thank god for vegemite .....
If you thought we were already ''all the way'' with the USA, it seems the object of our long-distance affection was previously just flirting at the bar. With Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's visit as the star of yet another taxpayer-funded US-Australian political chat-fest (what does AUSMIN and the like actually talk about, I wonder, considering the outcome is always the same press conferences and head-nodding talk about shared values?), we were told by glowing politicians and not a few prominent media types that the ''special relationship'' was getting more special still. Even closer military and political ties mark the latest hotting up of an old but seriously unequal love story.
Even so, Clinton may have thought she would get at least a couple of curly questions at the University of Melbourne in a forum screened by the ABC on Sunday night. In the event she may have been both delighted with the result and, if truly believing in much-ballyhooed values such as freedom of expression and debate, perhaps secretly a little disquieted too. Clinton foreshadowed some potential ''disagreement'' between friends in a brief introductory address by joking about her distaste for Vegemite, but nary a maple syrup-drenched pancake stack was queried in the ensuing discussion.
She faced a few serious enough questions, such as when the West will achieve gender equality (the feminist of many years ago preferring to talk of ''other'' nations' failings on women's rights - undeniable cases but not the question); gay marriage (despite a surprisingly robust defence of same-sex and transgender rights, Clinton is against expanding these to marriage); and whether the burqa should be banned (which was essentially dodged, but we were assured that she knew the difference between the burqa and the hijab). Otherwise it was all smiles and light-hearted chat from forum moderator ABC TV's Leigh Sales and the audience, requests for her wise council on the future of the world (apparently a key figure in the leadership of its greatest power can also offer detached crystal ball-wielding analyst), advice on how to handle a political marriage, and a long answer-including question from Sales about what Clinton and Barack Obama talk about in their ''down time''.
Throughout, no one challenged Clinton on the purpose or impact of her nation's unprecedented global power. It beggars belief that your average room of youngish university folk wouldn't contain at least some who were capable and willing of sterner stuff (I am not counting the insiders and diplomatic types present such as Kevin Rudd and US Ambassador Jeff Bleich). Clinton told Sales at the start of their chat that she found such events highly ''informative'' and enjoyed facing ''unscripted'' questions. The program producers selected from hundreds of submissions (including online), Sales told us in her introduction, so the ABC must take a lot of responsibility for the resulting conversation. As for the forum being informative, I guess it was - but whether in the same way as intended by the organisers, and even more interestingly perhaps Clinton herself, is another question.
At this forum and throughout Clinton's time in Australia, what we saw was essentially a massive recommitment ceremony for an long-in-the-tooth romance so the junior partner could be reassured that, even though we have many rivals, we are loved most of all.
Given the US's historically unique power (exaggerated proclamations about China notwithstanding), with one of its more capable representatives present and keen to talk it would not have been unconscionable to raise some topics routinely debated not only in less ''friendly'' parts of the world but also sometimes here in Australia and indeed even within the US itself.
Here, then, are the questions that weren't asked of Hillary Clinton, but at least a couple of which should have been:
Australian and US politicians repeatedly talk about ''shared values''. But beyond those cherished by peoples around the world (and espoused by countless governments) such as democracy and freedom, more specifically what values do our two countries share?
Hamish Ford is a lecturer in Film, Media and Cultural Studies at the University of Newcastle.