How Penny Wong’s important message about British colonial history got lost in an ill-explained swipe

And so, when a draft version of Wong’s speech included her views that former colonial powers, such as Britain, needed to confront their “uncomfortable” past was first seen a fortnight ago it caused major conniptions within DFAT. The view was that it was a needless poke in the eye of Australia’s closest friend and the two counterparts were only just getting to know each other.

But Wong and her team of advisers appear to be no longer prepared to accept dictation from a department they view as, at times, far too conservative in its approach, and are desperate to make up for lost time. They say they are simply being honest and consistent, to make sure they are saying the same things in Portsmouth as they do in Port Moresby.

Foreign Minister Penny Wong with British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly.Credit:Getty Images

Beijing – through its massive and sophisticated propaganda machine – has painted countries like Australia, and the US as colonial and out of step with the interests of the countries of the region, and they believe telling a more complete story is a strategic asset and makes them less open to the criticisms that other countries level.

“In a time of strategic competition we have to make sure we are not being framed by others, and we frame ourselves,” Wong told reporters on Thursday (Friday AEDT).

Perhaps the miscalculation Wong made, however, was that she allowed her comments to be viewed through a domestic lens at a time when Britain is constantly wrestling with its past, from the royal family, the highest level of government and the nation’s sporting teams down. They were able to become a debate about diversity when Britain has its first prime minister of south Asian descent, a black foreign secretary and a home secretary born to parents of Indian origin, who emigrated to Britain in the 1960s from Mauritius and Kenya.


While her counterpart, James Cleverly, went to great lengths to play down any issues on Thursday, the Brits remained miffed and somewhat bemused at Wong’s decision to make the comments on her first visit as foreign minister. It allowed the media an opportunity to paint a picture of division and was fodder for the political tribes of both the left and right when the West needed to provide a united front. Britain has long accepted it remains a punching bag for many of its long-standing partners and has endured several gratuitous swipes from Anthony Albanese and Joe Biden in recent times.

As one diplomat told this masthead recently, Britain and Australia might be the oldest of friends, but both nations have outdated views of each other. Australia is no longer a land of beer-swilling, beach-loving larrikins from Ramsey Street or Summer Bay and Britain’s stereotype as white imperialists who drink warm beer and eat bland food is, mostly, no longer correct either.

Australians are capable of holding sophisticated views on Britain. You can be a republican, support a Voice and still have a deep love and affinity for Britain as an ancestral home.

Wong will no doubt blame a mischievous right-wing media for derailing her week but ultimately the important message she brought about engagement in the Indo-Pacific was not heard because of a clumsy and ill-explained swipe. Britain, which after post-Brexit now desperately wants to restore its standing around the globe again, should have been a captive audience for a fascinating and trailblazing woman. It was, ultimately, a missed opportunity.

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