Australian political leaders discovered Asia in 1972 and have been running a unity ticket on the Great Asia Project ever since. This is the gospel according to John Howard.

Yes, folks, you heard it right. Howard stands should-to-shoulder with Gough Whitlam, Bob Hawke and Paul Keating. Oh, and Malcolm Fraser. The sharpness in Howard's rendering of history (previous posts on Howard's memoirs here and here) is the way it divides Australian political personalities, leaving several Liberal leaders on the wrong side of the cut. Howard is prepared to express this truth even though, in so many other areas, he wants to shoot out the lights of the three Labor luminaries, plus extinguish Malcolm Fraser's version of the Liberal faith. On this one huge issue – the Great Asia Project – Howard proclaims them all true believers.

The characterisation 'the Great Asia Project' is mine, not Howard's. He would dislike the grandiose element, preferring more the prosaic formulations of 'engagement', 'collaboration' and 'links'. But the aims of the Project have been embraced by all sides since Whitlam. In defining the Project, Howard is casting aside some big Liberal names: not just Menzies, but Holt, Gorton and McMahon, along with Foreign Ministers of the calibre of Spender, Casey and Hasluck. It is a serious refinement of Liberal mythology, marking down some in the Party Parthenon.

And Howard knows exactly what he is doing because he states the case twice. The first sentence of his Asia chapter begins: 'For more than 40 years, every serious political leader in Australia has been committed to the belief that close engagement and collaboration with our Asian neighbours was critical to Australia's future.'

The formulation could just stretch to get Holt, Gorton and McMahon into membership of the Project. But trust Howard to refine the text to make his meaning explicit. On the following page, he returns to the issue of which leaders make the cut, and draws the line at 1972: 'I came to office sharing the views of my four predecessors that close links, at every realistic level, with the nations of Asia were fundamental to Australia's future.'

The statement that Asia is fundamental these days has the status of a truth and a truism. On the Howard telling, the honour roll of Prime Ministers who have embraced this foundational view starts with Whitlam (1972-75), then runs to Fraser (1975-83), Hawke (1983-91), Keating (1991-96), Howard (1996-2007) and now, obviously, Rudd (2007-2010). Julia Gillard may not know much about foreign affairs, but she knows enough to accept as a received truth the Great Asia Project handed down by her six predecessors.

Howard does not bother to explain why he starts the true believers list at 1972. That would have required him to be too explicit about Menzies and the three Liberal leaders who followed. The reasoning, though, is easy enough to decipher. Menzies cannot be in the Asia Project because he stands in a completely different Parthenon with major wings devoted to Empire and the White Australia policy. The founder of the Liberal Party is joined in those wings by every leader who preceded him, including such Labor eminences as Chifley and Curtin.

The three leaders who followed Menzies don't make the grade, although they embraced the new independence/post-colonial era. Holt, Gorton and McMahon are stuck in the bloody transit through the Vietnam War to a time when Whitlam, in 1972, was able to express the obvious by giving diplomatic recognition to China.

Holt vies for an honourable mention in the avenue leading to the Asia Project but Howard is entitled to exclude him. The exclusion has its ironic element because the Liberals happily invoked Holt in the Asia history wars with Keating. Certainly, Holt began to dismantle White Australia and went to Asia in word and deed. But Holt's gradual ending of discriminatory immigration was done quietly, almost surreptitiously. The dramatic public burial of White Australia was left to Whitlam.

Support for Holt's exclusion from the Project lineage is tartly offered by his Minister for External Affairs, Paul Hasluck, in a wonderful political portrait gallery, published as a posthumous memoir. Hasluck attacked the 'historically false' legend that Holt discovered Asia or turned the thoughts of Australia to Asia, commenting that Holt 'made his first visit to Asia purely as something to attract favourable attention and without a single idea about influencing policy. Indeed he picked countries in which he would not run into complexity.'

Credit Holt with starting to turn the narrative if not the fundamental policy drive. On that judgement, Howard is entitled to begin the lineage of the Great Asia Project with Whitlam.

To reframe my opening sentence, Australia knew Asia existed before 1972, but didn't want to have to translate geography into policy. The importance of the Great Asia Project is the acceptance that Australia must function as part of Asia, not apart from Asia. That belief unites Howard with his four predecessors on the fundamental foreign policy issue confronting Australia.

Photo by Flickr user Brett Tully, used under a Creative Commons license.