Academic journal article Arena Journal

Politics, Independence and the National Interest: The Legacy of Power and How to Achieve a Peaceful Western Pacific

Academic journal article Arena Journal

Politics, Independence and the National Interest: The Legacy of Power and How to Achieve a Peaceful Western Pacific

Article excerpt

I am honoured to be asked to make this speech. During the turbulent years of the 1970s, few people would have believed that Malcolm Fraser would be delivering a Gough Whitlam Oration. Politics is a hard business. The opposition of one party to another can become toxic. We have had this demonstrated to us all too often in recent years. But it does not always have to be this way. By any standards Gough Whitlam is a formidable political warrior. He has inspired an undying loyalty amongst his supporters. He is an historic figure who has made a significant impact on the life of Australia. He had grand ideas, many of which left their mark on Australia and a number of which were embraced by the following government. Others have survived despite the opposition from the other side of politics. He was the first Australian prime minister to recognize China. As Australian prime minister he had the confidence and knowledge to recognize the distinct national interests of our country. He established ground-breaking enquiries into land rights for Aboriginal Australians and also over a number of environmental issues, where reports were later implemented by my government. As political antagonists we had substantial differences, but as Australians we had shared interests and concerns.

This is not the place to traverse the politics of the mid-1970s. I doubt very much if Gough Whitlam has changed his view of those times. For my own part if I were confronted with the same issues, the same circumstances, I would still go down the same path. But distance does also give a sense of perspective. In the mid-1970s we were told the supply crisis was more grave than any other that had beset Australian democracy - that the divisions would be permanent. The conflicts of 1975 were intense, but the passions have dissipated. I believe there are many Australians who welcome the fact that the two chief protagonists in the political battles of those times have established a good relationship, a friendship and respect for many of the things for which we both stand. I believe we have recognized that those policies and attitudes, on which we have, if not a common but a shared view, are more important than the issues that divided us.

The Whitlam Labor government ended the final legal remnants of the White Australia policy.1 The symbolism of this has been fundamental. It terminated a policy that had been eroded over the postwar years. One significant act with later implications for the White Australia policy was taken in 1954 when Robert Menzies signed on to the Refugee Convention. In March 1966, Hubert Opperman as Minister for Immigration, made a speech which effectively nullified the practical impact of the White Australia policy. Anyone who reads that speech will see that it is couched in guarded terms. It was the Whitlam government who crossed the symbolic bridge of publicly ending the White Australia policy.

The great post-war immigration was a major step on the road to a multi-racial Australia. Initially it was racially based, with Arthur Calwell reflecting a political consensus when he said that he wanted the great majority of migrants to come from Britain. That desire was never realized. Political and economic refugees, in their tens of thousands, sought to flee Europe. The political parties of that time recognized that an Australia of seven million people was not defensible. Our nation had to build, to invest and grow as rapidly as our resources would allow. This meant a migration program that would come from many countries other than Britain. When we began our major immigration policy we were very largely an Anglo-Saxon Irish community, a narrow and somewhat bigoted country. That had to be set aside. But in reality it would have been very easy to arouse the racism or exacerbate sectarian feelings which were still strong. The immigration program needed bipartisan support. It achieved that bipartisanship.

Both the government and opposition knew that Australia was embarking on a great adventure in nation building. …

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