Australia’s greatest prime minister gave this commitment to the US during our darkest hours of World War II (March 14, 1942): “Be assured of the calibre of our national character. This war may see the end of much that we have painfully and slowly built in our 150 years of existence. But even though all of it go, there will still be Australians fighting on Australian soil until the turning point be reached, and we will advance over blackened ruins, through blasted and fire-swept cities, across scorched plains, until we drive the enemy into the sea. I give you the pledge of my country.”
John Curtin’s fiery words say much about our wartime prime minister. More significantly, they contribute to demolishing the myth that Labor governments have been anything other than commanding on our national security, especially in times of threat and tension. The record speaks for itself.
At the outbreak of the Great War in 1914, Labor leader Andrew Fisher, who had opposed Australian involvement in the Boer War, spoke eloquently of the nation’s commitment to confronting the Central Powers of Germany and Austria-Hungary “to our last man and last shilling”. No hesitation and no qualification.
Fisher caught the imagination of a newly emerging nation that soon would perform heroically. The words of Fisher and Curtin still speak for Australians everywhere. Few would argue that Curtin’s performance as wartime prime minister was not exemplary. The mobilisation of Australian people and resources to defeat the Axis powers set benchmarks that still stand the test of time. In particular, turning his back on his opposition to conscription during World War I, Curtin led the ALP to change its position for the Pacific War. A classic case of courage: grace under pressure.
In two world wars and the UN intervention in Korea, Australia earned a reputation as a thoroughly reliable ally in the West’s response to aggression. This is underlined by prime minister Bob Hawke committing Australia very early to the UN effort to expel Iraqi leader Saddam Hussain’s forces from Kuwait in 1991. As a matter of fact, a Republican American president in George HW Bush had “no better friend” than this Labor prime minister.
But well beyond the two world wars, Labor leaders have addressed issues of national security with firm and astute leadership on a recurring basis. There is an excellent example in Ben Chifley’s creation of ASIO. The early Cold War years were marked by widespread penetration by Soviet agents of the Western powers. Australia was not immune.
The British Labour government under Clem Attlee argued forcefully that Australia should create an equivalent of the British MI5 or the American FBI. The arguments persuaded Chifley, who responded by creating ASIO. A Soviet spy ring had been identified by Western cryptanalysis as originating in Canberra. ASIO’s creation was the Australian response, and its headquarters in Canberra are appropriately named after Chifley.
Whether it be in war or peace, Labor governments in Canberra routinely have acted to defend and protect the national interest and have been prepared to take the critical decisions that are necessary. Sometimes these prove unpopular. For good reason, Labor opposed Australian involvement in Vietnam, and history has borne out the accuracy of its assessment.
Moreover, in government the ALP has been at pains to modernise our defence frameworks and alliance relationships. Perhaps the best example is to be found in Kim Beazley’s determination during the Hawke years to be as open as possible about the role of the joint facilities, especially Pine Gap, in keeping the peace.
Along with a review of ANZUS, Beazley made clear that Pine Gap was essential in monitoring for rogue missile launches and for communication with the US. It was Beazley who shared the knowledge that in the event of such a rogue launch, directed at the US, the American president in all likelihood would be briefed by an Australian officer at Pine Gap. The US would be given about 30 minutes extra to prepare for an incoming missile and to reply.
Beazley always was inspired by Curtin’s example and had difficulty talking about the wartime prime minister from Western Australia without becoming emotional.
Now Anthony Albanese as the new Labor Prime Minister has taken an excellent decision in travelling to Tokyo for a meeting of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue partners: Australia, the US, Japan and India. This sends the right signal to our allies and partners, especially the US and Japan, and this is reflected in the warmth of President Joe Biden’s words to the Australian Prime Minister.
Albanese appears to be seeking to follow in the tradition of Fisher, Curtin, Chifley and Hawke. He deliberately has elevated national security as a core issue of his government. He was criticised for taking new Foreign Minister Penny Wong to Tokyo immediately after they had been sworn in at Yarralumla. The criticism was cheap and foolish. Australia’s interests were best served by a senior Australian presence at the Quad meeting. It is a good start for a new government.
The truth is that no Australian political party has a monopoly on national security competence, though some conservatives claim this. Such rhetoric is hollow. Such posturing distorts our history.
For more than a century Labor governments in Canberra have tended to our national security needs with energy and understanding. Our alliance relationships, beginning with Curtin’s open letter to Franklin D. Roosevelt in December 1941, have been carefully cultivated and deepened. This is what is happening with the Quad at this moment.
The greatest strength of ANZUS is that it is widely regarded by the Australian community as being bipartisan, and long shall this remain. Hopefully the Quad and the AUKUS security pact with Britain and the US will attain similar dimensions. Both sides of the aisle in Canberra should appreciate this reality. Debates on our national security, in the words of legendary US House Speaker Sam Rayburn, should “stop at the water’s edge”.