It’s a pleasure to have the opportunity this afternoon to address the Menzies Research Centre – an institution with a unique role; to both honour the thinking of Sir Robert Menzies, the founder of the Liberal Party, and to continue to explore and develop the principles and philosophies he bought to politics that not only saw him become our nation’s longest-ever serving prime minister, but has seen his creation, our party, the Liberal Party, become the most successful political party in Australia’s history.
I want to talk to you today about two subjects that were close to Menzies’ heart, our economic and our national security, and what we, as Menzies’ heirs, are doing not just to maintain them, but to ensure both are stronger than ever.
But first I would like to talk about Sir Robert.
Twenty-five years ago, in February 1992, Paul Keating used an answer in question time to attack the Menzies era as the years when the Coalition, as he phrased it, “put the country into neutral”.
How wrong can you be?
If there was ever someone with his foot planted firmly on the accelerator, it was Robert Menzies:
- The country shopkeeper’s son turned scholarship boy;
- The brilliant young lawyer who won fame when he appeared before the High Court in the Engineers Case when he was only in his mid-twenties;
- The Victorian deputy premier and attorney-general, then federal parliamentarian – immediately appointed to the frontbench;
- The man who became prime minister on the eve of the Second World War, ruled through some of the darkest days Australia has seen, was forced to resign but took stock, pressed on and became …
- The leader who rebuilt and reshaped the non-Labour forces in this country and took them to success at an unprecedented eight elections and, only then, relaxed;
- The first and only leader of our nation to retire on his own terms.
In the same answer, Keating attacked Menzies for his “cultural cringe to a country which decided not to defend the Malayan peninsula, not to worry about Singapore and not to give us our troops back to keep ourselves free from Japanese domination”.
Paul Keating likes giving lectures on Australian history.
All too often, though, they are more noteworthy for their bombast than their accuracy.
And they are never subtle.
There’s no room in there for light and shade.
All of which means that Keating would fail to recognise one of the greatest paradoxes of the past 70 years.
Robert Menzies presided over the greatest expansion of higher education this country has ever seen.
An unintended consequence of this, however, has been an equivalent expansion in wilful ignorance.
For while most of the young Australians who benefitted from Sir Robert’s wisdom put their new-found opportunities to good use, among their ranks were the baby-boomer radicals who became the pathfinders for the Gramscian march through our institutions; the cultural relativists, post-modernists and post-structuralists for whom fact is fluid and who – naturally – had to turn on the man who had provided them with access to education and make him the target of their propagandistic smears; their rewriting of history, to first establish then burnish their own leftist credentials.
Too often today their distortions pass as fact – and one of their gravest charges is that Menzies put empire, crown and Britain ahead of his own country, even as war in the Pacific loomed.
He did not.
Robert Menzies was a patriot. An Australian patriot.
He was born into what was then the Colony of Victoria.
It and its five sister colonies did not federate to become the Commonwealth of Australia until after his sixth birthday, and even then the new nation clung to the imperial skirt-tails.
But when at the end of his second term as prime minister in 1966, when he retired, Australia stood proudly independent.
It set its own directions.
Thanks to Menzies, these included engagement with Asia through the Colombo Plan – engagement with Asia that was to lead to the formal end of the White Australia Policy under his successor Harold Holt, despite disquiet in Labor ranks and from their colleagues in the union movement.
And in his first term in the Lodge, Menzies always put Australia’s interests first.
From November 1939 Menzies also served as minister for defence coordination.
The Australian War Memorial records in its official notes:
“Menzies did much to set up Australia’s war effort. The official historian of the Australian home front in the Second World War, Paul Hasluck, wrote that Menzies led Australia in undertaking the routine tasks associated with placing the country on a war footing.”
In contrast to the tales of the man falling over himself to toady to the British, the War Memorial’s notes on Menzies continue:
“He oversaw the call-up of militiamen and the recruitment of the Second Australian Imperial Force … Mindful of the Japanese threat, Menzies was not in favour of immediately sending the Second AIF to Britain’s aid. However, when the New Zealand government announced that it was sending an expeditionary force, Menzies followed suit … and the 6th Division sailed for the Middle East.
“Up until mid-1940, the war in Europe was proceeding slowly and the Menzies Government was not yet certain what would be required of Australia. Despite having dispatched troops overseas, his immediate concern was with readying the country for what he anticipated would be a long war. Menzies oversaw the building up of Australia’s material strength and was anxious to complete the country’s organisation for the difficult times ahead.”
It was Menzies’ “concern over Britain’s attitude to the defence of the Far East, particularly Singapore”, the War Memorial’s notes state, that led him to journey to Britain in 1941 “to state his case for support in the Pacific”.
Anne Henderson, in Menzies At War, reminds us of the circumstances he confronted.
The panzers may have stopped at the Channel. The German invasion feared in the late northern summer or autumn of 1940 may not have come. But the Luftwaffe was above British cities night after night, dropping bombs.
Britain was fighting for survival, not only focused on its lifeline of the convoys that zigzagged across the Atlantic in their bid to evade Hitler’s U-boats; but also its assets closer to home in the Mediterranean and the Middle East.
Australia’s security, Malaysia and Singapore were distant concerns to Whitehall.
But they were of the utmost importance to Menzies. So important, in fact, that he stopped in Singapore on his way to London – and arrived in Britain only too aware of its vulnerabilities.
Menzies sought to put these concerns to the British authorities and to Churchill in particular.
His exasperation with the British leader was a result of the outcome of their meetings not part of an attempt to supplant him in 10 Downing Street.
Menzies in World War II sought to stir Britain to strengthen its presence in our region.
He put the legislative and logistical framework that underpinned our involvement in the war in place – replacing a defence capability that had fallen to next to nothing under Labor during the Depression with the highly effective munitions department under the charge of great industrialist Essington Lewis.
He sought to deprive the Japanese of a base just off our northwest shores, sending a force to Timor.
And he dispatched the navy to remove Vichy French bases from the Pacific.
After his retirement, in The Measure of the Years, Menzies wrote of his aims in defence.
“My government’s defence was … to keep any war as far away as possible from our own shores; to provide Australian defence in depth; to help to produce a secure environment for our neighbours with whom we are bound to have a close association as the years go by.”
Menzies saw the risks and responsibilities Australia faced and sought to ensure the nation would be protected.
Today, that task falls to us.
Like Menzies, we are striving to maximise both our economic and national security.
Last year’s Defence White Paper and Defence Industry Policy Statement both highlighted the importance of a strong, sustainable and economically competitive Australian defence sector in delivering our future defence capability.
However, they also went one step further.
The Australian defence industry already enjoys success overseas.
It is a driver of innovation, research and development and economic activity.
The Coalition wants to draw on and expand these accomplishments.
For the first time an Australian government is recognising the sector not just as a fundamental input to our military capability and national security – but as a crucial element in the future of our advanced manufacturing and high-tech industries; a guarantor of national prosperity.
We have placed defence industry front and centre in the government’s vision and agenda for jobs and growth in the Australian economy.
Across the nation industry is making the transition to high-tech manufacturing, embracing the innovation that will drive our continued national prosperity.
This is where the jobs of the future will be created and, with them, the broader growth we need to ensure Australia maintains our position as an advanced economy among the top ranks of nations in the twenty-first century.
We are changing the relationship between the Department of Defence and the Australian Defence Forces and defence industry, involving industry earlier in our capacity development processes so we know just what they can contribute – and so industry is fully aware of opportunities for participation.
As Minister for Defence Industry it is my task to develop and grow the sector into not just a protector of national security into the future, but one of the most important parts of the economy.
This is our great national endeavour.
To achieve this, the Defence Industry Policy Statement spells out how we can deliver the White Paper’s goals through the Integrated Investment Program.
And today I want to focus on a key plank of that Policy Statement and share with you some of the issues we are facing but, more importantly, some of the opportunities that are now there for the taking.
I want to talk to you about defence exports.
Australia’s defence materiel is world standard.
We produce innovative technologies that are amongst the best in the world.
CEA has exported more than 260 million dollars of radar and other products in the past five years, in demand by the US because it’s better than what they produce.
The Australian designed Nulka decoy system, that protects ships from missile attacks, recently saved the USS Mason from attack by Houthi rebels off the coast of Yemen.
The potential here is enormous, yet we have not been as successful with defence exports as we should have been.
Australia ranks 13th in the world for defence expenditure, is the 5th largest importer of defence materiel, but only 20th in terms of our defence exports.
This is an immediate challenge, a key to guaranteeing the success of our great national endeavour.
Defence exports increase the resilience, productivity and capability of sovereign Australian industry while promoting innovation, skills and technological development – not to mention jobs.
Exports lift national income and provide the opportunity for ongoing work in global supply chains.
Exports also provide an international benchmark in technical capabilities and business competitiveness.
Successful defence exporting nations are at the forefront of advanced manufacturing, of innovation and productivity.
Importantly, they need the strong support of governments to succeed.
This is not a concept that is alien to our system of government, its philosophical underpinnings, or our values of free enterprise. Look, for example, at the global success of the British defence sector.
Successful defence exporting nations are also supported by a broader foreign policy and international defence cooperation framework that promotes security cooperation and interoperability.
Think for a moment of one of the many Australian defence companies with a world-class product. They may have made sales to the ADF, or be about to.
Taking the next step, to reach out and sell to export markets, can be daunting.
The overwhelming majority of customers, to begin with, are governments.
Where to start?
How do they approach, say, the United States government and convince them that their product is as good – if not better – than anything produced anywhere else in the world.
Who do they talk to – and even if they open a dialogue and their discussions succeed and result in an order, how to they obtain defence approval from Australia?
I recently wrote to our defence attaches – uniformed, experienced officers from all three services based in our diplomatic missions overseas – asking them to do what they can to help promote Australia as an exporter of defence material, the first time they have received such a directive from a Defence Industry Minister.
Our attaches can perform a valuable role: maintaining and growing networks of contacts, facilitating introductions, being aware of opportunities, all in the context of our diplomatic missions overseas.
But for defence exports, that’s just the beginning.
We are now developing a defence export strategy to maximise the benefits of the White Paper spending and foster and reinforce global perceptions of Australia as a high-tech exporter.
This is an effort that involves more than one portfolio, and I am working with the Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop, and the Trade Minister, Steve Ciobo.
A scoping paper was released towards the end of last year and we are reaching out to industry, successful exporters, state governments and other areas of the Federal government.
You can appreciate some of the issues we need to come to terms with as part of the process.
How do we, for example, ensure a cohesive approach to our defence exports and diplomacy and guarantee the two work together to promote peace and security?
How do we decide what defence materiel to promote overseas?
How do we guarantee it will not be used in any way that might be contrary to our national interests – or that the Australian people might regard as inappropriate.
These are all vexing issues, but I am confident they can be overcome.
In the same way, I believe we will be able to grow an Australian defence industry sector that is largely independent of the ADF for its prosperity.
It will require a long-term effort, but with our record expenditure, the firm foundations we are putting in place and projects such as our shipbuilding plan already mapped out we will be able to succeed.
There are already many significant examples of successful Australian exporters who are leading they way, building a healthy industry and supporting high-tech, high-skill jobs in Australia.
Austal is exporting both Australian manufactured vessels and Australian designs and engineering innovations around the world.
Thales has been a major export successful story while supporting Australia’s defence needs. Over the past decade or so Thales has exported around 1.6 billion dollars worth of submarine sonars, air traffic control systems and Bushmasters to Europe, Asia and the Caribbean.
An export focus is key to the success and growth of any Australian company, and particularly so in defence.
These are only a few examples of the many successes Australian defence industry has achieved, with other, smaller firms making their own unique contributions to the global defence supply chain.
A defence export strategy that can plan, guide and measure defence export outcomes would support our foreign and trade policy, defence industry and defence capability and national security objectives. It would also assist with the task of transforming Australian industry to guarantee future prosperity.
I look forward to delivering this blueprint later in the year.
And in doing so, I hope to continue the work of Sir Robert Menzies.
Menzies was part of a cabinet that had to deal with the immediate consequences of the Great Depression.
As prime minister in his first term, it fell to him to deal with the violence Hitler unleashed on the world with his strike into Poland in September 1939 – mindful all the time of the threat Hirohito’s Japan posed to our corner of the world.
Just a few years later, early in his second term, with the memories of Japanese expansionism fresh in his mind, he was confronted with the menace of the advance of communism, the victory of the Chinese Communist Party in that country’s civil war in 1949, and the invasion of South Korea in 1950.
In the face of all these challenges, despite what the culture warriors and relativists of left may claim, Menzies placed Australia’s interests first – first, foremost and, as his long rule endured, increasingly in the Asian context that underpins our thinking nowadays.
In an analysis of Menzies’ foreign and defence policies written last year to mark the fiftieth anniversary of his retirement, for example, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s Peter Edwards wrote:
“In the case of Confrontation … Menzies and his ministers didn’t simply respond to British pressures, but repeatedly challenged London’s political and military strategies. Their response to requests for military intervention, especially for boots on the ground, was cautious, and balanced by vigorous and independent diplomacy in Asian capitals.”
By the time he called the Canberra conference in 1944 Menzies had seen catastrophic consequences of economic failure and war.
It is why he dedicated his new creation, the Liberal Party, to security and prosperity.
For, as Sir Robert Menzies knew, security and prosperity provide the most fertile soil for the values we Liberals hold closest to thrive: a deep respect for the rights of the individual; for personal liberty; equality of opportunity; a positive but limited role for the state, exercised with caution; and a rejection of extremes.
It is those goals, those values – as well as what Menzies himself described in the very last of his Forgotten People broadcasts as “those unspoiled individual qualities of courage and enterprise and good humour and endurance” – that bring out the best in our nation and our national character, that inspire admiration and affection around the globe.
We must seek to see them prosper, to defend them, every day.