As readers of The Interpreter may have heard, I've just launched a revised second edition of Men and Women of Australia! Our Greatest Modern Speeches.
As I've argued before, foreign policy is Australia's area of speechmaking underperformance. Too often, Australian foreign policy speeches are workmanlike rather than profound. They have content but not much flair. However, the pickings are much richer if we broaden our perspective from foreign policy narrowly-defined to Australia's place in the world more broadly.
In a two-part post, I'll nominate ten great speeches about Australia's place in the world. These first five cover the period from Federation to Vietnam (transcripts for selections 1 and 2 are not online, but all of the speeches selected here are featured in the book):
1. Vida Goldstein, 'You will soon be citizens of no mean country', London, UK, 17 June 1911
Australia was in the front rank of nations when it awarded (most) women the right both to vote and to stand for the Commonwealth Parliament in 1902. In subsequent years, Australian suffragists tried to coax their British cousins down the same path: our parliament passed resolutions recommending the policy, and our activists carried the word to the UK in person.
The most prominent of these women was Vida Goldstein, who organised an international contingent to march with 40,000 others in a 1911 suffrage procession through London. Goldstein gave a rousing speech at Royal Albert Hall at the conclusion of the march, urging the Brits to follow our lead in awarding women the right to vote. 'I know that you will soon be citizens of no mean country', she concluded.
2. Billy Hughes, 'It is the duty of every citizen to defend his country', 18 September 1916
Billy Hughes was prime minister for most of the First World War, earning the affection of Australia's soldiers and the sobriquet 'The Little Digger'. In 1916 Hughes became concerned by the depletion of Australia's military strength through the appalling casualties of the Western Front, and was converted to the cause of conscripting Australians for service overseas.
His speech to a monster public meeting in Sydney in September 1916 created immense (though ultimately inadequate) momentum for the conscription cause:
Nearly three hundred thousand men have enlisted. Why should some take on their shoulders the burden that belongs to all? If life be such a sacred thing that no government or no individual has a right to lay hands upon it, why should these three hundred thousand be chosen to die, that we may live, unmolested, allowing the roll and thunder of battle to pass over us undisturbed? This war must be brought home to every man and woman in this great Commonwealth of Australia. If voluntaryism fails, the war must not fail. The interests at issue are too great. Australia must do her part. It may be that voluntaryism will save us; but if it does not, then we must still be saved.
3. John Curtin, The Battle of the Coral Sea speech, 8 May 1942
Towards the end of a slow sitting day on 8 May 1942, Prime Minister John Curtin rose and announced to the House of Representatives that battle had been joined in the Coral Sea, to Australia's north-east, between Allied forces and a Japanese naval task force seeking to capture Port Moresby, the capital of the Australian territory of Papua. The address was short in length and spare in language, which added to the drama of the moment.
Old hands regarded this as Curtin's finest speech, especially its closing moments:
I ask the people of Australia, having regard to the grave consequences implicit in this engagement, to make a sober and realistic estimate of their duty to the nation. As I speak, those who are participating in the engagement are conforming to the sternest discipline and are subjecting themselves with all that they have – it may be for many of them the last full measure of their devotion – to accomplish the increased safety and security of this territory. In the face of such an example I feel that it is not asking too much of every citizen who today is being defended by these gallant men in that engagement, to regard himself as engaged in the second line of service to Australia. The front line needs the maximum support of every man and woman in the Commonwealth. With all the responsibility which I feel, which the government feels, and which, I am sure, the parliament as a whole shares, I put it to any man whom my words may reach, however they may reach him, that he owes it to those men, and to the future of the country, not to be stinting in what he will do now for Australia. Men are fighting for Australia today; those who are not fighting have no excuse for not working.
The Battle of the Coral Sea was the first significant setback suffered by Japan and many now regard it as a turning point in the battle for Australia. It was also a turning point in our relations with the US, and underscored the prescience of Curtin's statement in the Melbourne Herald of 27 December 1941 that 'Australia looks to America, free of any pangs as to our traditional links or kinship with the United Kingdom'.
4. Robert Menzies, 'A spirit, a proud memory, a confident prayer', 26 June 1950
Prime Minister Robert Menzies told a British diplomat that the purpose of this speech to the Adelaide chapter of the Australian Institute of International Affairs was to 'restore the Commonwealth relationship to its proper place in the forefront' of Australian foreign-policy thinking. Menzies was sceptical of the UN, in which former external affairs minister HV Evatt had put such faith, preferring an interests-based approach and especially close relations with Britain and the US, Australia's 'great and powerful friends'.
The British Commonwealth is more than a group of friendly powers. It is more than a series of concerted economic interests. It is and must be a living thing – not a corpse under the knives of the constitutional dissectors. It would be the tragedy of our history if what began as a splendid adventure and grew into a proud brotherhood should end up as a lawyer's exercise. When the Commonwealth ceases to be an inner feeling as well as an external association, virtue will have gone out of it.
5. Arthur Calwell, 'I offer you the sure and certain knowledge that we will be vindicated', 4 May 1965
In response to Prime Minister Menzies' 1965 announcement that Australia would send an infantry battalion to Vietnam, Opposition Leader Arthur Calwell laid out Labor's opposition to Australia's participation in the war in a finely argued parliamentary statement. The party politics of the Vietnam War were, in fact, strikingly similar to the party politics of the Iraq war nearly forty years later. In both cases a Coalition government sought to shrink the US-Australia alliance to the dimensions of a single conflict, while a Labor opposition argued that the war was inimical to the interests of both countries. Calwell's remarks laid out Labor's case in plain English, argument upon argument. They were anti-war without being anti-American, and were substantially vindicated by history.
Here is Calwell's rousing conclusion:
May I, through you, Mr Speaker, address this message to the members of my own party – my colleagues here in this parliament, and that vast band of Labor men and women outside: the course we have agreed to take today is fraught with difficulty. I cannot promise you that easy popularity can be bought in times like these; nor are we looking for it. We are doing our duty as we see it. When the drums beat and the trumpets sound, the voice of reason and right can be heard in the land only with difficulty. But if we are to have the courage of our convictions, then we must do our best to make that voice heard. I offer you the probability that you will be traduced, that your motives will be misrepresented, that your patriotism will be impugned, that your courage will be called into question. But I also offer you the sure and certain knowledge that we will be vindicated; that generations to come will record with gratitude that when a reckless government wilfully endangered the security of this nation, the voice of the Australian Labor Party was heard, strong and clear, on the side of sanity and in the cause of humanity, and in the interests of Australia's security.