History repeats: Billy Hughes on Japan and now Scott Morrison on China

Dec 28, 2021
scott morrison

Our leaders are uneducated on history. They’re repeating mistakes that had catastrophic consequences for Australia in the Pacific in the 20th century.

This article was first published on September 20, 2021.

In 1919, at the Paris Peace Conference, one of Australia’s most lamentable prime ministers, Billy Hughes, went out of his way to revile the Japanese for proposing that Germany’s colonial territories in the Pacific should be encouraged to become independent.

Subsequently, as one of the architects of the white Australia policy, Hughes unleashed a tirade against the Japanese for proposing that an anti-racism clause be inserted into the League of Nations charter. Japan was deeply offended by Hughes’ interventions and on leaving the conference, declined membership of the League of Nations. This was an important historical lesson on how enmity can result from the short-sighted actions of blundering politicians.

From that moment, Japan began preparing for war. And while it viewed the United States as its primary contender in the Pacific, its humiliation at the Paris conference, largely led by Hughes, led the Japanese to conclude that Australia was a hostile presence in the region. And while it regarded Australia as a regional minnow, cravenly attached to the British Empire at that time, Australia’s overtures to America during the Pacific War amplified Japanese contempt for this country.

If Hughes had kept his mouth shut at the Paris conference, the Japanese would not have had reason to despise Australia as much as it did. And they saw clearly what Hughes was way too stupid to realise, that he was being cynically manipulated by the gang of four who were effectively running the show in Paris (British prime minister Lloyd George, US president Woodrow Wilson, French prime minister Georges Clemenceau and Italian prime minister Vittorio Orland). Hughes did their dirty work designed to exclude the Japanese from the gang of four’s white man’s international politics club.

Lessons from our diplomacy in Asia in the 1930s

What too many of today’s Australian politicians and bureaucrats fail to understand is that Hughes was a major player in provoking the Japanese into its horrific warfare in the Pacific theatre of World War II. In short, he (and therefore Australia) was one of the causes of the Pacific War.

Just over a century later, Hughes is being reincarnated in the guise of Scott Morrison. The parallels between Hughes and Morrison are almost spooky. Under Morrison’s leadership Australia has gone out in front, internationally, to claim that China was the likely cause of the COVID-19 pandemic, implying that it originated in a laboratory or wet markets in Wuhan. It led the world in banning the Chinese IT company Huawei from operating in this country. It has been vociferous in claims that Chinese spies are infiltrating Australian businesses, media, universities, and political organisations, legislating some of the world’s harshest (and probably counterproductive) measures to curb these alleged activities.

The Morrison government has been eagerly complying with provocative American strategies to circle and contain China — for example, by talking up the so-called Quad alliance (the US, Japan, India, and Australia). Under Peter Dutton’s malign leadership, and with Marise Payne’s jejune compliance, Australia defence spending is being scaled up to war-time levels. Talk of war (“the drums of war”) is becoming a crescendo in the inner circles of politics and the bureaucracy in Canberra. The Murdoch media is happily joining in this frenzied blustering and warmongering.

And now we have the bumbling nuclear-powered submarine saga. Morrison has ditched the faltering contract with the French who had promised to build us some sort of submarine fleet, sometime in the future, at quite some cost (a cool $90 billion at last counting). We have now entered an extraordinarily vague agreement with the UK and the USA for a different and smaller number of submarines, of unknown design, and of unknown cost (but probably more than the French were charging), to be delivered at some time in the future, if all goes well. Meanwhile we have to indemnify the French to the tune of possibly $4 billion for welching on their contract.

The similarities between what is happening now and what happened in Paris in 1919 are alarming. Hughes was happy to provoke the Japanese, clumsily and insultingly, because he believed the British, and perhaps the Americans, had his back. He also loved being in the company of the “great leaders” at the conference. He was sure he was one of them, crowing to his supporters back home about his achievements. He was the runt in a house of fighting cocks.

Morrison displays the very same faults. He is already crowing about his achievement in forging a so-called “new” alliance with his “forever friends”. He is stupidly blind to the fact that for the past few years he (and therefore Australia) has been manipulated by the Americans, and now the British, into being their Billy Hughes front man in thumbing their collective noses at China. AUKUS is simply the white man’s burden writ large in the Asia-Pacific and Australia is its silly little cheerleader. And all this will achieve is China’s increasing hostility. Why, oh why, is the Australian public so gullible to believe that an arrangement like AUKUS can ensure its security? It will ensure the very opposite.

The dramatic downturn in relations between Australia and China during the Turnbull and Morrison governments, from a robust trading partnership and benign diplomacy to one of hostility, is an almost exact replica of the souring of relations between Japan and Australia at the end of World War I. Heeding the lessons of history is a mark of true statesmanship. The tragedy is that Australia’s current political leadership, on all sides of politics, appears to have no historical understanding of our past and present foreign relations, especially in the Asia Pacific.

This means we are likely to be heading into a war we could never possibly hope to win. History is about to repeat itself.

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