Thank you for that introduction.
It’s a pleasure to return to the John Curtin Prime Ministerial Library at Curtin University, a most fitting venue for the launch of Curtin’s Empire.
Thank you, James [Dr Curran], for inviting me to do so.
I was pleased, in March 2010, to announce James as the 2010 recipient of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade's Fulbright Scholarship in Australia-United States Alliance Studies. That this book is in part a result of his hard work in the Fulbright program only confirms my view at the time that he was a worthy recipient.
Ambassador Beazley – who as we all know is an authority on these matters – encouraged me to accept James’ invitation to launch this book, describing James as “a lovely bloke and a very good diplomatic historian”.
Ambassador Beazley, however, well knows that when it comes to Curtin, an Australian Labor Party Minister for Defence from Western Australia scarcely needs encouragement.
Curtin is a hero both to Western Australians and the Labor Party.
His influence on successive Labor Governments – the Chifley, Whitlam, Hawke, Keating, Rudd and Gillard Governments – has been profound.
James makes this point more generally.
Curtin’s memory and his influence are powerful, and the public discussion about his legacy continues.
It will be sparked again by the publication by Cambridge University Press of this book.
But there is agreement on some essential points:
On any analysis, John Curtin was a great Australian Prime Minister. Indeed, one of our greatest.
John Curtin was also a great Australian Defence Minister, whose tenure by war’s end saw Australia with the world’s fifth largest navy and fourth largest air force.
As both a wartime Prime Minister and a wartime Defence Minister, Curtin shouldered great responsibility on behalf of our country.
In his December 1941 Call to America speech, Curtin encouraged Australia to think through problems itself and to apply an independent and creative approach to international challenges.
He articulated a clear-eyed vision of Australia's place in the world, supporting a new global order based on international law and setting the stage for our Alliance relationship with the United States.
Curtin led Australia through a world war and helped shape Australia's post-war public policy, on both the foreign and domestic fronts.
He was emotionally torn by the tragedy of the war, but was pragmatic, hard-headed and clear-eyed when it came to protecting and defending Australia's national security interests.
This required Curtin not just to stare down enemies, but friends as well. It required complex, subtle and nuanced responses not just simple ones.
Curtin forged a close and essential relationship with the United States, one that has matured into the friendship and the Alliance that we see today, an Alliance that has been adhered to by successive Australian Governments, and one which today could not be stronger.
It remains the cornerstone of Australia’s defence, security and strategic arrangements.
But in Curtin’s Empire, James shows us a further, important side to Curtin’s story, one just as inspiring and salutary to us today.
He traces Curtin’s struggle to forge a practical new framework for Australia’s security in the face of terrible peril.
He shows us the ambiguity and frustration that Curtin experienced.
He explains how Curtin negotiated the parallel demands of Australia’s history and Australia’s strategic imperatives.
And he describes the process of improvisation and invention that flowed from this.
This was a process that saw Curtin drawing upon Australia’s historical strengths and assets as part of the British Empire and seeking to apply these to an unpredictable and dangerous world.
Or in James’ own words to me when inviting me to launch the book, “why Curtin wanted to reinvigorate the concept of imperial defence and how he thought the Empire could be made to work better to protect Australian interests”.
James has thrown a spotlight on documentation which supports a view that Curtin’s turning to America was much more complex and arduous than these days we might sometimes appreciate.
Or as Ambassador Beazley himself wrote to me: “as the war progressed, one of the manifestations of Curtin’s determination to control as much of Australia’s external environment as we could was to seek mechanisms for reviving the old imperial defence system. In the course of his efforts, he got the Labor Party Conference of 1943 committed to the idea that the imperial defence system should be revived with the caveat that its writ in the Asia Pacific region should largely be controlled by Australia and New Zealand….. All this is outlined more effectively than I could do in James’ work.”
It is this struggle and process of invention, in addition to its consequences for Australia, that remain important to us today.
It is important because Australia must continue to make its way in a dynamic region and a changing and challenging global world order.
The Asia-Pacific region has changed much since Curtin’s time.
Australia has greatly benefited from the Asia-Pacific region’s long period of peace, security, stability and prosperity.
We owe this in part to the United States, its enduring presence in our region, and its network of Alliances and partnerships, including with Australia.
We owe this in part to the creation and growth of regional institutions like ASEAN and its related forums, institutions that continue to build habits of dialogue and cooperation in the region.
But we also owe it to the efforts of successive Australian Governments, following in Curtin’s footsteps and legacy, to shape Australia’s strategic environment in cooperation with our regional partners.
Australia’s contemporary, comprehensive relationship with China, for example, has been underpinned by the Whitlam Government’s early recognition of the People's Republic of China in 1972.
The Hawke Government push for APEC’s establishment in a rapidly growing region built consensus around open markets, trade and investment.
The Keating Government elevation of APEC to a Leaders-led organisation consolidated APEC as a driving force for economic growth and prosperity in our region.
Since coming to office, the Rudd and Gillard Governments have both advocated the need for a regional Leaders’ meeting which can consider both strategic and security matters, as well as economic matters, with all the relevant countries of our region in the same room at the same time.
That’s why we very much welcome the entry of the United States and Russia into the East Asia Summit this year, and why Australia so strongly supported the inaugural meeting of the ASEAN Plus Defence Ministers Meeting in Hanoi at the end of last year.
John Curtin, living in a very different time and looking out to a very different region, would not necessarily have foreseen the detail of these developments. But he would recognise the judgments about Australia’s national and national-security interests that lie behind them.
He would recognise the process of argument and advocacy, of setback and progress, inherent in defining and advancing our national security interests amid the Asia Pacific Century.
We continue to look to John Curtin for the example he set on such important matters of national interest.
James has shed further and intriguing light on Curtin’s challenges and his leadership within the context of that struggle to maintain and enhance the national security interests of Australia and its people.
For that we thank you and we wish Curtin’s Empire, now duly launched, every success.