1920’s Australia’s lesson for Gillard in the Asian Century
On 28 October the Prime Minister Julia Gillard delivered a speech at the launch of the White paper on Australia in the Asian Century. “History” she said “asks great nations great questions”.
As we look forward to the Asian Century we might also want to reflect on the way Australia sought to define its place in the world 100 years ago: a century marked by the global process of decolonization.
In the 1920’s the sun never set upon the British Empire but it was a rapidly changing world.
Following World War I – a war fought to “defend the freedom of small nations” – the Dominions of Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa had a new found self-confidence.
The landscape of Europe was changing. And while the birth of the Irish Free State brought a troublesome conflict to an end it introduced a petulant and nationalistic tone to Imperial Conferences.
It might not have been obvious at the time, but the process of decolonization which would reach its zenith in the 1960’s had begun.
In that world Stanley Bruce, who would one day become 1st Viscount of Melbourne, became Prime Minister of Australia. Bruce is an undervalued character.
He was not a crusading Prime Minister; his main focus was on maintaining the status quo; his most distinguishing (and most exciting) feature is that he wore spats.
Yet, Bruce – or more precisely the conservatism he represented – played a significant role in shaping Australia’s outlook in the early twentieth century.
Bruce focused his attention on maintaining Australia’s link with the British Commonwealth. He summed that policy up in three words: men; money; and markets.
It was partly as a result of that focus that he sought to secure Australia’s naval defence through the (ultimately ill fated) Singapore pact.
On the other hand, the Irish were bound to the Commonwealth not out of love but out of necessity.
The Irish could not attain full independence militarily and so they accepted Dominion status – that acceptance was conditional.
Many opposed the Treaty with Britain which had established the Irish Free State –and in 1922 there was a civil war.
Even supporters of the Treaty sought to exploit any potential to expand the meaning of Dominion status.
In 1926 the conservatism of Stanley Bruce collided with the dynamism of Kevin O’Higgins.
O’Higgins was a brilliant young politician who had fought in the Irish War of Independence but was far more the civil servant than the revolutionary.
He was the Irish Vice President (a position equivalent to Deputy Prime Minister), Minister for Home Affairs and spokesperson at the Imperial Conference of 1926.
He saw Bruce as an impediment to the ambitions of the fledgling Irish Free State.
While the Irish sought to galvanise a coalition with Canada and South Africa to define Dominion status in such a way as to secure all the trappings of independence Bruce was fundamentally opposed to rigid definitions.
The Irish wanted Dominion status defined, clearly and concretely. Bruce believed that formal rules would lessen cultural ties and associations. Workplaces and perhaps clubs need laws and rules; families do not.
O’Higgins was assassinated by members of the IRA in 1927 whilst on his way to Sunday mass.
However, prior to his death he had succeeded in his goal of articulating clearly the relationship between the Parliament Westminster and the Dominions.
This resulted in the Statute of Westminster, 1931: the Dominion parliaments were recognised as being equal to the Imperial Parliament in London. That was an outcome Bruce had resisted.
The position of Prime Minster Bruce was standard-fare in Australia in the 20’s and 30’s.
Maintaining the Imperial relationship, relying on the UK for men, money and markets was not contested ground. Unlike the Irish, Australians saw their interests as lying in the maintenance of the unity of the Empire.
But, in so doing, Australia placed its defence in the hands of British navy – which hindsight reveals was an error.
More importantly in seeking to defend the status quo, Australia did not shape the debate on the shift from Empire to Commonwealth – it missed the opportunity to mold the century of decolonization.
The Gillard government will be hoping that this White Paper can mark an opportunity to actively determine the nature of the Asian Century and Australia’s place within it.
To do so it must learn from Bruce and not be reactionary – it must be proactive. Building embassies; teaching Mandarin; but most importantly asserting Australian values.
In this regard Foreign Minister Carr points to the lengthy and ongoing engagement with Myanmar. He might also highlight East Timor and other places where Australian foreign policy has been a force for good in the region. But there is more to do.
Unlike the policies of Stanley Bruce, Australia’s role in the Asian Century must be about more than Men, Money and Markets: it must be about more than asylum seekers and commercial trade. It must be about defining values – and promoting them.
Fergal Davis is a senior lecturer at the ARC Laureate Project at the Gilbert + Tobin Centre of Public Law, UNSW.
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