Foreign affairs, defence and Christmas Island

On 17 January 1984 Cabinet considered a submission from Foreign Affairs Minister Bill Hayden on Australia's policy on the Indian Ocean. Hayden said that the current security threat was low, but that Australia had an enduring interest in protecting the Western Australian coast, offshore resources, the Cocos and Christmas Islands, and our major trade and civil aviation routes. Australia shared this interest with the United States, with port visits by US ships, B52 bombers landing in Darwin on training and surveillance missions, and the work of the North-West Cape naval communications station. Both nations had an interest in securing an unstable region and preventing an improvement in the Soviet strategic position. However this interest might not always sit easily with Australia's commitment to an Indian Ocean Zone of Peace; for example Australia might be asked to give more active assistance to US military operations in the Middle East. It was important that Australia was perceived as an independent and sympathetic nation by other countries bordering the Indian Ocean. Cabinet endorsed the submission, noting that Australia should give the area greater attention by such means as increased aid and visits by Navy ships, and opening a diplomatic post in Mauritius.

Cabinet also reviewed the future of Christmas Island. Territories Minister Tom Uren reported that the island retained many vestiges of its colonial past. Its residents had no local government, no right to vote in Australian elections and they could not access normal Australian welfare benefits. The island's laws were based on those in the colony of Singapore in 1958, when Australia took over the administration from the United Kingdom. The island's only significant economic activity was the phosphate mine, but this was suffering from rising costs and competition from other producers. Both Singapore and Indonesia had shown some interest in the future of the island and Uren argued that Christmas Island should be brought into the mainstream of Australian life 'to demonstrate to our neighbours that the Island is regarded as an integral part of Australia, not simply as a phosphate source'. Cabinet agreed on 2 April 1984 to develop a staged integration package, including the establishment of local government, wages and conditions similar to those in Australia, Australian welfare and voting rights, and the introduction of income and company taxes.

Development of the US MX intercontinental ballistic missiles included the test firing of unarmed missiles from California to land in the western Pacific Ocean. In 1981 the Fraser government had agreed to a US request to land two MX missiles in the Tasman Sea some 220 kilometres off Cape Pillar in south-east Tasmania. It had been intended to announce the plan in 1982, but political considerations caused the announcement to be postponed. Prime Minister Hawke confirmed Australian agreement to the test firing plan when he visited Washington in 1983. The issue does not appear to have been formally considered by the Hawke Cabinet prior to 1985, although some ministers became aware of it. It was a sensitive issue at a time when there was substantial opposition in Australia to both uranium mining and the nuclear arms race. An estimated 250,000 people took part in Palm Sunday peace marches in April 1984 and the Nuclear Disarmament Party gained 7 per cent of the vote in the December 1984 election, although it soon began to disintegrate. In addition, the election of the Lange Labour Party government in New Zealand in July 1984 resulted in New Zealand banning visits by ships that might be carrying nuclear weapons. The refusal of New Zealand to permit a visit by the USS Buchanan in February 1985 threatened the future of the ANZUS alliance.

On 29 January 1985 Cabinet decided that if the government was required to explain its position on the MX tests it would confirm publicly that on coming to office it had been confronted with an undertaking given by its predecessor to provide certain assistance to the US program. It had been decided to honour that undertaking, but only after the Prime Minister had secured US agreement to transferring the splashdown zone out of the Australian Exclusive Economic Zone into international waters. The Prime Minister would tell the United States when he was in Washington the following week that Australia's previous commitment to provide assistance would not constitute a precedent and that any further requests would require consultation with the South Pacific Forum. The government announced on 1 February that US planes monitoring the missile splashdown in the Tasman Sea would be allowed to land in Australia, precipitating considerable controversy within the ALP and the community as a whole. Hawke was questioned closely on the issue at a press conference in Brussels on 4 February, in the course of which he said that he was now aware of the strength of feeling on the issue and that he would take that feeling into account when in Washington. After a meeting with Hawke on 6 February US Secretary of State George Shultz announced that the tests would be conducted without the use of Australian support facilities.

On 28 March 1985 Cabinet considered a joint submission from Hayden and Defence Minister Kim Beazley on the future of the ANZUS Treaty, following New Zealand's decision to ban visits by ships that were nuclear powered or armed. The United States considered that the ANZUS Treaty was now virtually inoperative in relation to New Zealand and almost all trilateral defence and strategic arrangements had been suspended. In addition Australia was unable to pass classified information of US origin to New Zealand. The United States believed that the naval forces of all three countries must train together regularly and it was also concerned that New Zealand might become a precedent for the unravelling of other treaties. Hayden and Beazley said that there was little prospect of the New Zealand position changing, but clumsy handling of the matter might make a resumption of full New Zealand participation in ANZUS even more remote. Cabinet decided that, while defence relations with New Zealand were important, those with the United States were of dominant significance for Australia's security and it would maintain a full range of defence activities with the United States. Australia's long-term aim was to restore the full trilateral ANZUS relationship and it should encourage Treaty partners not to make immoderate statements that might worsen political difficulties.

On 6 May 1985 Cabinet considered progress towards a draft treaty for the establishment of a South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone. The treaty was being developed by a working group of the South Pacific Forum for consideration at the forum's next meeting in August. The zone covered large areas of ocean, but in practical terms it would extend only to territory effectively controlled by signatory countries. It would thus not prevent French nuclear tests in the Pacific nor ban the transit of nuclear armed ships. Cabinet generally approved the concept of the treaty, but in view of problems of definition and verification it did not support a ban on the testing of nuclear-capable weapons or of provisions that might inhibit transit or visits by possibly nuclear-armed planes and ships. The treaty was ratified as the Treaty of Rarotonga on 6 August 1985, and Australia, New Zealand and most South Pacific states signed it then or subsequently.

On 18 November 1985 Cabinet reviewed overseas aid policy. A committee chaired by Sir Gordon Jackson had reported on the aid program in 1984 and Cabinet had made some decisions on his recommendations in March 1985. However the government's final response had been deferred to allow time for public consultation and review by the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence. Hayden told Cabinet that under the Hawke government foreign aid had fallen to its lowest level ever. In 1975 Australian aid represented 0.65 per cent of gross national product (GNP), but this had fallen to 0.46 per cent by 1984. ALP policy was to raise aid to the United Nations target of 0.7 per cent of GNP, although Hayden suggested an interim target of 0.55 per cent by 1990–91. Cabinet endorsed Jackson's view that the primary objective of giving foreign aid was humanitarian, but that where possible there should be an appropriate balance between humanitarian, foreign policy and economic objectives. Australia should aim for an increase in the real level of aid each year in order to progress towards the target of 0.7 per cent of GNP.

Selected documents

Copyright National Archives of Australia 2018