Foreign policy has become a more divisive issue in Australia since President Reagan's accession to office in the United States. The Australian debate centers on the extent to which this country should provide automatic support for anything the US administration decides to do.
The Liberal-National Country government in Canberra thoroughly supports President Reagan. It agrees with his proposals to provide aid to El Salvador. It firmly supports a hard-line approach to the Soviet Union. And it would like to encourage the US to expand its defense forces in the Pacific and Indian oceans.
The opposition Labor Party does not necessarily equate Australian and US interests. It disapproves of suppression of opposition forces in El Salvador. It firmly believes in detente. And it questions the extent to which Australian is tying itself into the US defense network in exchange for a "guarantee" of US support if Australia is threatened.
The Liberal-National Country government, trying to get the US flag waving more visibly over Australia, has initiated an agreement with the US for B-52 aircraft based at Guam to use Australian facilities for navigation training and Indian Ocean surveillance.
An agreement just signed between the two countries permits the US to station support facilities in Darwin, in Australia's Northern Territory, and to use them as a base for surveillance in Indian Ocean. The B-52s are also to use parts of the continent for navigation training.
The Labor opposition has not objected to this agreement, but it has complained that the Australian government has been unable to obtain an agreement that the US aircraft will not carry nuclear weapons while flying over Australia and using the Australian base.
However, the government says it has assurances to this effect. It also has minutes of a meeting with US Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr. at which it was agreed that the aircraft would carry nuclear weapons only with the consent of the Australian government, and that the US would obtain permission if the aircraft were to be used for other than the purposes specified in the agreement.
Opposition leader Bill Hayden, said his party was not prepared to be a mute, uncritical endorser of something as vague as the B- 52 agreement. He said the actual agreement contained no declaration that the aircraft would be unarmed and carry no nuclear weapons. "It seems simple enough to have had that included," he said.
He also raised doubts about the usefulness of such agreements saying that the US had "lied" and "deceived" others over the bombing of Cambodia, and in 1973 it had put US bases in Australia on alert without first informing the Australian government.
These US bases in Australia provide another point of contention between government and opposition at present.
The opposition is concerned at the role and functions of the major US bases, which consists of a naval communications station at North West Cape, and satellite communications stations at Pine Gap in central Australia and at Narrungar and Smithfield in South Australia.
It has complained that Australian leaders have never properly been informed of the functions of these stations. This week Hayden and his deputy leader Lionel Bowen have been touring the installations for secret briefings.
Before leaving, Mr. Hayden said, "I am increasingly concerned at the prospect of Australia becoming a nuclear target with the change of government in the United States and the increasingly tough rhetoric between the superpowers and in the international sphere."
The foreign policy debate in Australia has been enlivened further by the intervention of the ambassador of the Soviet Union, Dr. Nikolai Soudarikov.
Several weeks ago he took the unusual step of inviting leading Australian political journalists to lunch with him so that he could brief them, on the record, about the Soviet Union's desire to establish closer relations with Australia.
Dr. Soudarikov expressed concern at the Australian government's tough anti-Soviet stand, which to some extent preceded its embargoes against the Soviet Union which were initiated following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser reacted to Dr. Soudarikov's briefing by describing the action as "improper." The government's response was to impose restrictions on the travel movements of those Soviet visitors not covered by previous restrictions which were imposed after the Afghanistan action.