DEFENCE AND EXTERNAL POLICY
JOHN CURTIN MEMORIAL LECTURE-1970
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Relevance of Curtin's Policies
In the tumultuous political life of John Curtin, there
are many themes of contemporary relevance which could be developed in a
commemorative lecture of this sort.
I intend to concentrate on issues of defence and external
policy which preoccupied Curtin during much of his 40 years of active public
It is with regret, however, that I put to one side the
wealth of political, social and economic insights revealed in even a quick
look at Curtin's life and his wartime speeches and announcements.
A fascinating exercise in social history could be based
on one unchronicled aspect of Curtin's wartime administration-his relations
with the racing and sporting clubs. This may seem a trivial part of Australia's
war effort; it is extremely revealing about facets of Curtin's style and
character not always evident in much more important speeches and negotiations.
Throughout the war Curtin harried the racing clubs, forcing
them to cut their meetings, to limit their betting activities and divert
their staff and resources to the war effort.
These dealings with the clubs are recorded in considerable
detail in the official digest of the Curtin Government's speeches and announcements.
The most notable outburst of Curtin's anger recorded in
the digest came after he got the race clubs to agree to one raceless Saturday
a month. On the first day this policy operated an enterprising promoter
staged a series of boxing bouts.
This destroyed Curtin's intention of diverting the sporting
fraternity for at least one Saturday in the month to work for the war effort.
Curtin's subsequent denunciation must be the most remarkable rebuke ever
handed out by a head of Government to a sporting figure.
The wheel of social evolution has gone full circle; today
Mr Gorton sends telegrams to Sir Frank Packer on the success of his yacht
in the America's Cup.
Curtin's dealings with the sporting clubs bring out in
full measure his capacity for wrath and moral indignation. He had no qualms
at branding a man who put five £100 notes on a horse at a wartime
meeting as the "thoughtless enemy of his country."
However, it reveals also Curtin's gentler qualities, most
notably his ironical humour and his magnanimity. He often peppered his war
loan exhortations with advice to Back Australia and not the horses
of indifferent calibre to be found on local tracks in wartime.
He could also make generous concessions to the racing clubs
which cooperated with him and observed the rules he laid down. This side
of Curtin's administration reveals something of the ambivalence of his attitude
to wartime Australia.
It shows something, also, of his efforts to reconcile contradictory
responses within himself.
He could say with pride and without misgivings that the
degree of regimentation achieved in Australia during the war was the greatest
in the world.
Curtin also felt considerable personal grief that the main
brunt of the war effort had fallen on those Australians who had suffered
most during the Depression.
These are consistent themes in his wartime speeches.
Even surpassing these expressions is Curtin's response
to physical suffering in European countries where the main burdens of the
war had fallen.
He refers repeatedly to the destruction of Coventry and
Rotterdam; above all he emphasizes the suffering and the heroism of the
Russian people. The example of Stalingrad is close to his mind in all his
speeches to wartime Australia, whether in praise or blame.
The effort to resolve these contradictory responses must
have produced strong emotional tensions in Curtin. This resolution and its
practical expression was one of the reasons for his stature as a leader
Curtin directed Australia's war effort for just under four
years. He lead the fight against the Japanese from 8 December 1941 until
his death on 5 July 1945--a total of 43 months. It is a matter for sombre
reflection that this titanic effort which seems so protracted in retrospect
has been exceeded in duration by another war-a war directed by Curtin's
successors and his puny inferiors, Menzies, Holt and Gorton.
The Vietnam War
Australia has had a major ground force in Vietnam now for
five years. Since the initial training teams were committed there has been
an Australian commitment in Vietnam for seven years.
Vietnam has been the most enduring and intractable military
venture in Australia's history; these are facts which are easily overlooked.
The presence of Australian troops in Malaysia-Singapore
has lasted longer, but this has been as much a garrison commitment as a
Vietnam has exceeded World War I, World War II and the
Korean War in the length of Australia's commitment.
It took John Curtin 43 months to achieve a decisive end
to the greatest war in Australia's history.
It has taken Menzies, Holt and Gorton seven years to get
no positive result other than hundreds of casualties from the most despised
and wretched war in Australia's history. This is one way of assessing the
Vietnam war in the perspective of Curtin's achievement.
Another way would be to look at the suffering of the Vietnamese
people and see if it can be gauged in terms Curtin understood, in the terms
of Rotterdam and Stalingrad.
A few weeks ago in the Federal Parliament, the Minister
for Defence, Mr Malcolm Fraser, revealed that 37 civilians had been killed
in road accidents by Australian armed forces in Vietnam. Most of these would
have been in Phuoc Thuy province where the Australian Task Force has been
stationed for four years.
Phuoc Thuy is a relatively quiet sector of the war which
has been spared the major military operations of the north and central provinces
and the Mekong delta. Yet 37 people have been killed in road accidents over
four years; there must have been at least as many again killed in other
Add the deaths in battle, make an upward adjustment for
the relative tranquillity of Phuoc Thuy as a war zone. Multiply by 40, the
total number of provinces in South Vietnam. Add the deaths from the bombing
of North Vietnam which eclipsed in sheer volume of metal and fuel rained
from the air all the bombing of World War II. In this way you can build
a crude sort of equation for the suffering inflicted on the civilian population
There can be no doubt that the Vietnamese people measure
up in full to John Curtin's standards of epic resistance and heroic endurance.
With a Senate election on 21 November it is timely to make
some assessment of the present state of the Gorton Government's approach
It is also possible from such an analysis to make some
predictions about what the Gorton Government will do in Vietnam in the years
before the next House of Representatives election. I would then like to
indicate what I think the responses of the Labor Party should be within
the context of existing policy.
ALP Policy on
The best way of beginning is to look at the policy record
of the ALP since the Vietnam commitment was made and relate it to the present
When the Australian training team was sent to Vietnam in
the early 1960s, there was no specific policy on Vietnam in the ALP platform.
There was a general policy declaration on the stationing overseas of Australian
This said that Australian troops should not be committed
overseas except subject to clear and public treaties. The presence of Australian
Regular Army men in Vietnam at this time attracted little attention among
the policy-making bodies of the Labor Party, although there was some strong
criticism in the Federal Parliament, particularly in 1964.
In 1964 the Australian commitment was increased by an RAAF
The Federal Executive of the ALP in October that year restated
the Federal Conference policy on the presence of Australian troops overseas.
It drafted a resolution deploring the lack of a formal
agreement covering the presence of the Australian contingent in Vietnam.
In May 1965, Sir Robert Menzies announced that a battalion
of Australian troops would be sent to Vietnam. A week later, Mr Arthur Calwell,
then leader of the ALP, spoke in the Federal Parliament on the commitment.
His speech was the basis of ALP policy on Vietnam for the next two years.
Mr Calwell analysed the Vietnam War in terms of its historical
He condemned Australia's part in the war and urged the
intervention of the United Nations to resolve the war and the setting up
of a peace-keeping force with possible Australian participation. In a speech
which was remarkably prophetic, Mr Calwell pointed out the complete dependence
of the Government on America in making the commitment.
This speech contained many other insights which have proved
correct; it was a most accurate and perceptive interpretation of the trend
of history in Indo China.
In August 1965 the first meeting of the ALP Federal Conference
was held since the Vietnam commitment was made. Strangely enough, Vietnam
did not attract significant attention at the conference. A resolution was
adopted endorsing Mr Calwell's Parliamentary statement as Labor policy and
urging United Nations intervention and the setting up of a broadly-based
Government in Vietnam.
It seems remarkable in retrospect that American intervention
in the Dominican Republic was a much more controversial issue at this conference,
producing a much more sharply-worded resolution than anything on Vietnam.
This policy declaration by the Conference was the last
official pronouncement on Vietnam before the Federal elections of
In March 1966 the expansion of the commitment into an Australian
Task Force with national servicemen was announced by Mr Holt.
Mr Calwell said then that the next Federal Election would
be fought on Vietnam, and it was. Mr Calwell fought the election
on the basis of immediate withdrawal from Vietnam; this policy was electorally
unpopular and the ALP was severely defeated.
The next Federal Conference in July 1967 adopted a more
flexible and pragmatic response to Vietnam.
The policy adopted was still vehemently critical of the
war and Australia's commitment to it. But it sought to use the Australian
commitment in a positive way to divert the course of the war towards a negotiated
It made the Australian presence in Vietnam dependent on
The declaration concluded and I quote: "Should our
allies fail to take this action, the Australian Government would then consider
that it had no alternative other than to withdraw our armed forces."
This declaration was criticised at the time as imposing
impossible conditions on the Americans. Yet in the space of two years all
of these alleged impossible conditions had been accepted by America.
The bombing of North Vietnam ceased, the NLF joined the Conference table
in Paris, America scaled down its participation in the war to a stage where
it began troop preparations.
This completely vindicated the Labor Party's efforts to
channel the war into courses of sanity and humanity.
Because of the fulfilment of the previous policy resolution
and the start of American withdrawal, the 1969 ALP Conference adopted a
much tougher policy with an eye to the House of Representatives elections
The key policy statement was contained in the last paragraph
that on the Labor Party becoming the Government it would take immediate
action to notify the US Government that all Australian Armed Forces would
be withdrawn from Vietnam.
As interpreted by Mr Whitlam, the election policy of the
party was to withdraw the task force from Vietnam by not replacing the individual
battalions as their term of service expired. This would fulfil the terms
of withdrawal as defined by the Federal Conference. Furthermore,
it would allow the battalions to be taken out quickly but safely. It would
also allow a reasonable transition period for substitute forces to take
A deadline for the withdrawal of all military forces was
set at 30 June this year.
This sensible solution to a difficult problem was distorted
and misinterpreted by our opponents on the grounds that it would endanger
the task force, that it had to be a case of one out, all out. Once
the elections were over, and with the Government just back in power, it
promptly scrapped the one out, all out line and adopted the phasing
out policy of the Labor Party.
It moved to a policy of withdrawal by non-replacement,
announcing that the eighth battalion would be pulled out in November and
This raises the question of what policies the Government
and the ALP will put forward at the Senate elections.
The Labor policy put forward at the 1969 elections has
been substantially pre-empted by the Government. In any case it could not
be put to the people in a Senate election which won't change the Government.
There will be another Federal Conference of the Labor Party
at Easter next year. This will restate the Vietnam policy in terms of development
in Vietnam over the next few months.
What the Labor Party can do at these Senate elections is
to hammer its objections to the war and say that any remaining troops will
be withdrawn from Vietnam as swiftly as possible after Labor wins office.
It is impossible to guess how many troops would be involved
when this happens.
On the other side the Gorton Government has adopted the
Labor tactic of pulling out a battalion and not replacing it. This means
it will have the eighth battalion back in Australia and marching through
the streets of capital cities before the Senate elections.
It would be a remarkable political exercise for a Government
that won elections on a commitment to Vietnam to exploit the beginning of
the end of the commitment for political purposes. However, no form of political
manipulation is beyond Mr Gorton and his cronies. The important point is
what happens after the Senate election.
Will the Government go and implement the whole of the phase
out policy, and not replace the battalions as their term expires?
This is the crucial point of future Vietnam policy.
Alternatively, will it make replacements and leave two
battalions in Vietnam indefinitely?
This last course would be the logical one if the Government
genuinely adhered to the process of Vietnamization the latest cycle
into which the Vietnam War has passed. The basis of this policy is claimed
to be the disengagement from Vietnam by America and its allies as the burden
of the war is progressively transferred to the Saigon regime. It assumes
that the South Vietnamese Government and Army will become increasingly capable
of containing and countering North Vietnam and the Vietcong.
Vietnamization has been seized
on enthusiastically as a cure-all by the Australian Government. Theoretically
as Vietnamization progresses it will be possible to bring home more and
more Australian troops.
Even on the Government's peculiar logic, it is difficult
to justify this concept in relation to the Government's plans for withdrawal.
Mr Gorton has said the eighth battalion is to come out for two reasons,
the progress of Vietnamization, and the progress of American troop withdrawals.
It was said earlier in the year that if the capability
of South Vietnamese troops progressed in a satisfactory way, the eighth
battalion could be withdrawn before its year of duty expired. This did not
happen; the battalion will serve out its 12 months in Vietnam to the day.
There is little evidence in the casualty figures of any
substantial progress in Vietnamization; this year has been a particularly
bloody one for the Australian Task Force with several mine disasters and
Even on the Government's terms there must be very grave
doubts about the success of Vietnamization in the Task Force area. This
raises many implications about what the battalions remaining in Vietnam
can be expected to achieve balanced against the potential hazards.
As l said earlier, the Government could carry through a
complete phased withdrawal following the withdrawal of the eighth battalion
in November and following the Senate elections in November.
This would mean that the two remaining battalions due to
go home in the first four months of 1971 would be withdrawn and not replaced.
If this happened the logistics support for the task force at Vung Tau would be swiftly dismantled and sent home. This would leave only some
specialist troops from the Army; of course there would still be air force
units and a guided missile destroyer operating off the coast.
How plausible is this course of action?
There is no doubt the Government is giving it serious consideration
at the moment; on present indications it seems likely it will do this. In
effect, there is a strong possibility that the Government will use Labor's
phase-out policy deferred by exactly one year to get out of Vietnam.
There are convincing reasons for the Government to make
this abrupt change in policy. It would remove the embarrassment of having
National Servicemen in Vietnam at a time when more and more conscientious
objectors-were going to jail.
Further, it would allow the Government to slide around
Vietnam as an issue at the Senate elections; it could mouth the same old
formulas while playing down the issue so an abrupt change of policy did
not jar too much when it came.
It would also have the advantage for the Government of
getting the bulk of Australian troops out some 18 months before the next
House of Representatives election in 1972.
By leaving only Air, Navy and some specialist Army units
the Government could hope to damp down Vietnam as an issue after squeezing
the last drop of political capital from it.
The potentially disastrous electoral consequences of high
casualty rates and national service in Vietnam would be removed.
Another argument which I think will influence the Government
is that its abrupt policy switch this year has antagonised much of its traditional
Like Mr Gorton, many traditional Liberal voters were enthusiastic
supporters of the Vietnam war; like him they believed that if Australian
troops were to be withdrawn, it had to be a case of one out, all out.
Unlike Mr Gorton, they could not adjust to an overnight
change of policy which amounted to a phased withdrawal from Vietnam. These
Liberal Party supporters see real dangers to Australian troops in this policy;
they recognise also that it is a variation of Labor Party policy.
For this reason large numbers have become disenchanted
with the Government's shift on Vietnam.
The swift liquidation of the task force commitment could
appease these voters and stop them drifting from the Government.
What is the alternative to this swift withdrawal of the
Task Force leaving only token commitment in Vietnam?
It would be to replace the two battalions at Nui Dat early
next year and perhaps withdraw another battalion next November. This would
leave one battalion in Vietnam until 1972, the next election year.
If this is done, the obvious question is what would be
the role of a two-battalion task force and ultimately a one-battalion force?
The Government's stock claim has been that only a three
battalion task force is viable, with one resting in the base camp and the
other two either on active operations or training South Vietnamese units
and performing civil aid work.
How can a two-battalion task force perform all these functions
without excessive strain?
How could a one battalion force do any of them?
On the Government's own arguments the job would be too
much for two battalions.
What then would be the role of a two battalion task force?
The Minister for Defence has said that a Jungle Training
School would be established in the base camp area, probably in the lines
vacated by the eighth battalion. Would the remnant of the task force be
maintained to protect this training school? Would it be confined to a defensive
role at the Nui Dat base? Would it be turned over completely to civic action
work? Would it continue an aggressive role and what effective South Vietnamese
units would be available to support it in such a role?
I ask these questions in an attempt to test the hypotheses
deriving from the Government's revised policies in Vietnam.
The only conclusion is that the Government is working to
get the Task Force out of Vietnam as quickly as possible-that to leave two
battalions or one battalion there is impossible.
Every other possibility is illogical on the basis of previous
The whole trend of Government action seems to me to be
moving swiftly towards an end to the Task Force commitment, probably by
the end of June next year.
It would leave in Vietnam a number of training teams to
serve with South Vietnamese units, a cadre to man a Jungle Training School,
and some specialist units-perhaps 300 members of the Regular Army in all.
Labor Party Response
to Government Policy
What should the Labor Party do to adjust to this likely
course of Government policy?
It could not repeat last year's phase-out policy because
it has been largely overtaken by events. Further, it would be pointless
in a Senate election.
All the Labor Party has to do is restate the policy declaration
that on being elected it would immediately notify the US Government that
all Australian troops would be withdrawn from Vietnam.
At last year's election the problem was to get the Task
force out as quickly and as safely as possible. It is unlikely that this
will be a problem at the next Federal election, it should then be possible
to work out a program for swift withdrawal of the remaining units.
Some State conferences of the Labor Party have already
moved a declaration maintaining the phrase immediate withdrawal.
Quite probably, this will be incorporated into the policy declaration adopted
by the next Federal Conference.
I see nothing wrong with the adoption of immediate withdrawal
as long as it is made clear that it is conducted without risk to Australian
troops. It would not have been possible to arrange immediate withdrawal
of the Task Force from the middle of an active war zone, such a course would
have been foolhardy.
This is why the phased withdrawal of the Task Force was
devised; any attempt by any government to carry out an immediate withdrawal
in such a situation would have had connotations of a Dunkirk or Crete.
But it should be possible to get small units out pretty
quickly; there is even less problem with air units and a destroyer.
With only token forces in Vietnam at the time of the next
Federal elections a Labor Government should be able to end the commitment
swiftly and decisively, even though its effect in real terms would be largely
symbolic with the Task Force already home in Australia.
I said earlier that the National Service Act and the principle
of conscientious objection to the Act would be important issues at the Senate
elections. This seems inevitable because there are at least 50 cases pending
of young men who have sustained their objection to the utmost by refusal
to comply with the Act.
It may fairly be assumed that most of these cases are genuine
conscientious objectors who have not been able to satisfy the Courts of
the nature of their objection.
The Government has refrained from pushing prosecutions
in these cases, obviously because it fears political consequences. In 1968
the Act was amended to transfer these objectors from military confinement
to civil jails.
Three young men have been jailed for two years under the
amended provisions. One was released on compassionate grounds after a year's
jail; a young Jehovah's witness was released after serving a substantial
part of his sentence, ostensibly on the grounds that the Commonwealth did
not want to appear to be persecuting his sect.
In another case where a young man refused to comply or
cooperate in any way because of his objection to the Vietnam war, the regulations
were changed so his objection could be determined without this compliance.
Although he did not apply for conscientious objection,
the change in policy made it possible for a judge to deem him an objector
and discharge him from jail.
Another man was jailed in Adelaide last week for two years
for defying the Act.
Such sentences will become commonplace in the next few
weeks as the backlog of cases deliberately built up by the Government is
dealt with by the Courts.
Undoubtedly, the jailing of these men will have some political
impact on the Government. This is why it has twisted and turned to find
some way out, such as the abortive scheme for alternative service which
was put forward and then abandoned after Mr Gorton's back bench tore it
to pieces. Because there have been only three cases of this sort in the
past two years the Government has been able to find some way of ending the
jail sentences before public reaction boils over.
This will not be possible where there are 50 or more committals
to prison under the Act.
The Government could use the new National Service Regulations
to determine some of these cases on the grounds of conscientious objection.
It is impossible to see how it could use the regulations to release all
these men from prison without making even more of a mockery of its political
The logical way out of this problem would be to make objection
to the Vietnam war a basis for conscientious objection.
There is a basic inconsistency in the Act; it declares
that conscientious objectors should be free from national service.
In a few rare cases magistrates have granted exemption
on the basis of objection to the Vietnam war. However, a High Court decision
has confirmed that the objection has to be to all forms of military service;
magistrates hearing the cases have not the discretion to exempt on the basis
of objection to a particular war.
The objection might be the most fervently-held possible;
applied only to the Vietnam war it just won't wash in our courts ruled by
the dictum, all wars or nothing.
The Government has quite purposely produced the situation
that with the Vietnam war dragging to an end, the basis of conscientious
objection remains as narrowly-based as ever.
Its usual answer to these legal anomalies is to put forward
service in the Citizen Military Forces as an alternative to service in Vietnam.
This is acceptable to only a few of these objectors; it is not acceptable
to most whose consciences will not permit them to undertake military service
in any form while the Vietnam war continues.
In these cases the only alternatives are to comply and
suppress the demands of conscience, or to resist the Act to the fullest
extent and go to jail for two years.
The Labor Party's attitude to the National Service Act
is perfectly clear. We believe the Act is completely wrong; it is repugnant
to every aspect of Labor philosophy. The legislation was introduced with
the sole objective of sustaining a commitment to the Vietnam war. It will
be one of the first measures of the next Labor Government to repeal this
Until this can be done it is the responsibility of the
party to make what improvements it can in the Act. For this reason the party
in the Federal Parliament will continue to press for a simple amendment
which will allow objection to the Vietnam war as a ground for exemption.
Apart from the total repeal of the Act there is no way
the Government can escape from the political consequences of these provisions.
Not even the elimination of National Servicemen from Vietnam would solve
The basis for objection goes much deeper; there will be
always objectors who will defy the law while any Australian support for
the prosecution of the war exists.
Unless it moves swiftly to allow objection to Vietnam,
the Government will be dogged by this problem for all of its remaining term
This will not prevent the Gorton Government from attempting
to squeeze short term electoral capital from defiance to the National Service
Law and Order
It will be one of the components of the great law and order
campaign which Mr Gorton, Mr Snedden and Mr Hughes have been trying to get
off the ground for the Senate elections.
Their efforts so far have been a total failure; this will
not stop them from peddling the law and order line against the Labor Party.
There has been one example of this in recent weeks in the
blatant twisting of Mr Whitlam's sane and logical advice to conscientious
objectors who seek his guidance.
More of this can be expected as Mr Gorton reduces law and
order to its simplest and most primitive terms to make it what he sees as
the key issue of the Senate election.
In the remaining weeks of the Federal Parliament, a so-called
Public Order Bill will probably be introduced into the Federal Parliament.
Its ostensible purpose will be to protect Commonwealth property and the
homes of Members of Parliament, but there can be no doubt its real rationale
has been determined by crude propaganda.
The great evil of this sort of use of law and order
for electoral purposes is that it debases the essential stature of the law.
It presumes that one government and one political party has a monopoly on
law and order. It has the added defect of confining law and order--a term
which should cover the whole body of our legal system--to the conduct of
public dissent in the public domain and on the streets.
Certainly the rights and responsibilities of public protest
are an important aspect of the law. But they are only one element of an
immensely complex and subtle institution.
When we use the term law and order we are not thinking
in simple terms of public conduct on the streets; we are referring to thousands
of precepts which govern all aspects of international, commercial and domestic
It is a gross reflection on the great legal systems which
have directed the course of hundreds of years of history to debase and distort
law and order in this way.
The great legal systems which have governed the mainstream
of our history are what we should have in our minds when we talk of law
and order-not some grubby little list of rules and penalties devised by
some transient Premier or Federal Attorney-General to achieve an unworthy
Our present rulers and framers of public policy seem to
have found evidence that toughness against public protest is electorally
popular, that in a time of political desperation when every other issue
has turned sour this is the only lifeline that can save a discredited regime.
There may be some examples of electoral success flowing
from so-called law and order issues.
It seems to me to be a dangerously two-edged weapon.
It should never be forgotten that public protest in the
United States destroyed a very powerful American President with the formidable
machinery of law enforcement at his command.
I don't think that either President Johnson or Vice-President
Humphrey would ever claim that so-called law and order issues were
an electoral asset to them. There is also a line of thought that attributes
the defeat of Mr Harold Wilson's Government to exploitation of law and
order by his opponents.
This would seem difficult to sustain in view of Mr Wilson's
decision to postpone a tour by South African cricketers against the bellows
of his Tory opponents.
There seems to be very little international evidence to
support the view that excesses in dissent and public protest can have a
major political backlash.
Furthermore, Australia has not the economic and social
background to violence and conflict characteristic of the United States
The agonising social background contained in American reports
such as the Kerner Report on racial disorders and the Walker Report on the
Chicago clashes during the 1968 Democratic convention are absent from Australian
It is erroneous to transfer issues intact from overseas
countries with a completely different economic and social background to
The Kerner Report on racial disorder in the US concluded
with the rather despairing words: "We have uncovered no startling truths,
no unique insights, no simple solutions".
This cannot be said of Mr Gorton, Mr Tom Hughes and Sir
Henry Bolt. They have uncovered the startling truth that public protest
is a danger to every government and every citizen. They have made the unique
insight that public order issues are popular with the electorate. They have
reached the simple solution of the baton, a whiff of tear gas, and savage
fines and jail sentences.
This is the sort of caveman logic that is disfiguring the
political process and the administration of the law in Australia today.
The plain truth is that the expression of dissent in this country has never
exceeded tolerable limits. There have been excesses and provocations on
both sides but the main dissent has been expressed in a proper way through
The resurgence of dissent in this country flowed from two
deliberate decisions of the Federal Government-to introduce conscription
and to fight in Vietnam.
When the Vietnam commitment ends, one objective of the
dissent movement will have been achieved through the proper processes with
dignity and restraint.
Conscription will remain as a divisive influence and a
legitimate target for dissent.
Until Vietnam and conscription were made into divisive
issues by deliberate choice of public policy, large scale expressions of
dissent had virtually disappeared in Australia.
An excellent book on Freedom in Australia published
six years ago referred to the disappearance of the public procession of
protest in this country.
Today processions of protest have been revived as the most
important transmitters of dissent.
If public protest in this form has become an embarrassment
to the Government it must accept responsibility because of the deliberate
policy choices it made.
On specific laws governing public order there is certainly
need for clarification and revision. This is what the Commonwealth and State
Governments should be doing-looking at the great mass of laws governing
public order and putting them into coherent and consistent form.
Public protest is subject to a mass of Commonwealth and
State laws as a host of municipal by-laws. There are Police Offences Acts,
Traffic Regulations, Local Government Regulations and many other confusing
laws and obscure offences. There are dragnet offences which can be used
to cover a multitude of behaviour during a public protest.
They give immense latitude to police officers in laying
charges which are dealt with summarily by magistrates. It is a complex and
difficult exercise to prove a common law charge of rout or unlawful assembly.
It is a very simple matter to obtain a verdict of guilty
on a charge of offensive behaviour, often on the word of a single officer.
A precisely defined code of offences against public order
common to all States and Territories is urgently needed. It should not be
beyond the wit of the Committee of Attorneys-General at its regular meetings
to initiate the drafting of a Public Order Code which could be introduced
in all States and Territories.
Certainly, Mr Hughes would be better employed in putting
his legal skills to an exercise of this kind than complicating public order
further by new Commonwealth legislation.
I have sought to have some account of how the Gorton Government
is acting under stress in important areas of public policy.
From the standpoint of numbers in the Federal Parliament
the Government should have little to worry about. It has a comfortable majority
of seven in the House of Representatives. With the aid of its vassal, the
Democratic Labour Party, it effectively controls the Senate.
It has the whip hand on the States with a majority of five
Liberal and Country Party Premiers to one Labor Premier. In the public service
it has all the accumulated power of more than 20 years in office.
of the Gorton Government
With all of these great advantages the present Liberal-Country
Party structure just isn't working. Things are falling apart at the centre
where Mr Gorton is ducking and weaving desperately to find the winning combinations
which will restore his dominance and his prestige.
There is no better measure of the Gorton Government's performance
under economic and social stresses than the first Curtin Government.
Curtin said of this first term of office that his Government
not only had to fight; it had a Parliament to fight. The Labor Government
had to manage a Parliament which no previous Prime Minister had been capable
of managing. Menzies and Fadden had failed to manage the Parliament with
majorities in both Houses. Curtin had to find ways not only to fight the
war but to get his legislation through. In Curtin's own words:
Any one of the regulations which this Government has formulated for the conduct of the war had to be formulated in the sure and certain knowledge that it not only had to be good in itself but had to withstand the possibility of being disallowed before it could be applied.
This is the context in which Curtin governed and governed
successfully; in a hostile Parliament and under a grave external threat.
Could Mr Gorton and his colleagues, judged on the record
of the past few months, have done this?
We now have a Government that with all the advantages of
entrenched power is so maladroit that it cannot conduct even the ordinary
day-to-day business of the nation without serious blunders.
It is a Government which is theoretically at war but which
uses this war as a political weapon to divide the electorate and glean minor
Mr J B Chifley when Minister for Postwar Reconstruction
during World War II once said that the main functions of reconstruction
would be positive; to create conditions in which palliatives would become
less and less necessary.
Under successive Liberal-Country Party Governments palliatives
have become more and more necessary.
The existing structure of Government has become a patchwork
of expediency, of tinkering with the system instead of transforming it,
of propping up what is discredited or uneconomic or inefficient.
When the history of the postwar period in Australia is
written I believe it will be possible to reduce its course to two basic
The first is the scheme for postwar reconstruction devised
by Curtin and his close associates, principally Chifley and Dedman.
The second is the overthrow and negation of these guidelines
by the long sequence of Liberal-Country Party Governments.
In so many areas of policy--defence, health, social welfare,
regional development, farm policy--guidelines were set and initial groundwork
Much of this work has been irretrievably spoilt by the
inability of the Labor Party to regain office after the defeat of 1949.
It has vanished without trace under Menzies, Holt and Gorton.
Many examples could be given of this failure by Liberal-Country
Party Governments whether from philosophical objections or administrative
indifference, to capitalise on the initiatives of Curtin and his colleagues.
I refer briefly to one--regional development.
In May 1943 Mr Chifley, who was then Minister for Postwar
Reconstruction as well as Treasurer, made an interesting appraisal on the
future of regional development. He said the war had given an immense boost
to the prospects of planned and sustained regional development of the country
districts of Australia.
This was due to the policy of decentralisation of munitions
production which had involved spending $422 million in 35 regional areas.
The setting up of munitions factories at strategic points
had drawn in the necessary labour power from the local and surrounding towns.
This meant that many regional areas were being sustained and, in some cases,
even stimulated in time of war.
Mr Chifley went on to make the following pertinent comment:
If this can be achieved under the stress of war, a great deal more can be done by an orderly policy of decentralisation in the postwar period.
This in a nutshell was how the Curtin Government planned
for the postwar years; to use the urgencies of war as a lever to assure
better social planning in the years of peace ahead.
Curtin was fond of saying that the Labor Party's direction
of the war was not dictated by Socialist textbooks; it was being
fought on the basis of Australian problems.
This in turn is reflected in the pragmatic planning deriving
from the war effort for postwar Australia.
I suppose these solutions were too original, too individual
and too dependent on a high level of Commonwealth direction to be carried
through by any other than a Labor Government.
In the case of regional development the failure to maintain
the policies devised by the Curtin Government is apparent in the great problems
of urbanisation which confront every level of Government. If more evidence
is needed, there is the testimony of the great regional areas of Australia
which are marking time or decaying.
Consensus on Trade
I have cited regional development as a policy area where
the initiatives of the Curtin and Chifley Governments were rejected.
There is one area in which a consistent policy thread can
be traced through the years of the Labor Governments and the much more protracted
sequence of Liberal-Country Party Coalition Governments.
This is trade policy where the patterns for the past 25
years were established in the immediate postwar years by J B Chifley, ,J
J Dedman and R T Pollard.
On the whole, Australia's trade policy in the postwar period
has been fairly successful.
There are areas of criticism-Liberal-Country Party Governments
could be accused of concentrating too much on short-term trade movements.
There has also been manipulation of the Department of Trade for narrow political
objectives and an accumulation of excessive and often harmful influence
on economic policy formulation by the Department.
In the main it would have to be conceded that trade has
been one of the few consensus areas in Australian politics in this period
and that Australia's trade policy has been conducted with vigour and a degree
of compassion towards developing nations.
By its nature trade policy should be pragmatic and independent
in character; it should not be doctrinal nor should it be merely an extension
of the internal political debate.
The trade policies of Mr McEwen have fitted these criteria
to the letter; internal politics has not prevented his Government from selling
hundreds of millions of dollars worth of goods to the Peoples' Republic
of China in the past ten years. Nor has it drawn the line at sending items
which are clearly strategic goods to China.
The official trade figures show that Australia in the last
financial year exported 12,543 tons of iron and steel scrap and waste and
14,000 tons of refined zinc to China. Under American regulations this would
be regarded as strategic exports; the Australian Government chooses to ignore
this and conceal the status of these sales.
This volume of iron and scrap could provide sufficient
material for about 300,000 recoilless rifles or alternatively for about
175,00 80-millimetre mortars of the type made in the Peoples' Republic of
China and used by the Vietcong. Yet Mr Gorton and Mr McEwen have no pangs
in squaring their consciences with this sale of strategic materials.
It is remarkable even allowing for the realities of trade
that a Government can reconcile prosecution of a war against the Vietcong
and North Vietnamese with the sale of strategic goods which could provide
them with arms.
Nor is there any sign that the Gorton Government is conscious
of just how dependent it has become on the Chinese trade. The potential
value of this trade is even greater if a more realistic policy towards the
Peoples' Republic of China can be adopted.
Another defect of Australian trade policy is that export
promotion has been stressed to the almost total exclusion of import promotion.
Goods have been imported from the United States and Europe which could have
been obtained much more cheaply from South East Asia.
This is particularly relevant to the growing markets in
North West Australia which are close to South East Asian suppliers.
It would be churlish to say that these countries are completely
responsible for promoting their own trade. The Trade Commissioner Service
should be extended to provide a service to importers by making them aware
of potential suppliers in South East Asia. This would be one way of doing
something to redress the serious imbalance of trade between Australia and
of the Pacific
The last point I want to make about Australian trade relates
directly to the emphasis John Curtin put on the Pacific area in his external
We would not agree now with Curtin's contention that Australia
should build itself into a Pacific power and become the Policeman of
the Pacific. This was made in a wartime context when many of the Island
chains of the Pacific had been occupied by the Japanese to outflank and
threaten Australia. But Curtin was perfectly correct in his assessment of
the importance of the development of the Pacific to Australia. It was a
concept which was put in material form by the initiative of the Chifley
Government in setting up the South Pacific Commission.
Australia has been the main supplier of money and technical
skills to the Commission in the subsequent 20 years.
While there is fairly general agreement that the future
of Australian trade lies in the Pacific Basin area, little has been done
to provide institutional backing for this change in direction.
A free trade area has been established at least on paper
between Australia and New Zealand.
It has been suggested that this be extended to a Pacific
Free Trade Area initially covering Australia, New Zealand and Japan, and
possibly extending later to the United States and Canada. An effective organisation
of this sort would mean many years of negotiation and preparation.
In the immediate future a more valid approach would be
the formation of an inter-governmental organisation on the lines of the
Organisation for European Cooperation and Development (OECD).
Such an organisation could include the five advanced Pacific
countries with participation by the new island nations now emerging in the
This would be a useful way of stimulating Pacific Ocean
trade on the model the OECD provided for European cooperation and growth.
An Organisation for Pacific Trade and Development could take over and extend
much of the work now done by the South Pacific Commission. It would be a
practical way of giving effect to John Curtin's repeated wartime prophecies
on the importance of the Pacific to Australia's defence and economy.
In this lecture I have tried to indicate some of the themes
from John Curtin's life and work which are relevant to the contemporary
Labor movement. There are many difficulties in taking the mind back to the
years of the last Labor Governments.
The intervening years have been filled with many disappointments
It is a tribute to the resilience of the Labor movement-the
movement that John Curtin described as integral with the true welfare of
the Australian people-that it is again on the brink of national Government.
I never met John Curtin although my father was his close
colleague for many years and subsequently a Minister in the Chifley Government.
I am honoured tonight to commemorate the memory of a man whose life's work
was described by his deputy, Frank Forde, as lacking only the laurel wreath
of victory and the benefaction of peace.
There have been many tributes paid to Curtin.
The most tersely accurate I have been able to find comes
from a political opponent, Stanley Melbourne Bruce, who described him as
an "extraordinarily receptive and perceptive man".
Perhaps Curtin summarised his own achievement better than
any other could in a brief comment towards the end of his life.
He said that he had found the Australian war effort a blueprint and he had given it life.