‘Haunted’ Morrison adds more fuel to the Asia-Pacific fire

We now know a little more about the prime minister’s fleeting, but significant references to the 1930s in his speech launching the defence update last week.

But we still don’t know what ‘haunts’ him.

Briefing journalists, it is clear that the speech is important to him. Morrison says that the analogy is intended to shake the Australian people from any complacency about the strategic outlook, stressing that his government would not avert its eyes from a fractious regional environment even as it tackles the herculean task of economic recovery.

Morrison did not intend the reference to be inflammatory – his qualifier that today’s world picture represents the most haunting ‘since’ the 1930s is important: he didn’t say the two periods mirrored each other, or that the end result will necessarily be the same. In any case, Morrison’s China policy to date has been mostly a study in restraint: refraining from exacerbating already fractured ties.

His speech also made the critical point about Australia’s effort to achieve a strategic balance in cooperation with its regional partners. As much commentary makes clear, just whether the fiscal outlay matches the ambition is another matter. The pestilence of technology problems and the plague of introducing new weaponry to existing systems has by no means been eradicated.

Similarly, it is unclear whether the government, by training its sights on the country’s ‘immediate region’, which appears to exclude Northeast Asia, is signalling to Washington that Australian assistance in any future US-Sino conflict over Taiwan, for example, is not necessarily a fait accompli.

Morrison’s invoking of the 1930s does, however, carry risk. First, the reference now drifts into the already toxic currents of Australia’s China debate. Others in the press – here and in China – and in think tanks need no invitation to put a match to this kind of rhetorical kindling. Gung-ho talk of Morrison potentially being a ‘wartime leader’ is one such example, the view that we now need to read up on the imperial Japanese Army’s Pacific war plans, another. Likewise, the baying of backbench China hawks, even if irrelevant to policymaking, only gets louder. They will claim vindication from such rhetoric. It remains somewhat curious that Morrison allows this group to run amok with their hyperbole.

The second problem is that there is already enough anti-American and anti-China rhetoric emanating from both sides of the Pacific. This is where the comparison with the 1930s is perhaps most apt – since such hot talk tends to generate its own momentum.

The point here is not to nit-pick the unique circumstances of the 1930s being stencilled onto today – Morrison’s Cabinet is making some of the most important decisions in a generation, and in truncated time. He would no doubt agree with Paul Keating, who conceded once that ‘it is not easy in the course of politics to put a detailed view of history, or a view that is accurate in every respect’.

The prime minister must know, however, that the memory of the 1930s, a decade so often siphoned into a single word – ‘Munich’ –  carries its own baggage. Indeed, it has been wielded to justify western military intervention in every major conflict since: Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and both Gulf wars.

Unsurprisingly, too, Morrison presents a highly partisan view of that period, speaking of his regard for Prime Minister Joseph Lyons’ leadership. But does he understand what Lyons got wrong? Lyons, like so many then, had been scorched by the conscription debates of 1916-17. Their legacy meant that foreign and defence policy in the 1920s and 30s could not be debated on their own terms, becoming hostage to domestic political point-scoring and poisonous claims over ‘loyalty’.

Lyons rarely missed a chance to depict Labor as untrustworthy on national security and disloyal to the country’s then-great power protector, Britain. Labor leader John Curtin’s prescient warnings about the folly of relying on imperial defence were dismissed by Lyons as isolationist, anti-Empire babble. Even if Lyons had private doubts about British assurances for Australian protection, he continued to publicly pronounce his faith in empire defence. It meant the psychological shock of Singapore’s subsequent fall was far greater.

What is not clear is whether Morrison grasps where this rhetoric takes him, or if he is aware that the Australian government of the 1930s played no small part in contributing to tensions in the Pacific in that era, adding its own fuel to the fiery rhetoric and hostility that ultimately led to war with Japan. The carelessness of Billy Hughes, British race patriot pride that offended Japanese racial sensitivities, trade disputes that turned into a trade war, along with ill-chosen and incoherent remarks hardly helped becalm a worsening strategic situation.

Nevertheless what is becoming clearer is that the historical memory of that era – or one version of it – retains its vice-like grip on the mental map of leaders. Australia, often forgetful with its history, has a strategic culture sometimes saddled with too much memory. But as historian Tony Judt quipped, memory is a ‘poor guide to the past’.

Every succeeding generation, it seems, fears being the one that was later judged to have fiddled ‘while Australia slept’, to adapt the title of Churchill’s collected speeches about Britain’s unpreparedness for war. The prime minister clearly felt the need to clothe his speech with a pinch of historical spice. But others are already pouring it into a dangerous hotbed of entrenched assumptions and fixed thinking.

This article published in the AFR on 7.7.2020 is posted with approval of the writer.

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James Curran is Professor of Modern History and senior fellow at Sydney University’s US Studies Centre. He is writing a book on Australia’s China debate for New South Press.

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