now because of the claims made in the Fairfax press last week about the announcement of a US base to be established in Darwin.

When Stephen Smith put that idea to rest, I was somewhat relieved. Australia must maintain what will be a really difficult balancing act. Our economic future lies in Asia. The US and Europe will never again be the powerhouses of the world economy. China and India will continue to grow at rates developed countries can only envy but never emulate.

Australian governments have to make decisions in Australia's interests and insulting the Chinese and the Indians is clearly not in our interests.

The US alliance is of real importance. The more joint exercises with US forces, the more US troops moving through Australia will make us all feel safer and warmer as we tuck into our beds, but it won't pay the bills.

I trust that as we heap accolades upon Barack Obama during his visit here, we are reassuring the Chinese that our door remains open to them.

Putting Australia's economic interests first can sometimes cause difficulties. Selling uranium to India is a case in point. Thirty years ago the uranium debate was traumatic for a party preparing for government. The federal conferences in 1982 and 1984 will be remembered for being truly bitter, closely fought uranium debates. In 1982, it would have taken only one or two delegates to change their minds to bring it undone.

Those were the days when people against uranium mining were both numerous and passionate. I can recall being spat on by an angry female activist after the vote in 1982. There may have been only 100 or so delegates at the Lakeside Hotel in Canberra that day, but there were 400 or 500 activists in attendance. I don't recall any of them being in favour of uranium mining.

Since those days Olympic Dam has come into being. It makes a mockery of any policy to limit uranium mining given it is arguably the biggest uranium mine in the world.

While a big majority of us don't want nuclear power, it would seem that uranium mining barely raises an eyebrow. I can imagine Julia Gillard being a young far Left activist 25 or 30 years ago. She would have been one of those who would have thought the world would end if uranium mining continued.

It is testament to her journey across the spectrum of Labor politics that this week she announced she would take a proposition to sell uranium to India to this year's federal conference. No doubt the much maligned faceless men will ensure she has the numbers to pass her resolution.

I am all for cosying up to the US and its President and I am absolutely in favour of selling uranium to India but it is impossible for me not to see some irony here.

Our PM really has had a few good weeks. She pulled the right rein on Qantas, had a good Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting and looked every inch a success in Hawaii. Now that Obama has visited our shores, her relationship, both personal and professional with the US President is obviously warm.

Obama appears to be intelligent. He uses his words carefully and, given the lacklustre candidates the Republicans have assembled to oppose him, he is a pretty safe bet for a second term.

That having been said, for many of us who believed he was a breath of fresh air after the embarrassing George W. Bush he has been a disappointment. He is popular here and being seen to have a strong friendship with him will do Gillard no harm at all.

Mind you, hanging off the coattails of US presidents is no guarantee to boosting your poll numbers at home. John Howard did himself real damage by being seen to be close to Bush, who most Australians regarded as a bumbling fool. The PM's good weeks continue and I look forward to the next Newspoll.

I would have one word of advice for our PM though: beware Obama's enthusiasm for a new free trade pact. Every US president talks the talk on free trade but never walks the walk. US farmers are heavily protected and trying to export steel to the US always ends in tears.

Australia is uniquely pure in our free trade. Australian farmers get no protection of any kind but if you own a farm in the US, Japan or France you know you have a government behind you.

Bush may have been an embarrassment but I would rather an honest dope than a hypocrite. On his last visit here Bush said it was his job to protect American farmers, not Australian farmers. Amen to that one, brother.

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