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US-Australia bond to stay strong: ex-ambassador

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By Peter Mitchell, AAP US Correspondent, Australian Associated Press
Australia’s relationship with the US will only become stronger when Donald Trump moves into the White House.

That is the opinion of Mel Sembler, the successful American businessman, influential Republican party figure and US ambassador to Australia from 1989 to 1993.

To demonstrate just how strong the bond between the US and Australia has grown, Mr Sembler fondly recalls a moment at the White House when President George HW Bush hosted an event for Australian prime minister Bob Hawke.

The year was 1989 and Mr Hawke asked Mr Sembler for a favour.

“He said to me, ‘Can you help get George Herbert Walker Bush to Australia?’,” Mr Sembler told AAP on Wednesday.

“I said, ‘Well, is that important prime minister?'”

“He said, ‘Well, we haven’t had a presidential visit in over 20 years’.

“I said, ‘Are you serious?’

“He said, ‘Absolutely I’m serious’.

Mr Sembler crossed the room and asked the president if he was open to visiting Australia.

“He said, ‘Mel, you have to go across and talk to (first lady) Barbara and convince Barbara she wants to go that far’.

“So I go across the room and talk to Barbara and she said, ‘I’m in. I’m going to come and visit you and (Mr Sembler’s wife) Betty in Australia’.

“I went back to the president and said, ‘OK, Barbara said yes. Can I count on you to be there?’ and he said ‘Yes, absolutely’.

“So I went back to the prime minister and said, ‘OK, it’s on. He’s coming’.”

Mr Sembler’s negotiation took just a few minutes, but the result solidified what has become the steadfast relationship between the US and Australia.

Mr Bush touched down in Australia in 1991, the first sitting president to visit since Lyndon Johnson attended prime minister Harold Holt’s funeral in 1967.

For almost a quarter of a century, visiting Australia was not on the US president’s schedule, but since Mr Bush’s visit brokered at the White House event in 1989 every president that followed – Bill Clinton, George W Bush and Barack Obama – has made the long trip Down Under.

Mr Sembler is sure the tight US-Australia bond will continue in January when Mr Trump moves into the White House.

“It will be just as high and will continue at that level because it is on that course and it has been for the last 20-something years,” said Mr Sembler, who is a member of Mr Trump’s inauguration finance committee.

It was with the support of President HW Bush, Mr Sembler and Australian businessman Phil Scanlan that led to the formation of the Australian American Leadership Dialogue in 1992.

Mr Sembler said the AALD, which brings together Australian and American leaders from government, enterprise, media, education and the community, built relationships that strengthened US-Australian ties.

“The relationship has been elevated since that time and will continue to be elevated because it is a very important and close relationship in Asia for the US,” Mr Sembler said.

“I always tell people Australia is the only ally we have that has fought on the same side as the US in every war this century and last century.”