Obama’s visit of convenience

Do we need to forgo our own rules to cater to the imagined anxieties of a foreign leader? DON AITKIN thinks not

THE fifth visit by an American president brought out once again my feeling that such visits, whatever else they do, certainly exemplify Mao Zedong’s old description of Australia as the “running dog” of the US.

Don’t get me wrong. I am no rabid anti-American. I have lived and worked in the US, and admire the real democrats there who take democracy much more seriously than any Australian I know. (We think compulsory voting does it all for us.)

But the symbolism of these arrivals, and their consequences for us, tend to bring out in me an angry objection to the whole business. When George W. Bush was with us we saw the (to me) amazing spectacle of members of parliament and senators not being able freely to move in their own House of Parliament, or to speak as they wished.

Have we ever done that for any other foreign leader? I don’t think so. Does any other foreign leader arrive with a bulletproof car and secret servicemen who wear firearms? Did the ACT Government waive the need for the cars to have appropriate registration? Were the firearms registered?

We seem to have had a “cleansing of the skies”, with jets regularly monitoring the air space above Canberra. I am sure it gave the pilots some useful training. Was it really necessary? Again, do we clean the skies for other foreign leaders? Do we seal off the War Memorial for anyone else?

President Obama’s visit marked the 60th anniversary of the establishment of the ANZUS Treaty, and he had talks with Prime Minister Gillard. In my view, that was simply a useful convenience. He needed to come because he had agreed to do so and earlier visits had to be cancelled.

His visit is an important indication (for her) that our Prime Minister can hack it on the world stage, and her perceived popularity will doubtless rise for that reason. I don’t object to any of that. Whether or not the ANZUS Treaty will save Australia in the event of some invasive threat is a matter experts disagree about, but I’ve no objection to it, either.

But what saddens me is the sight of my country’s leaders allowing a foreign leader to arrive in the style of our emperor, as though we are a tributary state. Our Queen, whose father once held the title of Emperor of India, arrives much more modestly, has no bulletproof car, and seems to need no great protection.

It reminds me of the “cultural cringe” that operated 50 years ago, when people from overseas were asked what they thought of Australia as they stepped off the plane. We have come a long way since then, I think. We are a middle-ranking country on most indices. We have a distinctive culture, an energetic and productive creative life, an education system of some quality and a high general standard of living.

My own experience of the US, from having lived there and from many subsequent visits, is that in most respects Australia offers great examples to the US of how to provide a decent life and great opportunity for most people.

Do we really need a visit from the American President to confirm that we are a real country? I would have thought not. Do we need to forgo our own rules to cater to the imagined anxieties of a foreign leader? Again, I would have thought not. We should provide the same protection and welcome for all visiting heads of state.

And if that’s not enough for them, well, perhaps our Prime Minister could meet them somewhere else.

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