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Australia and the USA: The Ups and Downers of a (mostly) friendly relationship

Part One: Gold diggers

By John Michael Moran, 2019, Brisbane Australia

Three historical, and normally friendly, international relationships have collided again with the election of Donald Trump as United States president and the interminable allegations about, and investigations into, foreign interference in the 2016 USA presidential and congressional elections.

Donald Trump: The political outsider, whose vow to "drain the swamp" of comfortable and "corrupt" political insiders has upset and disrupted the political, bureaucratic and legal establishment and involved his presidency in one investigation after another. Because of the actions of one of its former diplomats, key USA ally, Australia, finds itself a central player in the ongoing imbroglio.

The sordid mess was triggered by a former Australian politician, turned Aussie High Commissioner (ambassador) to Great Britain, Alexander Downer. In May 2016 Downer, who has a bit of a reputation in his homeland for political clumsiness, met a Trump campaign operative, George Papadopoulos, in a swanky London wine bar to discuss supposed Russian “dirt” on Trump’s opponent, Hillary Clinton. From Downer, apparently through other Australian channels, news of the Papadopoulos meeting and the idea the Trump campaign knew of damaging information Russia had on Clinton also landed on some minion’s desk at the USA Federal Bureau of Investigation. This triggered a series of events, which has engulfed the USA Government and a handful of other governments around the world.

Alexander Downer: Former Australian High Commissioner to London, who, in 2016, triggered the "Russia collusion" political uproar in the USA.

The so-called special relationships between the USA, Great Britain and Australia (the Anglosphere, which also includes Canada and New Zealand) are regularly the topic of study, comment and rhetoric. It is trite to pretend, as some do, they are not special relationships. But, special does not mean perfect. As these “Trump” events indicate they are also occasionally controversial, tense and messy.

If "Alexander the Grape’s" 2016 antics in London wine bars are not a relationship downer, they are definitely in the messy category. However, they are not unique. Over the last 100 years Australia has significantly disrupted the life of a USA president or administration on a few occasions. In many respects this latest downer is, arguably, “small beer,” or should that be just a “half glass of wine,” compared to at least two others.

Of the three nations Australia is the junior partner in terms of population and economic and military capacity. However, this latest Australian ignition of a political and cultural firestorm in the USA, is not as surprising as it first appears. Australia has previously subverted USA and British objectives, in key historical moments.

Before looking at a couple of those events let’s summarise the development and nature of the Australia, USA, Britain relationship.

Perhaps the simplest and clearest example of the Australian relationship with, and attitude towards, Britain (the Poms) and the USA (the Yanks or, in rhyming slang popular with some Australians, Septic Tanks) is the system of federal government Australia adopted when it federated nearly 125 years ago.

Great Britain is a constitutional monarchy, with a Westminster parliamentary system, consisting of two houses - the main House of Commons and the review House of Lords - and an executive, of prime minister and cabinet, drawn from the Parliament through the party (or coalition of parties) that has a majority in the House of Commons.

The United States of America, which spun off from Great Britain in the late 1700s, is a republic with an executive enshrined in a presidency directly elected by the people and separate from the legislative houses of Congress, the main House of Representatives and the review Senate.

When the Australian colonies federated in 1901 the new nation became a constitutional monarchy, with a Westminster parliamentary system like Britain’s, but with houses of Parliament named after the USA houses of Congress.

Australia’s “hybrid” House of Representatives: A British Westminster Parliament with a USA Congress name.

As stated, this is a perfect illustration of the attitude Australia tends to adopt towards Britain and the USA – it cherry picks what it likes about each and mixes it, mostly seamlessly, into its own cultural and political development.

Australia’s relationship with Britain is obvious. The European phase of its existence largely arose in the same way the USA’s European phase did – as British colonies in the so-called “new world.” In fact, it was the loss of its USA colonies, especially as destinations for convict transportation, which led to the British decision to settle Australia in 1788.

Cultural and economic interaction between Australia and the United States got underway in earnest when the great North American and Australian gold rushes introduced the highly contagious “gold fever” into both populations in the mid-19th century. Infected “diggers” on both continents kept the intercontinental shipping lanes busy as their fortunes ebbed and flowed, over the next 50 years, on the various diggings from the USA’s San Francisco and Colorado regions to Australia’s Bathurst, Ballarat, Bendigo, Gympie, Charters Towers, Ravenswood and Kalgoorlie and then, for some, back to the Canadian Yukon.

Australia and the USA - birth of a relationship: Many immigrants, especially from the USA, rushed to the Australian gold fields between 1850 and 1900.

In 1854 a few hundred gold miners from the United States, inspired by their own country’s revolution against British rule, played a role in the short-lived Eureka uprising on the Ballarat gold fields in Victoria. Inspired by grievances over taxation and law enforcement practices on the fields, the short-lived Eureka Stockade uprising was the closest Australia ever came to an armed insurrection against British rule. On the other hand, having learned their lesson from the American Revolution, the British authorities quickly heeded demands in the Australian colonies for self-government and various other democratic reforms.

Australia would stay within the British Empire while also borrowing from the United States whatever cultural, political and economic goodies it found appealing and advantageous. So much so that, by the end of the 19th century (September 1895-January 1896), when the brilliant USA writer, Mark Twain, toured he thought Sydney “an English city with American trimmings.” In Melbourne he found “the American trimmings still more in evidence; there, even the architecture will often suggest America.” (Kalgoorlie Western Argus, 20 Jan 1898, p.2)

Mark Twain, with daughter Clara (centre) and wife Olivia, setting sail for Australia in 1895: Sydney was “an English city with American trimmings.”

Despite this growing cultural and commercial interchange between Australia and the USA, there was little interaction between the two countries at the highest political levels, with Australia still leaving international diplomacy to Britain. That would start to change in the years just prior to and during the First World War, when the Australia and United States navies and armies first encountered each other.

In fact, it was Australia’s wrangling with the Royal Navy over the establishment of an independent Australian navy, which led to the first piece of Australian diplomatic chicanery within the Australian, British, USA relationship triangle. In the early 1900s the British Government was prevaricating on the issue of navies in its dominions such as Australia, Canada and New Zealand. Some Admiralty officials were keen to preserve one Imperial navy across the globe.

The newly federated Australian nation was getting fed up with the British Admiralty’s delaying tactics and at the end of 1907 Prime Minister Alfred Deakin unofficially approached the United States about a naval visit. By the time the British got involved events had progressed too far to be reversed and Australia was included in the itinerary for the USA’s Great White Fleet’s 1907-09 world tour. The United States had been unwittingly enlisted to assist Australia’s political machinations in London. British officials were furious, but snookered.

When the “White Armada” of 16 USA battleships sailed into Sydney Harbour on 20 August 1908 it was welcomed by over half a million people, who lined “every hill and cliff along the ocean and harbour side.” The Sydney Morning Herald thought it marked “the recognition by ourselves and the American people of the bond which has been forged between us by our sense of a common civilisation, by our traditions, and by our aspirations.” (Sydney Morning Herald 20 Aug 1908, p.3; 21 Aug 1908, p.9)

The visit provided a significant stimulus for the formation of an Australian navy and Australia had largely forced the British Admiralty’s hand.

Torpedoing the British Admiralty: Fed up with British procrastination over the establishment of an Australian navy, Australia invited the USA Great White Fleet to visit Australia in 1908, as part of its efforts to build public support for its policy of greater defence self-sufficiency. .

But, it was on the battlefields of the Western Front in 1918, after the United States finally entered World War I in April 1917, that the formal Australian-USA relationship began to take shape in the form of combined military activities.

At the Battle of Hamel – one of the shortest, yet most significant battles of this catastrophic war - Australian Diggers and USA Doughboys fought together for the first time. On 4 July 1918 – USA Independence Day - two Australian infantry brigades and four USA infantry companies, under the command of the innovative Australian General, John Monash, captured the French town of Hamel from the Germans in 93 minutes and, some historians argue, turned the tide of the war. Germany would agree to an armistice within a few months. General Monash wrote to his USA counterpart:

“I desire to take the opportunity of tendering to you as the immediate commander, my earnest thanks for the assistance and services of the Four Companies of Infantry who participated in yesterday’s brilliant operations. The dash, gallantry and efficiency of these American troops left nothing to be desired and my Australian soldiers speak in the highest terms in praise of them. That soldiers of the United States and Australia should have thus been associated for the first time in such close co-operation on the battlefield, is an historic event of such significance that it will live forever in the annals of our respective Nations.”

For better or worse, Australia and the USA have fought beside each other in nearly every major conflict since that day.

USA and Australian troops dug in together during the Battle of Hamel (Australian War Memorial): historic event of such significance that it will live forever in the annals of our respective Nations.

Despite the strong bonds of friendship – or the Australian colloquialism, “mateship” - formed between so many individual “Aussies” and “Yanks” over the previous 60 to 70 years, it was not until the finalisation of World War One that the first significant engagement between the governments of the two nations took place – and, unlike the Battle of Hamel, it ended up more like the Downer-Papadopoulos encounter across the English Channel nearly 100 years later and did not go so well.

In Part II we will look at the tensions between Australia and the United States at the 1919 Paris or Versailles Peace Conference.


Brett, Judith: Alfred Deakin and the roots of Australian foreign policy, The Interpreter, Lowy Institute, accessed online on 3 Oct 2019 at

Hunter, Claire: Remembering the Battle of Hamel, Australian War Memorial, 2018, accessed online on 3 Oct 2019 at

Diggers and Doughboys: The Art of Allies 100 Years On, The National WWI Museum and Memorial, accessed online on 3 Oct 2019 at

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