Sydney, 17 February 2021

Professor James Curran

Department of History
Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences
University of Sydney

When I re-read the press statement that Australian prime minister John Curtin released as Singapore fell on 15 February 1942, I could not help but be struck by just how much it was framed in terms of an appeal to both empire and nation.

This should hardly come as a surprise given that Curtin, like other leaders of his generation, saw no contradiction between his Australian nationalism and his British race patriotism. Indeed the two ideas were mutually reinforcing, not inherently antagonistic.

In his remarks at that anxious hour, as the strategic nightmare that Australian politicians and policymakers had feared since the late nineteenth century unfolded before him – namely that Australia would be left defenceless to a threat from Asia while Britain was engaged in a simultaneous war in Europe – Curtin appealed to the people of Australia by invoking British example.

His call to arms was premised on both British and Australian terms. If he had ‘looked to America’ in late December 1941, he wanted Australians now to look to Britain as they rallied themselves for the challenge ahead.

The loss of Singapore, that supposed ‘last bastion’ between Australia and a rampaging Japanese imperial army, was ‘Australia’s Dunkirk’. And if Dunkirk had initiated the ‘Battle for Britain’, the fall of Singapore opened the ‘Battle for Australia’. What the ‘battle for Britain’ demanded, he went on, so the ‘Battle for Australia requires’. The complete devotion shown by Britons would need to be matched by that of his own people.

More particularly in setting out the stakes involved Curtin said that on the outcome of that battle rested ‘the fate of the British-speaking world’.

‘British-speaking’? This strikes a contemporary audience as quite strange, especially given that there is no such thing as a ‘British’ language. Yet Curtin, and later Chifley too – both Labor men of Irish Catholic descent – used that term in their speeches, at home and in Britain. Curtin said he wanted to preserve Australia as a ‘bastion of the British-speaking race’. It spoke to the particular way that these leaders believed Australia represented a purer, better form of Briton than those who lived in Britain itself – one which had melded the English, Irish, Scottish and Welsh components into an indissoluble whole.

These leaders knew their people. The idea that Curtin’s appeal to Britishness was a cunning ploy to curry favour with the electorate, or that it was a mask consciously worn to hide the true nationalist beneath, will not stand up to scrutiny. One of Australia’s most distinguished historians tried to equate Curtin’s rhetoric of Empire with his repeated reminders to Labor MPs that they should wear shirts with starched collars to work. In other words, Britishness was a garment consciously worn rather than something which spoke to Curtin’s own understanding of Australia’s identity and outlook. It supposedly had nothing to do with the deep-seated ideas that Australians had of themselves as a British people, ideas which came out most clearly at times of national crisis such as in 1914 and again in 1942.

Even after the war polls showed that a majority of Australians preferred their nationality to be classified as ‘British’ rather than ‘Australian’. It would take until the 1960s for the political culture to start letting go of its British race patriot outlook on the world. And that was only really after Britain had forced its hand to do so, signalling its intention to join the European Common Market and withdraw its military from South East Asia. As Harold Holt said in 1966, Australia had been ‘jolted by events to adulthood’.

The Curtin legend, however, seems rarely to allow for such complexity. There is a tension in the way Curtin is portrayed, vacillating between a picture of him as the resolute commander in chief on the one hand, and on the other, the worried, wavering leader or reluctant warlord. John Edwards’ magisterial biography aside, it means that we often receive a picture of the man as a sum of his tortured parts rather than as a singular political phenomenon. As the historian Marcus Cunliffe once observed of George Washington: the legend of the public figure has become like a ‘cairn to which each passer-by adds a stone…pamphlet, speech, article and book; pebble, rubble, stone and boulder have piled up’. And so it has with Curtin.

But it might also be remembered that when the threat of invasion passed, Curtin spent the best part of 1943 and 1944 convincing his party and his people that Australia’s future lay with the British empire. Even, that the concept of Empire defence could be reinvigorated to make it work better for Australian interests.

And at the December 1943 ALP conference Curtin brought his party with him on this concept of an Empire Council, a roving body of leaders that would meet at all parts of the empire to ensure, in essence, that a calamity such as the Fall of Singapore could never happen again. This was not some slavish devotion to London, even if it did repeat similar attempts by so many of his predecessors to gain a seat for Australia at the top table of imperial policy-making. Rather it was about institutionalising an organic concept of empire in which all members were equal and all had an equal say in the making of policy.

Despite his advocacy for this proposal failing miserably at the 1944 Prime Ministers Conference in London – Churchill did not even bother to attend the meeting where the proposal was discussed – it was no less an example of a national leader pushing for Australia’s distinctive interests in the Pacific to be not only heard but safeguarded.

This too was a remarkable achievement given where his party had been on foreign affairs in the inter-war years. When Curtin took over as Labor leader in the mid 1930s Labor counted amongst its ranks liberal internationalists who supported the League of Nations, international socialists who saw in the Soviet Union a model of world leadership, Catholics who despised Communism as the enemy of religion and isolationists who wished to turn their backs on the world altogether. And political parties today think they have factional problems…

In commemorating the ‘Battle for Australia’ too we might remember that one of the reasons why it had to be fought relates to the poor state of preparedness that the country found itself in for total war. ‘External forces and support might well be coming’, Curtin said in his press statement on 15 February, and come they did in the form of one million American troops passing through Australia during the course of the conflict, but the ‘problem of their coming and its relation to the calendar of the enemy are factors which Australia should disregard in its composition of a nation completely at war for the purposes of its own defence’.

This is not about apportioning blame to Robert Menzies who, in his first stint as prime minister, remember, refused to automatically send the Second AIF to the Middle East until he had received assurances from London about Australia’s defence in the Pacific. We can ask why, to be sure, Australian leaders continued to place their faith in these British assurances. But recall too it was Menzies who, fearful that Australia wasn’t getting the right information from London, established the first Australian diplomatic posts in London, Washington and Chungking.

Rather it is about understanding how the deep deep-laid suspicions which arose out of the Conscription crises of 1916-17 fractured and corrupted the working of the political culture. The long-term consequence for Australian domestic politics and foreign policy was that many important issues could no longer be dealt with outside this framework of antagonism and distrust. For example before the First World War the Labor Party had been willing to look at defence policy in terms of potential threats and to support a civilian style compulsory military training for the purpose. After the bitterness of the conscription campaign the new Labor party made opposition not only to conscription for overseas service but also opposition to conscription for the defence of Australia’s own territory a necessary test of loyalty to the party. Its defence platform consisted mainly of things that the defence force should not do. Defence itself had come to be seen as an agent of the domestic political enemy.

Likewise the conservatives who prior to the Conscription crisis had been as willing as the Labor leaders to criticise publicly the British government for failing to honour its commitment to Australian defence and to take independent action against British advice,  now after the conscription crisis – where they had placed so much store on loyalty to Britain and the Empire – could no longer stand up against Britain or criticise Britain for failing to keep its promises, or even suggest that Australia might have to act alone to protect itself. Any such admission would throw doubt on their idea of loyalty and play into the hands of their opponents, the Labor party. As a result, one might venture to say Australia went into World War II totally unprepared to deal with the new and greater crisis which threatened the survival of Australia and the British Empire.

The point is that foreign and defence policy could not be seen on their own terms. Rather they became hostage to the domestic debate over ‘loyalty’. Foreign policy, of course, can never be separated from domestic politics. And more often than not the latter trumps the former. But there are times when the balance between political point scoring and the making of international policy so shifts in favour of short-term domestic political needs that the framing and discussion of a country’s foreign policy suffers as a result.

New Fears: the Australia-China debate

I mention this because in today’s debate over how Australia should handle its relations with China, the discussion has been injected with a toxicity which in some unnerving ways mirrors that of the 1920s and 1930s, where domestic political dividends are being given a bigger weight than those of foreign policy and diplomacy.

This of course is true of both Australia and China.

Just as the government of Scott Morrison thinks that a tough line on China works well domestically – some in his inner circle have already whispered to journalists that they know playing the so called ‘red card’ at the next election will be a plus for the government – so Beijing feels the compulsion to be seen to be standing up against those it perceives as threatening its legitimacy. For a regime that consistently speaks of the ‘century of humiliation’ it suffered at the hands of the Western powers it is no surprise that it reacts so stridently and, as we have seen, so counter-productively to criticism, as well as to decisions it sees as targeting directly its status and legitimacy as a great power whose time, it says, has come.

As opinion polls show, China’s behaviour – whether it be in terms of its militarising of the South China Sea, its persecution of Uighurs in Xinjiang, sabre rattling in Hong Kong and threats to Taiwan, is only souring public attitudes towards it both here, in South East Asia, Europe and the United States. 

There are judgments being made now about China – its system, leadership and international behaviour that are going to be immensely difficult to shift in future years.

It is difficult to know what the ultimate intention of Chinese leaders is in terms of the current targeting of Australian trade. Is it to make an example of Australia, to show that this is what happens if you get too close to the Americans? That there are costs to be paid for displeasing China? What we can be clear on is that China has not targeted a country like this across so many export markets at precisely the same time. We can also be clear that it plays well for the Chinese Communist Party domestically.

But too often the debate over how Australia should react to the assertion of Chinese power is couched as if the past is irrelevant. The expression that Australia’s China policy changed because China changed is only half right.

Once more, we risk falling into the lazy trap of short-term thinking and chronic ad-hocery in policy.

As historian David Walker has argued, ‘Australians have long known, suspected or feared that China would rise to world power status’.

This is not new problem for Australian diplomacy, but there are new dimensions to the problem.

A key contextual point is that the new assertiveness of an authoritarian China under Xi has come just as doubts about American staying power have intensified. These two stiff winds have been blowing onto Australia at the same time, and the result, as we have seen, is a certain panic when we feel Washington is not treating us in the way we feel is our right by virtue of our close alliance – witness the dummy spitting over the Trump-Turnbull telephone exchange in early 2017 – and heightened if not at times feverish speculation about a ‘silent’ invasion by China. Anxiety too, about our institutions collapsing meekly before the very onslaught of this new ‘red peril’.

The Trump administration, after some early internal debates, ended up putting its China policy more decisively on the footing of what is now routinely referred to, even if in the view of respected scholars incorrectly, as the ‘new Cold War’, or ‘Cold War 2.0’. But even that hot talk could not assuage widespread doubts in the region about American staying power. There are still some frazzled nerves in Seoul and Tokyo after Trump’s desire to make them pay more for the cost of stationing US troops there; still disappointment across the region that Washington did not sign up to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a move most unlikely to be made by President Biden either.

Indeed the new Biden White House appears to be reading by and large from the some of the same chapters from the Cold war missal the Trumpians left behind.   This was always going to be likely – in the US too the domestic debate over China – whether it be about taking American jobs from its heartland, or the coming of Covid 19 – was never going to allow anything like a China policy ‘reset’ under a new president, even if there might be more, if limited areas of policy where cooperative endeavour is sought. In any case, Biden spent much of his campaign proving his tough on China credentials.

Witness the statement by new National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan that America wants to create once more what Harry Truman’s Secretary of State Dean Acheson called ‘situations of strength’ to pushback against the China Challenge. Sullivan’s predecessor, Robert O’Brien, called the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue or ‘Quad’ – involving the US, Japan, India and Australia – as possibly the ‘most important relationship we’ve established since NATO’.

And he left strewn on the White House lawn a declassified document in an attempt to show that behind all the presidential chaos and dysfunction, there really were American officials looking to shore up its regional position, to tighten up their Asian moorings in the face of Chinese provocation and strategic muscle flexing.  Biden is now proposing that meetings of the Quad, once only attended by officials, then foreign ministers, be held at the leader’s level.

As the US/China relationship is problematic, so then is Canberra’s relationship with Beijing. There have been some attempts by the Prime Minister and senior ministers to extract Australia from this problem, but their efforts have been lost amidst the clamour and the din of a domestic debate that has fuelled a relentless China threat narrative.

I’m not sure we fully grasp here how America understands the threat China poses to its exceptionalism. American nationalism is a concept too easily dismissed by some, too easily written off as purple prose tossed into the atmosphere to hide the ‘true’ or ‘real’ motives of American foreign policy. The point is that no National security adviser or US Secretary of State will present a president in the near future with a policy of accommodation with China. Their belief in ‘manifest destiny’, ‘divine providence’ runs too deeply in the DNA. To deny it is to deny the very essence of what makes them ‘American’.

Australia has to do more to clarify its broader policy settings, even as China makes it all but impossible to defrost the political relationship from its current state. It is important to recognise that finding this new framework will take time: what is of concern is actually whether that process has yet begun in earnest. This means, as former DFAT secretary and ONA head Peter Varghese argues, that ‘the biggest risk is that we will over correct and move from engagement to containment, wrapped in hard decoupling’.

So far, the results are mixed. Indeed it might be said that the government’s China policy is somewhat confused. And the confusion stems from its decision to not think carefully or coherently about how the various strands of its policy fit together.

The Prime Minister goes out of his way to eschew talk of a ‘new Cold War’, or seeing US-China competition in zero-sum, binary terms. He talks of wanting an ‘end state of happy coexistence’ with China, holds back from describing it as a strategic competitor, and says openly that Australia has a different view of its economic relationship than the Americans.

The problem is that one needs to conduct an archaeological excavation of his speeches to put all this together. It remains something of a conundrum as to why neither the PM nor the foreign minister has not levelled with the Australian public about the nature of this relationship: its past and present, highs and lows, opportunities and difficulties, benefits and risks, what principles it might lay down in terms of how to manage it in future, what costs it is prepared to pay if the economic coercion continues.  It’s not that rhetoric is the answer, but the hard thinking behind it would certainly help.

Let me look at three central questions which I hope help illuminate the past out of which the present has emerged.

The first is why have we been so slow on our feet and what does this say about the last half century of engagement with Asia?

The second is when did Australian leaders and officials start to talk about war with China?

The third, which follows closely from the second, relates to why Australia is now at the vanguard of China policy, a position for which it has won plaudits from the Trump administration and from other US allies in the region. Even if circumstance more than calculation put us there, there is an element in the Australian political psychology that appears to like being there.

To take the first question:

We have been here before. Australia cut itself off from China in the early 1950s because of the felt need to defer to American wishes.

To slip into that mindset again is unthinkable.

So how can we not remember history?

Even if one accepts that the coming of Xi and relative US decline brings a whole new set of challenges for Australian policymakers, this has been a difficult relationship from the beginning. In the late 1940s, Australia was in Chiang Kai-Shek’s sights, especially because of racial issues pertaining to the ‘White Australia’ policy.

Menzies when he came to power in 1949 did not care much for China. It had seemed likely that Australia would follow Britain in recognising the Chinese Communist victory but out of deference to American sensitivities Menzies decided not to proceed with recognition.

His second External Affairs Minister, RG Casey, was smitten with Zhou En Lai at a conference in Geneva in 1954. Casey had come to the view, in the words of his biographer, that while ‘China might not be nice, nationalist China was passe and an alien presence on Formosa and that, therefore, Peking must be accommodated diplomatically’. But he had no success in seeking change to Australia’s China policy – in mid 1955 Cabinet decided that ‘no steps shall be taken in the direction of or leading towards recognition of Communist China’. Casey’s push was discrete – in public he red-baited with the best of them: ‘we feel the hot breath of communism on our necks’, he used to say.

In the 1960s, with the impact and influence of the Catholic, anti-Communist Democratic Labor Party, China became a necessary prop to ensuring that the United States remained on the mainland of Asia. This at a time when strategists in Canberra, as elsewhere, were hearing the long, melancholy roar of British withdrawal from South East Asia. Billy McMahon was therefore lumbered with the policy of his predecessors and especially the commitment of so many conservative politicians to Taiwan.

That meant his sense of being badly stranded by the change in American China policy under Nixon was all the more acute.  Making fists in his pockets, McMahon even publicly speculated that Nixon’s visit to China would cost him re-election. Privately, he was believed to be near psychotic at this American betrayal. He dug his pen nib so deeply into the briefing paper that it created its own ravine of rage on the page. “But they told the Pakistanis!” he complained to departmental officials.

Whitlam couched his opening of relations to China in the language of national discovery, and his role was central to the story of the first five years of the resumed relationship. Yet he also recognised that Australia could not afford to sow suspicion in Chinese minds about its motives for seeking a new relationship. Nor could it give China the impression that Canberra was ‘careless of our own interests’. Typically for Whitlam, the task was couched in Homeric language. The Chinese, said Whitlam to Ambassador Steve Fitzgerald at the outset of his posting, ‘are hard-headed realists, and it would be unnatural of them not to take advantage of us or hold us in contempt for apparent weakness’. He wanted his new envoy to ‘steer a course between the Scylla of unnecessary suspicion, on the one hand, and the Charybdis of apparent carelessness, on the other’.

And it’s been across that tightrope, in many ways, that subsequent governments have had to tread.

Malcolm Fraser and Deng Xiaoping provided the underpinning to further development of the relationship, primarily because each deeply distrusted the Soviet Union. This was an understood matter, not something on which they engaged each other. Fraser did not have a political mandate from his party to pursue his thought bubble of a formal anti-Soviet grouping, and was also vulnerable on Taiwan in Cabinet.

The relationship really took off when Communist Party General Secretary Hu Yaobang visited Australia in the mid 1980s to conclude an agreement for its first overseas investment in the iron ore mine in Channar, Western Australia. The interest of Yaobang and Chinese Premier Zhao Ziyang in Chinese political reform led to what some might call the great lovefest with Hawke, where the Australian leader had lengthy late-night conversations with both. The fall of Hu Yaobang, which marked the conservative fight back within the Communist party that lead all the way to the Tiananmen massacre of June 1989, sent Hawke into a tailspin.

The second question is to ask when Australia started to talk about the possibility of going to war with China…

It is of course well known the success that John Howard had in managing the China relationship. He visited China more times than any of his predecessors. The signature moment of the Howard doctrine was surely the visits to Canberra on subsequent days in October 2003 of US president George W Bush, then Chinese president Hu Jintao. ‘In one unmistakable gesture’, Howard wrote in his memoirs, Australia was telling the world it was possible, to have close relations with both the United States and China’. These two parts of the Howard doctrine, however, were not equal. The alliance with the US appealed to history and shared cultural values; the relationship with China was a pragmatic conjunction of economic interests.

Then came Kevin. Despite his study of Chinese language and culture, despite his experience as a diplomat in Beijing, Rudd wanted to prove more than anything that as a Labor prime minister he could be trusted on the alliance. In private remarks to then US secretary of State Hillary Clinton in March 2009 he said that he was a ‘brutal realist on China’ and that countries needed a ‘plan B’ to ‘prepare to deploy force if everything goes wrong’. His Defence White Paper contained what one Minister who saw it described as a ‘blood curdling section’ with ‘explicit discussion of the Chinese military threat’, including ‘missile strikes, port blockades and submarine warfare’.

By October 2009 the Chinese were suggesting a visit themselves to Australia to arrest the downward spiral in relations. It resulted in a statement which, according to Geoff Raby, ‘codified the Howard approach…by stating in an agreed document that there were many points of difference, but that we also had major interests to advance through close cooperation bilaterally and multilaterally’. It must surely be one of the more ironic of conclusions to Australia-China relations in the Rudd era: the man who had proclaimed himself as the coming man for the ‘Asian century’ ended up having to accept the principles for the relationship that his predecessor had laid down.

It should come as no surprise that Rudd subsequently complained that Julia Gillard’s own White Paper had ‘strategically gutted the rationale of his own effort’. Instead of ‘hard strategic logic’ it had chosen to ‘play Pollyanna: don’t worry, be happy and everything will be alright in the morning’.

One lesson of the Rudd era on this question is surely that the hardliners in the bureaucracy were already beginning their ascendancy. China was already being typecast as the enemy, even if, as journalist and former AFR editor Max Suich pointed out some time ago, the ‘defence build-up with this in mind’ was ‘poorly managed, even incoherent, plagued by budget and technology problems, and what seems to be a broad incompetence in choosing and introducing new weaponry’.

The euphoria that came with Gillard’s signing of a ‘strategic partnership’ and Abbott’s upgrading of it to a ‘Comprehensive Strategic Partnership’ was short lived. Indeed, despite its frequent invocation by Prime Minister Morrison that very framework is now little more than a diplomatic gibbet swaying in the breeze.

My third question is to ask how, in the period following Xi’s coming to power in 2012, the Australian government came to be at the forefront of the China ‘pushback’.

This is not an easy question to answer. There is probably no Cabinet submission or memorandum setting out that this was the stance to be taken.

Rather it has evolved. As early as 2013 Kim Beazley, then Ambassador in Washington, was telling new Foreign Minister Bob Carr that Australia’s commitment to host marines in Darwin, its protests over Tibet and the exclusion of Huawei from the NBN meant that whilst Canberra was not exactly ‘alone in its actions’ it was ‘very prominent’. Around the same time, Pentagon strategist Edward Luttwak wrote a book on China’s rise in which he asserted that Australia was the ‘first country to clearly express resistance to China’s rising power, and to initiate the coalition building against it that is mandated by the logic of strategy’. His primary evidence? The Rudd Defence White paper of 2009. Rudd was supposedly describing himself then as the ‘original cold warrior’ on China.

By 2017 senior Australian officials were already expecting that Australia could, like South Korea, expect Chinese economic coercion to come their way.

At one end of the scale, some spoke of a need to unleash ‘political warfare’ on Beijing as a means of publicly calling out China’s bad behaviour. The intention? To send the message that Canberra knew what Beijing was playing at, that it was not about to cop what the regime was doing to its own people: namely accept economic benefits in exchange for political compliance.

Others began to talk of a contest for ideas in Asia, of Canberra having to strike a balance between Australian political independence and its future prosperity.

Another line being advanced at that time – less ideological yet no less forward leaning – was that the government would have to find an equilibrium in its China policy through a mix of push and shove. That meant laying down markers. And that’s probably the closest explanatory framework for understanding China policy here over the last 4 years.

This evolution of Australia’s China policy awaits sustained investigation. Understanding how it took root is surely one key to charting any kind of new path forward.

But just what shelf-life this ‘pioneering’ Australian China policy has remains to be seen.

Based on his earliest actions – inviting the most senior Taiwanese representative to the inauguration, continuing arms sales to Taiwan and delaying high level talks with China until such time allies are consulted – President Biden hardly looks to need Australia as guide.  American analyst Walter Russell Mead has said these constitute the ‘most aggressive concatenation of moves against a foreign power that any peacetime US administration has ever launched so early on’.

Some in Canberra will see it as ongoing vindication for Australia’s stance. And it does seem clear that momentum for coordination with others in pushing back against Beijing, such as with Japan in the East China Sea, is only building.

But it’s also not clear that, should more serious costs eventuate from continued Chinese coercion, America can throw much Australia’s way if it is still bunkered down in its dugout, shouting.

That’s not an argument for retreat, but it is a call to make Australian diplomacy and statecraft less tethered to Alliance management and mobilised much more smartly to prosecute the nation’s distinctive interests in this part of the world.


There is no magic bullet on the horizon to fix relations at the political level. It’s not clear what the incentive is for Beijing to keep punishing Australia other that, as I said earlier, to treat Australia as a kind of tethered goat that can be fiscally whipped as an example to others; it’s also not clear the Australian government has the room to manoeuvre without giving the appearance of caving in. There is little political space in either country to attempt any kind of genuine rapprochement. At the same time, this fallback position of not doing anything is only adding to the confusion.

But one of the most fundamental questions thrown up by Australia’s China debate is whether this country has the courage to see itself as it really is.

Since the early 1970s, Australia has been one of the most successful and harmonious multicultural communities in the world, even if, as in the early 1980s, during the Hanson debate of the late 1990s and at Cronulla Beach in 2005, we saw some of the smouldering resentments of the old Australia emerge.

The China debate shows that it seemingly takes little to let loose a slew of old fears and prejudices and that revive older anxieties and bring back the ugly face of racial prejudice.

An ugly xenophobic cat has been let out of the bag. Consider that members of the Chinese-Australian community are now having their loyalty impugned in the most harmful, hurtful and destructive way.

We now have figures like Senator Eric Abetz engaging in the crudest kind of McCarthyism. Junior members of parliament on both sides of politics, unable to transcend their own juvenilia, put wolf-claw mark stickers on the doors of their offices to prove their toughness on China; backbench MPs create lurid videos of the Chinese taking over the country; a former head of ASIO say that we will one day wake up to find that decisions are being made in our parliament over which we have no control; think tanks plaster covers of their reports with 1890s style images of prowling dragons; the ABC regularly publishes maps of the Australian continent being smothered by an incoming red tide, and a coterie of journalists, self-appointed as the watchmen on the walls of freedom, opine that Australia might well give up its independence to a fascist state.

The differences in values between what the Chinese communist party represents, and what we cherish here in terms of freedom, diversity, openness and tolerance are of course stark. They are, indeed, elemental. The thought of a region dominated by an authoritarian great power such as this is not at all desirable for Australia. It focuses the mind. We should not write off America’s capacity to regenerate even if at the moment it is institutionally sick and struggling to come out from under the Covid rock. Equally, like it or not, we are going to have to manage our relationship with China. As former foreign minister Gareth Evans said in the wake of the Tiananmen massacre in 1989, ‘despite our abhorrence, Australia may have to deal with the new Chinese leadership for some time. Unlike Europe, Australia cannot walk away from China. Whether for good or ill, China will remain one of Australia’s most important foreign policy and trade concerns. These realities…need to be addressed regardless of who governs China’.

Yet all of this is not simply the result of a heated debate. It’s also consistent with a deep-seated grievance at the perceived loss of a national essence – the very same kinds of laments driving Brexit, the coming of Trump and any number of populist nationalist poseurs in Europe, Latin America and elsewhere. In Australia it might be argued that China is driving a new insularity in the Australian outlook.

This is especially important to grasp as we approach the centenary of the Second World War commemorations.  Some of the Anzackery that pervaded the centenary of the Great War will need to be avoided, such as the tendency towards package tour patriotism, to treating the pilgrimage to foreign fields as a backpacker’s picnic. The War Memorial in Canberra, a place of quiet, humble solemnity, should not be turned into a kind of Disneyland for the diggers, with live crosses to ADF training exercises. What, I wonder, would Charles Bean think of that? The government gives $500 million to the War Memorial as the National Library is closing down its East Asia Collection, and as the National Museum and National Archives struggle. Anzac cannot be allowed to become a cult of uncritical veneration, one which loses a sense of the gravity of what occurred at Kokoda and Milne Bay, for example, or from understanding the vociferous and clumsy diplomacy in the 1930s which played its own part in the lead up to the Second World War.

It is only right and altogether proper that we mark the service of those like my grandfather who fought in the Pacific during the Second World War. It’s right too that we remember and respect the ultimate sacrifice paid by so many, especially those in the POW camps and the death marches.

But it should not derogate from the occasion itself to wonder aloud whether John Curtin would have approved of marking it.

I’m not convinced that he would have approved. Curtin once said that ‘war is hell’. He knew that Australians had to fight for their liberties on foreign fields, but he was passionate too about fighting for those liberties at home. He did not wish to be ‘manacled to the blatant screamers of loyalty’, and he grew more and more frustrated at the tendency of the debate over foreign and defence policy in the 1930s being reduced to catcalls across the parliamentary chamber about who was more ‘loyal’ to Britain.  

Earlier in his career, when still a trade union leader and journalist in Perth, Curtin had reflected on the effect of the First World War on Australian society and culture. He bemoaned the loss of national self-confidence, of ‘individualising ourselves’, as he put it, in harmony with true ideas of progress, of battling our own way onward and discovering what destiny had in store for us…’

We were developing a patriotism of a natural and rational kind. We loved Australia for many reasons…it was our homeland. To the true Australian there was ever – and still is – the glamour of mystery and attraction covering our great plains, our hills and our gullies clothed with noble eucalypts, our wide stretched deserts of barren vegetation, but often rich in useful minerals, and the long wash of the Australian seas – these all woke echoes of an affection which is the genesis of true patriotism.

It is that depth of affection for the country and an enthusiasm for its well-being – not the crudity of a narrow nationalism lamenting a lost past – that might be borne keenly in mind as Australia continues to grapple with a rapidly changing international environment.

Thank you.