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Alexander Downer Speech To Earle Page College Annual Politics Dinner

The Minister for Foreign Affairs, Alexander Downer, has delivered a speech at the University of New England to the Annual Politics Dinner of the Earle Page College.

Alexander Downer
Minister for Foreign Affairs, Alexander Downer.

In his speech, Downer, the Foreign Minister since 1996, discussed attitudes to the appeasement policies of the 1930s and later wars.

He attacked his political opponents, claiming they abandoned “both realism and idealism” and “too often plumped for immediate political advantage and to hell with the consequences.”

The Annual Politics Dinner is named in honour of Sir Earle Page, the second leader of the Country Party, who held that office from 1921 until 1939.

Following the 1922 federal election, Page negotiated a coalition arrangement with the leader of the Nationalist Party, Stanley Melbourne Bruce. The agreement led to the overthrow of the Nationalist prime minister, William Morris Hughes. The Bruce-Page government was in office from 1923 until 1929.

Page served as the Country Party member for Cowper (NSW) from 1919 until his death in 1961.

Speech by Alexander Downer, Foreign Minister, to the Earle Page College Annual Politics Dinner at the University of New England, Armidale, NSW.

In 1915, at the age of 35, Earle Page was already a mover and a shaker. He was a successful surgeon.

As well, he and a group of likeminded friends were starting or reviving a string of lively newspapers in rural N.S.W., including The Tweed Daily, The Grafton Daily Examiner and The Northern Daily Star.

They engaged in spirited debate with the State Labor Government, led by William Holman, both in the press and at conferences of farmers’ associations.

The Northern Movement, as it was called, was the immediate precursor to the Country Party.

But the men in Page’s medical partnership had other pressing duties to attend to.

Although all four of them would eventually go off to the First World War, they tossed for priority, with the winner getting to join up immediately.

Page set sail for Egypt and the Army Medical Corps in February 1916.

There is a common theme in all this, beyond Page’s engaging civic-mindedness and cultural confidence.

The journalistic involvement was a way of giving country people a voice.

A free press was their best defence against a heavy-handed socialist government in Sydney.

Local political organization was another watchword for the man who was to lead the Country Party in Federal Parliament.

Finally there was an eagerness to do his bit, fighting overseas to defend Australia’s liberties and way of life in the war against Germany.

Those commitments are all of a piece, like liberty itself. Page understood that a free press, freedom of association and political liberty are interdependent, along with all the other liberties that are part of the British heritage.

Whether it was the Holman Government at home or the threat of a German victory and hegemony in the Pacific, the only way of preserving your freedom was to fight for it.

In the 1930s, in the build-up to the Second World War, Page was a consistent advocate of “the efforts for peace which Great Britain and the British Empire have been making since the conclusion of the last Great War”.

They included the League of Nations’ interventions in the Spanish civil war and the Covenant which the Italians had defied by invading Abyssinia, today known as Ethiopia.

Page saw the League as “the creation of the English-speaking peoples” and the Covenant as the great hope of an end to “the era of isolationist policies and secret diplomacy” which might “bring enduring peace and understanding to war-shattered Europe by free discussion”.

When diplomacy failed in 1939 he committed his party unequivocally to the fight. He told Parliament “we in Australia…have no alternative but to join with the other parts of the Empire, for the sake of our honor, and, indeed, of our existence, in the prosecution of this war…

There are two reasons why Australia should not isolate itself from this conflict.

The first and higher reason is that it is our duty to fight for the preservation of world freedom, and for what real democracy stands for.

The second is a more selfish reason but a very important one, namely, our own preservation.

This is a fundamental quarrel between the elements of right and wrong; between the law of force and the law of reason, between might and right.

Just as our ancestors fought for their liberties, and for the right to worship in the way they wished, so we must fight now for freedom of thought and action, and for the right of… small nations to exist free from threat of aggression”.

The point needs to be stressed: this was no easy jingoism on pages part. Page, like many of his generation, was all-too-familiar with the horrors of war, but he had a clear understanding of geopolitical reality.

He rightly understood “the evil force that holds so much of Europe in thrall and is now directed at the Empire, the one great obstacle to its subjection of the earth’s peoples”. As he said: “Australia cannot afford to isolate itself at this time”.

At the time Page had reached a political impasse over forming a wartime coalition with Menzies, who wouldn’t accept him in Cabinet.

I’m a Liberal, so I have to tell this story with a bit of pain.

He resigned as a Leader of the Country Party and declared: “in the face of common danger, I personally am willing to serve in any position- in the field, in hospital, in Parliament or in Government –anywhere my experience and special knowledge can be of public service”.

Page’s unselfish response was in marked contrast to John Curtin’s and the Labor Party’s. Curtin declined to serve–or bring Labor into-a government of national unity.

In a time when bipartisanship was imperative in Australia in the national interest, Curtin had chosen from 1935 on to placate the international socialists, pacifists and anti-conscriptionists within his own party.

As the historian David Black tells it: “he had to avoid adopting a stance which could be interpreted as requiring support for an active military or economic commitment in Europe”.

He abstained from effective leadership on these divisive issues, in open debate or in the counsels of his party as late as the Labor Conference of 1938.

However much he may be judged to have later redeemed himself as a wartime leader – and I think very substantially he did – Curtin’s leadership of his party in the crises that preceded it was characteristic of the Lefts approach to international politics.

Labor’s policy in response to the Italian invasion was that it would not support sanctions and “the control of Abyssinia by any country is not worth the loss of a single Australian life”.

Defending that policy, he began the long Labor tradition of wringing his hands over a Little Australia incapable of playing anything more than a minor role internationally: “Australia is but a minor power; it is a small nation, remote from the great centres of international civilization…we must have regard to our position, to our circumstances, to the place we hold in the geography of the world and to what we are capable of doing towards the maintenance of the peace of the world…Australia should not resort to warlike acts against any other nation.

In 1936, when even the ACTU revised its stand on Abyssinia and approved collective security through the League of Nations in support of Spanish workers, Curtin was resolute for appeasement and isolation: “To be drawn into war in spite of everything would be bad enough, but deliberately to indicate our willingness to be a participant for or against certain European groups would be a piece of national madness”.

Even as late as the Munich crisis of September 1938, Curtin persisted with a policy of isolationism and failed to acknowledge the threat posed by Nazism. “The wars of Europe are a quagmire, in which we should not allow our resources, our strength, our vitality, to be sunk almost, it may be, to the point of complete disappearance…Our first duty is to Australia. Our position is such that the total of our resources must be available for our own defence.

This means, clearly and unequivocally, that whatever else we may do as a dominion of the British Commonwealth of nations, no men must be sent out of Australia to participate in another war overseas.”

At the 1938 ALP National Conference, Curtin pandered to the Left by invoking the notion of a capitalist war.

He returned to the theme in an article for The Australian Worker: “The workers do not control the governments of the world. Until they do, it would be suicidal for the workers of Australia to join in supporting pacts, treaties, understandings or obligations of any kind which would involve them in war against the workers of another nation, or a number of nations, at the dictate of capitalist governments.”

Arthur Calwell, a future Labor leader, foreshadowed the kind of analysis he would later bring to the Vietnam War: “It should be definitely stated that Australia was against foreign entanglements and overseas alliances, and against participation in Imperialistic wars.”

According to Curtin, even Hitler’s escalating demands for Czechoslovak territory: “do not justify resort to force in Europe; nor do they warrant war in Europe”.

Curtin used three lines of argument to justify it, which again have a strange resonance with Labor’s current rhetoric.

First he said that “the Labor party in Australia is opposed in principle and in practice to Australians being recruited as soldiers in the battle fields of Europe”.

Next he redefined the notion of Commonwealth solidarity. “We believe that the best service which Australia can render to the British Empire is to attend to its own business, to make certain that we manage Australia effectively, so that we shall have the necessary population and be able to rely upon ourselves in the event of an emergency”.

Finally he reverted to what I’ve called the Little Australia policy. He said: “I put it to Australia that we are not big enough to act as a police force in Europe keeping order there”.

Why dwell on these old arguments? Partly because they’ve never really gone away, and linger in current debate.

Partly also because Earle Page, whose memory we honour here tonight, saw with great clarity, 90 years ago, that tyrannical regimes can threaten the peace and freedom not just of their immediate neighbours but the whole world.

Again, in the 1930s, he understood that Hitler posed a major threat to the freedom-not just of Czechoslovakians or Britons-but of Australians as well.

For politicians of his generation, the challenge of leadership was above all the task of patient explanation of why it was necessary that our troops should be engaged, yet again, in battles for liberty and democracy half a world away.

Australian conservatives have long shared a broad understanding of the world’s interconnectedness.

They are pragmatic men and women. Not for them the isolationist fantasy that distance offered any lasting protection from tyranny.

They were also men and women of principle who, precisely because they prized liberty at home, were concerned about its state abroad as well.

Some of our political opponents are inclined to sneer at what seems to them too neat a fit between pragmatism and principle, between self-interest and duty as Page put it.

What, historically, have they offered instead?

Abandoning both realism and idealism, they have too often plumped for immediate political advantage and to hell with the consequences.

I suppose that that shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise.

The Left in its various forms has always been more committed to equality than to liberty, especially economic, religious and cultural freedom.

Its ideology finds them hard to come to terms with at the best of times and they’ve been routinely trampled on in the name of unity or, more precisely, its own convenience.

Since World War II there has been a fairly consistent pattern of weak Labor leadership in Australia, particularly on the issues of appeasement, isolationism and shirking international treaty obligations.

In the Vietnam era, the war was lost – not on the battlefields but in the media and in the university campuses.

Whatever history’s final judgment about that conflict, the Coalition decided that the freedom of the South Vietnamese people from Communist incursions from the North was worth fighting for.

By contrast, Jim Cairns, later Deputy Prime Minister, led Moratorium marches in the streets.

Two highlights of the Whitlam Government deserve a mention here.

For no better reason than that he could do it, Whitlam decided that Australia would be among the first nations of the free world formally to acknowledge the USSR’s annexation of the Captive Nations, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia.

If ever there was a shameless sell-out of oppressed and helpless people this was it, yet to this day he remains unrepentant about it.

Then again, there was the infamous Iraqi breakfast, where he attempted to borrow money from the Baath Socialist government, to fund Labor’s re-election campaign.

When the Howard Government challenged the status quo in East Timor, there was no support from the Labor leadership or even constructive criticism.

Rather than playing along with the Indonesian government of the day, we recommended a 10 year process to achieve self-determination, which we said could only be resolved by the East Timorese themselves.

Australia’s subsequent role, diplomatically and in forming and leading INTERFET, was crucial to preserving peace in the region and the liberation of East Timor.

In Timor, in the wars of liberation in Afghanistan and Iraq and in the overall war on terror, the Coalition has been sustained by the conviction that Australia is a significant country with international military and peace-keeping obligations.

Along with national capacity, we have a view of the national interest in which the successful prosecution of those conflicts and the success of diplomacy, in furthering the cause of freedom and democracy, is fundamentally important.

Our opponents disagree. In 1999 Kim Beazley’s view of Australia’s place in the world was this: “Let me tell you something I believe in intensely. We are a small country in a world of giants”.

And I reckon that is a pretty surprising thing to say about your own country.

In 2001, speaking on the Centenary of Federation, no less, he made the same point, not once but three times.

The “Little Australia” mindset persists in the Labor Party. In 2004 Kevin Rudd defined us in his Asia-Link speech as “a small country on the periphery of this region”.

No doubt, along with a preference for populist appeasement and isolationism, it played a part in Mark Latham’s thinking when he argued that our contribution to the war on terror should be limited to our own region and that our troops’ proper place was not on the other side of the world but at home.

Perhaps, in retrospect, he was right to see himself as one of Curtin’s heirs.

Of course there’s a sense in which all the Australian political class say that they believe in freedom and democracy, at least as abstract ideals.

But only the Coalition is unequivocally committed to supporting the global struggle for freedom on the ground which has, in the last 20 years, shown itself an unstoppable force for change.

In terms of realpolitik, we endorse the view of Paul Nitze, a prophetic figure in America during the Cold War.

In his famous National Security Paper Number 68 he put it very plainly: “The idea of freedom is the most contagious idea in history, more contagious than the idea of submission to authority.”

Pope John Paul II was another who understood the irresistible force of freedom in the battle of ideas.

He grasped how the collapse of Communism in Poland could be achieved without warfare, by harnessing the instinctive attachment to freedom and solidarity which are embedded in Polish culture.

To the skeptics, content to settle indefinitely for detente as a default position, it seemed counter-intuitive or merely foolish.

Yet he saw and repeatedly said that it was not wealth or military might but culture which was the great engine of history.

History has proved him right. History also established that in the long run free enterprise would outstrip the command economy and the democratic nations would be willing and able to outspend the Soviet empire in the arms race.

But, along with military might, when Ronald Reagan came to speak at the Berlin Wall in 1987, he brought with him the moral authority and urgency befitting the spokesman of the free world : “If you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization : come here, to this gate. Mr Gorbachev, open this gate. Mr Gorbachev, tear down this wall”.

What seemed at the time almost unimaginable soon came to pass.

The wall was torn down and the Eastern Bloc collapsed.

But a fresh threat to our liberty has emerged, in the form of global terrorism.

The great struggle of the present is between freedom and terror and its totalitarian ideology.

In 2003 Labor went to water on Saddam Hussein and his regime, declaring Iraq an irrelevance in the war on terror.

There was no shortage of so-called realists prepared to tell us that democracy was unsuitable for export and even that the Islamic world would never accept what they airily characterised as cultural imperialism imposed by force of arms.

What actually happened?

Free elections in Afghanistan, in Iraq and in the Palestinian Territories have reconfigured the political landscape.

Libya has renounced the use of weapons of mass destruction.

Saudi Arabia has taken a first step on the path to participatory democracy.

Egypt is proposing a real contest at its next elections and the Syrian regime has beaten a humiliating retreat from Lebanon.

In recent weeks the Cedar Revolution brought nearly a million people out on the streets of Beirut, demonstrating their support for democracy.

It was yet another powerful reminder of the truth that freedom is the most contagious idea in history.

It is far too soon to reach triumphalist conclusions. I’m sure you will all agree with that.

But the belief of some that the only way out of the political impasses of the Middle East is to introduce democracy and the experience of freedom into the equation can no longer be dismissed as naive.

It is a strategy in the battle of ideas which, strange to relate, didn’t much appeal to the intelligentsia of the West.

However its popular appeal is already some sort of vindication.

At street level, as with governments, the experience of freedom can change our self-understandings and the way we relate to one another.

Freedom binds nations together with shared values and priorities.

The much closer ties we now enjoy with our next door neighbour Indonesia, relations with Afghanistan and Iraq, the momentum for change in Palestinian – Israeli relations – they are all encouraging signs for the future and for the prosecution of the war on terror.

They are all outcomes profoundly affecting Australia’s interests.

They are reminders of the powerful, even inexorable, force of freedom.

And they are reminders of Earle Page’s argument that the national interest is best served by a judicious balance of pragmatism and principle.

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Malcolm Farnsworth
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