Australia takes guard

A sure fire subject of conversation with almost any reticent Englishman in the summer of 1956, is the latest Test match score, and many a City gent, on bearing of another fallen wicket must have locked his office door and with his umbrella shown himself just how he would have put Lindwall away to the boundary.

Yet not all the headlines about an Australian “fightback” and “aggression” need refer to happenings at Lord’s or Old Trafford, for in the pot of international disputes there is something of a trade war brewing up between England and Australia. The director of the Commonwealth Bureau of Agricultural Economics has said in Canberra that Britain’s “attitudes, policies and behaviour” are “unfair” and “reprehensible” and among the mumblings of Australian politics is that of Mr. John McEwen, Minister of Trade, who has recently described his government as “hurt” by Britain’s trading policies. Mr. McEwen, with a substantial press backing, is currently peddling a “get tough with Britain” line.

What are the reasons for this tetchiness in Canberra? First, Australia’s trade with the U.K. is badly out of balance—in the nine months ended in March of this year she imported goods from Britain worth £A269 million compared to exports in return of only £A181½ million. Then there is the matter of wheat, of which Australia is one of the world’s major exporters. The stockpiling scramble of the Korean war caused a vastly increased production of wheat and a consequent fall in its price. The end of the boom left Australia, growing some of the cheapest wheat in the world, with an unsellable surplus and looking sourly on the British policy of supporting home production on the one hand and preferring to buy Argentine wheat on the other.

Another source of irritation is the present state of trading preferences. In the Ottawa agreement of 1932 Britain and Australia agreed to grant entry to each other’s imports at a lower duty than they charged on other countries goods. Australia accepted a preference based on fixed duties and the benefits of this have dwindled in our post-war inflation, just as money which was banked in 1932 has by now been devalued. But Britain secured a preference based on a percentage of their exports values and this has enabled her to keep a relative advantage on the Australian market. So a measure which was supposed to promote international friendship has turned out to be a cause of dissension; but there is nothing new in that.

To ease her problems Australia would like the U.K. to restrict imports of cheap wheat (unless, of course, it comes from Australia) and to re-negotiate the Ottawa pact so as to give Australian products new preferences. The difficulty in the way of both these suggestions is Britain’s membership of G.A.T.T., whose rules forbid any such moves. Even so, Australia is pressing for a new. comprehensive Commonwealth trade agreement; this was one of the points raised by Mr. Menzies at the recent London conference of Commonwealth Prime Ministers. If Australia cannot gain any concessions here, she may, in return, take steps to end her status as Britain’s largest single export market.

Meantime in the past few years Australia has several times drastically reduced its imports, the latest of these restrictions being introduced on July 1st. last. These cuts were designed to prune Australia’s imports by about £32 million in a full year. In addition Australia is making a strong bid to capture as much as possible of the U!k.’s trade with New Zealand.

Another reason for the deepening rift between the two countries is the change in the strategic relations of the Pacific since the war’s end. Before the sharpening of the Russo-American conflict Australia’s military interests extended to the Middle East. Now that Asia is a centre of tension these interests have been forced back to the Pacific, where the gap left by Great Britain’s waning power has been largely filled by that of America. Increasingly, Australia is dependent on the United States to keep intact her perilous existence between the great powers on the one hand and an almost indifferent Asia on the other. Whitehall gets hardly a look in.

Now the conclusion which we can draw from all this is that the much-boosted bonds of the British Commonwealth of Nations do not hold against the pressures of Capitalist competition and international conflict. Australia, as a normal Capitalist power, has trading interests which she will defend in any way open to her, even if that should mean offending her partners in the Commonwealth. For example, the recent import cuts came at a particularly bad time for the struggling British car industry but, as The Economist has put it, “trade cuts across politics.” Even the politics of the supposedly united British Commonwealth and with the government of the traditionally Empire-fostering Tory party bossing it in Whitehall.

Australia’s position in the affairs of international trade and conflict was neatly depicted by Manchester Guardian cartoonist David Low just after the Foreign Ministers’ conference a couple of years ago at Geneva. His sketch showed a path bordering a lake and into the picture from the left ran Anthony Eden, dressed as a nursemaid, dragging behind him a pram full of tattered Union Jacks. As he ran he stretched out an imploring hand to another nannie, scampering off to the right with her pram. This one was identified as United States Secretary of State John Foster Dulles. His pram was labelled “American Sphere of Responsibility” and it held a lot of bonny babies of various Far Eastern nationalities. One of the bounciest, sucking a stick of striped candy, was called “Australia.”


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