The Issue
Relations with the US

Australia’s alliance with the United States is deep and enduring. In 2016 an Obama administration official said: “Our allies all give us headaches, except for Australia. You can always count on Australia.”1 President Donald Trump is sceptical of alliances, however, and he had a testy early phone call with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. Yet as historian James Curran notes, “there is nothing new in leaders of the United States and Australia adopting contrasting positions and policies on how to approach challenges in Asia”.2

Relations with the US
The Government

Scott Morrison’s position on the alliance is very much in the tradition of his Liberal predecessors: “A strong America — centrally engaged in the affairs of our region — is critical to Australia’s national interests.”3 Mr Morrison has also said that Asia is entering a period of heightened competition between the United States and China.4 The Turnbull–Morrison government was disappointed by the Trump administration’s decision to withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, and worked to revive it without the United States.

Scott Morrison’s foreign policy

Robertson Barracks in Darwin currently hosts a Rotational Force of around 1700 Marines, part of the United States Marine Corps Forces, Pacific. That number is set to reach 2500 by July.5

U.S. troops attend an indigenous ceremony at Robertson Barracks in Darwin Photo: U.S. Indo-Pacific Command / Flickr
Relations with the US
The Opposition

Bill Shorten describes the United States as “our closest ally”. On the other hand, he has called for a more independent foreign policy6 and he was highly critical of Trump during the 2016 US presidential election campaign. He has also said that: “Australia’s interests are always best served when the United States is engaged in our region — and the ANZUS alliance helps anchor that engagement.”7

Bill Shorten’s foreign policy

While the ANZUS Treaty has underpinned Australia–US relations for decades, it only formally commits the two countries to “consult together” and “act to meet the common danger”. The agreement has been invoked only once, by Prime Minister Howard after the 9/11 attacks.8

ABC factcheck on the ANZUS Treaty

Relations with the US
What Our Expert Says
Dr Michael Fullilove
Executive Director
The result of the US presidential election in November 2020 will have important ramifications for the alliance

An illustration of the importance of the Australia–US alliance is that both major Australian political parties claim its authorship. The Australian Labor Party dates the alliance to the aftermath of the attack on Pearl Harbour in 1941, when Prime Minister John Curtin said that “Australia looks to America”.9 By contrast, the Coalition emphasises the Menzies government’s negotiation of the ANZUS Treaty a decade later.

The alliance is remarkably popular: around three-quarters of Australians (76%) say it is very or fairly important for Australia’s security.10

President Donald Trump has complicated the picture. Scott Morrison had a ‘pull-aside’ meeting with President Trump on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in November 2018, at which the president asked what had happened to Mr Morrison’s predecessor, Malcolm Turnbull.11

Mr Shorten had some strong words for Donald Trump in 2016, so his first meeting with the president would be a point of curiosity. On the other hand, by now many democratic leaders have said blunt things about Mr Trump.12 At the Lowy Institute, Mr Shorten said he would work with Mr Trump “professionally”.13

The result of the US presidential election in November 2020 will have important ramifications for the alliance, depending on which combination of the Rubik’s cube clicks into place. For example, a Morrison–Trump relationship would be very different from a Shorten–Sanders one.

China is the other piece of the puzzle. In Asia’s changing diplomatic geometry, Australia, the United States and China form a strategic triangle. The condition of the Australia–China and US–China sides of the triangle will inevitably affect the strength of the US–Australia alliance.