In April, 1967, Australian Prime Minister Harold Holt wrote to his British counterpart Harold Wilson telling him Britain was about to make an error of historic proportions by completely withdrawing its military forces, and thus British influence, from east of Suez. Holt had just returned from an extensive visit to South-East Asian countries and said a new Asia was emerging. He predicted: “the next century will be the century of Asia”. Holt repeated the same sentiment later that year in his Alfred Deakin Lecture, warning Australians: “There is no turning aside from our geography.” The day before he drowned at Cheviot Beach on Sunday December 17, 1967, Holt told his press secretary Tony Eggleton to prepare a conference for Monday where he would argue: “Asia is going to be the powerhouse of the future. Britain and Europe don’t understand this.”
John Howard uses these anecdotes in a chapter titled “Holt’s Asian Century” in his new book The Menzies Era: The Years that Shaped Modern Australia (HarperCollins) to make the point that forty-five years before Julia Gillard called her 2012 White Paper Australia in the Asian Century, his Liberal predecessor had defined Asia’s significance for our future.
Howard’s critique of the Left’s claims to own all the positive directions of our history reverberates throughout his book. He makes a frontal assault on leftist myth-making wherever he finds it. Indeed, he relishes the role of history warrior:
Few distortions of Australia’s history since the end of World War II have been as frequently promoted by those of the left of the political spectrum as the argument that Asia was all but ignored by Coalition governments, especially those of the Menzies years … In its more extreme form this representation of Australia’s relations with Asia since World War II has it that modern Australian history started in 1972, with the election of the Whitlam government, and that until then all had been a sorry chapter of colonialism and identification with Western imperialism, heavily overlaid with racism.
Howard is well justified in this stand. Gillard’s White Paper had audaciously claimed: “Australia’s economic integration into Asia has accelerated over the past four decades. Steps to open up the Australian economy began in the 1970s with landmark tariff cuts in 1973.” The White Paper made only a passing reference to our 1957 Agreement of Commerce with Japan.
Howard’s book gives this agreement its due historical significance by tracing the process, which began under the first Minister for External Affairs in the post-war Menzies government, Percy Spender, to make Australians recognise the significance of their continent’s location. In March 1950, Spender told the House of Representatives: “No nation can escape its geography. This is an axiom which should be written deep into the mind of every Australian.”
His successor, Richard Casey, was equally prescient. As early as 1954, less than a decade after the end of the Second World War, and in a government containing a significant number of returned servicemen still bitter about Japan’s treatment of Australian POWs, Casey urged his colleagues to use trade to help rebuild the Japanese economy. His motives were partly commercial since Japan’s textile industry was re-emerging as a major purchaser of Australian wool—by far our biggest export earner at the time—and partly strategic, to discourage Japan from falling into the post-war orbit of Chinese communism.
Trade Minister John McEwen subsequently took up the cause and spent three years publicly campaigning about its benefits to the Australian economy. In July 1957, with Japan promising to buy 90 per cent of all its wool from Australia duty-free and Australia reciprocally reducing tariffs on a range of Japanese manufactured goods, McEwen signed the commerce agreement with the Japanese Prime Minister, Nobusuke Kishi.
Sections of Australia’s manufacturing industry and news media were strongly opposed. The Sun-Herald in Sydney headlined: “Jap Trade Storm. ‘Flood’ of Goods Feared”. But the most bitter resistance came from the Labor Party. Opposition leader Herbert Evatt claimed cheap goods produced by sweated Asian labour would swamp the Australian market, undermine local jobs, and “destroy Australian industry”. Labor maintained its opposition to the treaty for several years, despite ample evidence refuting Evatt’s predictions of massive job losses. Howard is scathing about the so-called progressive party’s reaction:
The Labor Party in the second half of the 1950s had no conception of the nation’s altered trading environment … Labor’s position on this issue owed everything to its continued subservience to the unions, which demanded adherence to a narrow protectionist line for the manufacturing industry, even at the cost of developing a trade relationship of huge long-term benefit to Australia.
Howard observes that another major trade pact was signed in 1957, the Treaty of Rome, which launched the European Economic Community. It signalled the eventual end of British imperial preference for trade with its dominions. Had the commerce agreement with Japan not been concluded when it was, thereby allowing Japan by 1967 to surpass Britain as our biggest export destination, the painless shift from one major trading partner to another could not have happened.
Howard’s narrative skills on this topic are impressive. He manages to turn this story—in less adept hands a dull account of a commercial treaty—into a dramatic page-turner. Howard’s departure from government has seen him emerge not only as an accomplished political author, but a very popular one. The Menzies Era deserves the same success as his earlier, best-selling autobiography, Lazarus Rising.
I don’t have the space here to go into all the telling revisions Howard makes of the history of the Menzies years, but last month’s memorial service for Gough Whitlam provided several examples of the myths and errors of the received version which his book demolishes.
For instance, Whitlam was not the founder of the Australia Council in 1972, as the eulogists Cate Blanchett and Noel Pearson presumed. Harold Holt established the Australia Council for the Arts in November, 1967. His successor, John Gorton, appointed Nugget Coombs its first chairman, with Geoffrey Dutton, Barry Jones and Quadrant’s Peter Coleman as board members. Whitlam’s principal role was to turn it from a government body into a statutory authority.
Whitlam did not dismantle the White Australia policy in 1972. Instead, in March 1966, just six weeks into the term of Harold Holt’s government, his Minister for Immigration Hubert Opperman did more than anyone else to bury the policy by openly removing race as a criterion for entry to Australia. Whitlam’s Racial Discrimination Act of 1975 simply consolidated the successive, incremental reforms of previous Liberal ministers.
It is also worth mentioning here something that Howard’s book discusses only briefly, but which questions Noel Pearson’s eulogy. Without Whitlam’s Racial Discrimination Act, Pearson said, there would never have been any Aboriginal land rights in Australia. This is not so. After his referendum in 1967 giving the Commonwealth the power to make laws for Aboriginal people, Harold Holt created the Council for Aboriginal Affairs and appointed Nugget Coombs, Barry Dexter and Bill Stanner to its board. This trio presided through successive political regimes, including the Whitlam government, to implement the program they devised for land rights and remote communities. In the groundbreaking campaign for land rights, it was the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs in the McMahon Coalition government, Peter Howson, who in June 1972 persuaded leaseholder Vestey’s to excise Wattie Creek from its vast Northern Territory cattle run for transfer to the Gurindji people. All Whitlam did was perform the handover ceremony. It was the long-time Liberal Party adviser Bill Stanner who recommended Whitlam perform the memorable symbolic act of pouring earth through the hands of Gurindji elder Vincent Lingiari. The first Commonwealth land rights legislation was passed not by Whitlam but in 1976 by the Coalition government of Malcolm Fraser.
Whitlam did not introduce free university attendance in 1972, as Cate Blanchett thinks. Howard records the Menzies government began paying university fees of scholarship holders in 1951. State governments also offered university scholarships to teacher trainees. By the mid-1960s the majority of students at university held either a Commonwealth or Teachers scholarship, which not only paid their fees but gave them a means-tested living allowance as well, thereby opening up university education to gifted children from low-income families.
Menzies knew the importance of all this. He was a scholarship boy himself, the fourth child of poor shopkeepers in the remote Victorian town of Jeparit. He owed everything to his education. Howard records that, at his final press conference in 1966, a journalist asked Menzies to name his proudest domestic achievements. One of the two he chose was support for universities. In 1957, when the head of the committee Menzies appointed to transform higher education, Sir Keith Murray, gave him his final report, the Prime Minister’s parting words struck a melancholy but still positive note:
I have been almost thirty years in Australian politics. I have not found them very rewarding, but if I leave the Australian universities in a healthy state it will have all been worthwhile.