Chapter 8 - Empire Control of an Empire War

Posted in The Forgotten People

A great debate has been taking place this week in the House of Commons on various aspects of the war, and in particular on the extent to which it is possible to set up representative machinery for joint control.

You will have noticed that in the course of a notable speech, full of characteristic vigour and a refusal to yield to either fear or clamour, Mr Churchill indicated that he was prepared to give to Australia and New Zealand and to any other dominion desiring it, a limited form of representation in the British War Cabinet, the representative having the right to be heard but not the right to join in the making of decisions. In other words, the dominion representative will listen, discuss, and report back to his own Government. Such a scheme has its merits - great merits - but it stops short of full participation by, for example, Australia in the British War Cabinet.

Unfortunately, a good deal of the discussion of the last few days has been clouded by misunderstanding of Australia's point of view. To listen to some people you would think that Australia - as yet untouched by any enemy shot or bomb - was suffering from a wave of fear and was sending out a sort of S O S to the world. To listen to some others you would think that Australia, whose war effort, notable as it has been, stops far short, man for man, of that of the United Kingdom, was full of resentment against the United Kingdom for not having done for us in the past few years things that we were apparently unwilling to do for ourselves. To listen to others again, you would think that the supreme proof of good Australianism is to conduct all your discussions with Great Britain not only publicly but with galleries full of applauding onlookers.

Quite frankly, I denounce all these views as not only thoroughly un-Australian, but as inimical to the best interest of Australia and of the whole Allied cause in this war. Australians are none the less good Australians because they are unhesitatingly British, and there is no reason to doubt that they will meet whatever attack comes to them with the same courage as that displayed by the many millions of people in Great Britain who have known bombing and attack as almost their daily and nightly portion for a long period of time, during which many of us in Australia have lived happily and peacefully in the sun, and have been able to go regularly to the races and the football.

The real problem which has been under consideration this week should therefore be looked at without any of these absurd accompaniments of exaggeration and excitement which have disfigured some of the speeches of some of the partisans.

I believe that the logically perfect thing in this war would be an Empire Executive sitting in London, and full Empire participation in a Pacific Executive sitting in Washington. I say this because I believe that the voice of Australia is a voice entitled to consideration and respect, and because I am a great believer in personal contact and personal discussion. Discussions "inside the family" should not be conducted for the benefit of the neighbours. They should occur in a family conclave, face to face.

I notice with regret that there is a tendency in the last few weeks for ill-informed persons, either in print or over the air, to suggest that my own Government simply said "yes" to whatever the British Government might have put forward. This is utter nonsense, as the world will learn if and when the communications between Governments can be published. But I confess that when I had occasion to put the strongest views direct to Mr Chamberlain and subsequently to Mr Churchill on various matters affecting Australia I did not feel called upon to rush out and announce either that I was doing it or what I was saying. As the Prime Minister of this country, I should have resented the Prime Minister of Great Britain publicly announcing what he was privately cabling to me, and I did not see why the rule should not operate both ways.

Incidentally, of late there have been constant references to what is understood to be an entirely new system by which the Prime Minister of Australia communicates direct with the Prime Minister of Great Britain and the President of the United State.

Now, the constitutional history of our own country is, even under the present urgent circumstances, of great interest to us, and its contemporary facts might as well be accurately stated.

It is no new thing for the Prime Minister of Australia to communicate direct with the Prime Minister of Great Britain. To my own knowledge Mr Lyons did it many times when he was Prime Minister. Equally, I did it many times myself, both with Mr Chamberlain and Mr Churchill, by direct Prime Minister to Prime Minister cables, without the intervention of the Dominions Office, without any red tape or circumlocution. (I should tell you at once that Mr Curtin himself has not in any way claimed that any such communications are novel, but some of his more ardent followers have apparently imagined that they are.) Again, a direct communication between the Prime Minister of Australia and the President of United States is not novel. For all I know, my predecessor engaged in it. I certainly did on at least one notable occasion in 1940, when France was on the point of collapse.

If any Australian imagines that any Prime Minister of this country would allow circumstances of precedent or red tape to stand in the way of the most direct statements to other people by him, that person is a stranger to the whole modern tradition of Australian Government.

Now, you will be able to make up your own minds as to what you think of this latest move towards giving Australia a representative voice in Empire councils. I may perhaps best help you by sketching very briefly the existing machinery, and I do this because it is far from being well known.

How does the Government of the United Kingdom, engaged in some international discussion, obtain the views of Australia? How does Australia obtain the views of the Government of the United Kingdom?

In various ways. Each day - I am speaking now particularly of the period of the war - the Secretary of State for The Dominions interviews the High Commissioners for the various dominions. He informs them of the discussions that have taken place by the War Cabinet and of the despatches received and sent by the Government. He invites their views. They give them, and he gives his. This is a most useful proceeding, and would be much more useful if the Dominions Secretary were a member of the War Cabinet, which by some curiosity of illogicality, he is not.

Each day the Dominions Office sends circular cables to all the dominions, giving current official news, and almost every day special cables are sent to special dominions about problems which particularly concern those dominions.

While all this is going on in London, each dominion has at its capital a High Commissioner from the United Kingdom. At Canberra we have Sir Ronald Cross, a former British minister of great distinction and ability, and he receives from his Government confidential cables, the substance of which he discusses with the Government of this country.

Periodically, we have the best of all interchanges of ideas when some Prime Minister or minister goes from Australia to Great Britain and meets British ministers on common ground and discusses with them quite frankly problems of common interest.

Now, if you have done me the honour of listening so far, you will at once realize that all this machinery, excellent as it is, is limited by its own nature.

Take the cables. The cable is one of the marvels of modern science and, given the necessary time and space, you can say a great deal in a cable. But the one thing you cannot adequately do by cable is to conduct an argument. The whole thing lacks flexibility. When you receive the other man's cable, instead of seeing him and noting the modulations of his voice, and gathering, as you do, the whole atmosphere of the discussion, you simply have a cold-blooded collection of words put in front of you. With the best will in the world you find yourself saying, "Now, what does he mean by that?" You look at some particular sentence and you say, "Well, that might mean so-and-so, and therefore perhaps I should be guarded in my complete acceptance of it".

These things are the inevitable result of mechanical means of communication.

I tell you quite frankly that when I look back and remember how my distinguished predecessor, Mr Lyons, was abused in Australia because he sent some sort of ministerial delegation to Great Britain practically every year, I almost weep, because if I am certain of one thing, it is this - that these repeated, regular, personal contacts have been the best possible things for Australia and the best possible thing for the British Empire. If Mr Lyons had taken a foolish, parochial view of this problem, the view point of our country would be much less understood at Whitehall than it is at this moment.

But it has been said in London that while Australia would like this kind of personal Cabinet representation, Canada and South Africa are indifferent to it. Well, it is not for Australia to sit in judgement upon the views of either Canada or South Africa. Each of these great dominions has its own problems and its own point of view. Each of them is to be respected and understood by us. But when all the discussion is over we shall go back to the proposition that, whatever they may want - and that is for them to say - we have most urgently desired an effective voice, at the time when decisions are being made, in the place where those decisions will be taken.

This is not to say that we distrust Great Britain. The expression of my views is, above all, not to be taken as lending any countenance whatever to the miserable grumbling which goes on in certain quarters about the British and what the British are doing in this war. Quite bluntly, when we do as much in this war as the people of Great Britain, we shall have some occasion to grumble - if indeed we feel like it under those circumstances.

I am, like most of you, enthusiastically for the British character of this great Commonwealth of ours. But the truth is that this British character will be best maintained by giving all the adult members of the family an effective voice in the family policy. There is nothing anti-family in that; on the contrary, it is the best way to wage a family war against the marauding outsider.

Additional note
Events have moved a good deal since this broadcast was delivered but it is included because it may still have some significance

30 January, 1942