Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
Thursday, 21 March 1957

Mr DOWNER (Angas) .- Mr. Acting Deputy Speaker,along with certain other members of this House, I welcome this opportunity .of expressing my loyalty to Her Majesty the Queen and also my appreciation of the gracious Speech of His Excellency the Governor-General. I am sure that the House is appreciative, too, of the way in which the motion for the adoption of the Address-in-Reply has been moved by our young friend, the honorable member for Barker (Mr. Forbes) and by our more experienced friend, the honorable member for Wentworth (Mr. Bury). Whatever our party divisions, I am sure all members will agree that seldom in the experience of those who have been here for some years have we heard two maiden speeches delivered with such aplomb and which have, at the same time, contributed so promisingly to the thought and to the future debates in this chamber.

Both of these gentlemen in their respective ways are men of considerable experience. The honorable member for Barker follows our late lamented and distinguished Speaker, a man whom so many of us admired but, of course, a man in some degree of unconventional habits. I have had the pleasure of knowing the new member for Barker for a number of years and I think that in some respects - in very welcome respects - the House will find that if he will not prove exactly a reproduction of his predecessor, at least he will exhibit, as his career unfolds, some of the late Mr. Speaker Cameron's individuality and, if I may say without offence, unpredictability. But I am sure we all are glad to see him here and, as a fellow South Australian particularly, I wish him well.

There has been a lot of discussion tonight on the amendment moved by the Opposition to this Address. The honorable member for Yarra (Mr. Cairns), not unexpectedly, devoted his speech to a consideration of housing and to the exposition, in part, of some of his well-known socialist theories. There will be other opportunities later in the session, as the Prime Minister (Mr. Menzies) has promised, for a debate on the economic situation, and I do not propose to discuss this part of His Excellency's Speech or the amendment to-night.

I should like to direct the attention of the House to that part of the Governor.General's Speech in which his Excellency mentioned the wish of Mr. Macmillan, the British Prime Minister, for another meeting of Commonwealth Prime Ministers consequent upon his conference with President Eisenhower at Bermuda. The whole subject of Commonwealth relations should give profound thought and anxiety to all members of this Parliament. Everyone welcomes the advent of constituents of the colonial empire to nationhood. After all, that has been England's goal for the last 100 years, despite all the propaganda and all the misrepresentations about the alleged evils of colonialism. We rejoice in the accession of Ghana only so recently. 'We know that Malaya will be next. We hope, too, that in the years to come others will follow. But let us hope that these evolving countries, having obtained independence, will remain in the association, and that they will continue to acknowledge the Queen as sovereign.

I am all in favour of a broad-based Commonwealth, but I feel we should insist on a Commonwealth that means something, not merely an aspiration for community of thought and interest, which in fact does not exist. The Queen, as we know, is the focal point, but what is the future of a position where some acknowledge her merely as head of the Commonwealth, while others, such as ourselves, owe her allegiance as sovereign? Can there be a lasting Commonwealth without community oi interests, without economic ties, without agreement on the main lines of foreign policy? I doubt it. In the last eleven years we have all been too painfully aware of startling instances of divergent policy. One member has attacked every major move of Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand to circumvent communism. We have listened like meek oxen to strictures on Nato, on the Baghdad Pact, on Seato, and, only recently, on the joint United KingdomAustraliaNew Zealand view on Suez. And, sir, this process has progressed to the stage when the question must now be faced: First, what does this Commonwealth mean, and, secondly and following from that, whether any meaning remains for some member nations unless it be only temporary convenience or .self-interest?

I believe that the Commonwealth should signify more than a grouping together of friendly nations. Should it not have more importance than a relationship with foreign, albeit friendly, allies? Yet since the war, as we know, in the broad we have had the spectacle, until the recent regrettable AngloAmerican divergence^ of countries such as Britain, Australia and the United States and those in western Europe exhibiting a much greater unity, a much more common approach to the basic problem of the postwar world, than we have seen exhibited by Britain and at least one influential nation which, surprisingly, still retains Commonwealth membership. If the touchstone of membership cannot be allegiance to the sovereign - and I think it is wise, however reluctant one may feel, to concede this in the interests of as wide a diversity as possible - then at least it ought to be a community of interest and an adherence to the grand design of a common foreign policy. Otherwise, the concept of a Commonwealth will become so rarified as to be meaningless.

This, as I see it, is the danger to-day.' There is so much dilution, so many compromises, so many empty phrases, that the association may cease to possess any true meaning, any real value, for those who are its most fervent upholders. May I remind honorable members of Hans Andersen's charming and rather subtle story of " The Emperor's New Clothes ". No doubt many honorable members have read it, and perhaps some may care to spend a few minutes reading it again. The flattery of the courtiers was so persistent that it became persuasive. The texture of the suit, woven by two dishonest weavers, was so refined that when ultimately the great day dawned, with the magnificent and much-trumpeted ceremonial procession, and His Majesty appeared in the streets, he was seen to be wearing nothing at ail! Unless the member governments are very careful, this will bc the sad destiny of what we call the Commonwealth to-day. In striving to accommodate many diverse policies, conflicting ambitions, irreconcilable philosophies, in pretending that opponents are our friends, there is a danger that the whole thing will dissolve into thin air.

We must try to face these problems honestly and courageously in a harsh, selfish, ungrateful, materialistic world, in which people's minds are still distorted by the impact of the two world wars in our lifetime. For myself, more than anything else in politics, I believe in the Commonwealth, but it must be a cooperative Commonwealth of fact, not just a historical fiction. However much we hope that the emergent colonial states will take their place by our side, and that the large and populous Asian nations now with us shall remain, yet this also must be said: If their ways are not our ways, if their aims are not our aims, if they feel that we are so wrong as one of them continually proclaims, then I say that for the sake of an effective Commonwealth of the future it would be better if a dissident member gracefully retired and continued on its own course, in the full exercise of its own judgment, but without corroding our own joint councils.

There are real perils in continuing along the present path. Only the participants can say whether the 1956 Prime Ministers' conference in London achieved anything of value. I think many honorable members will agree that the communique issued at the end of the talks read like a desperate effort to conceal substantial differences of opinion and policy. The Prime Ministers' conference this year will be more crucial. Since last June there has been the crisis over Suez, we have seen the open hostility of India to the Anglo-French action, and there has been a change of leadership in England. Nor, as we know, is there any settlement of the canal issue, or of the great unrest and the multitude of problems in the Middle East. At this forthcoming conference, adumbrated in His Excellency's Speech, a mere exchange of views, an agreement to differ, another empty communique will no longer suffice. The people of the British world will be looking this time for an inter-woven common policy towards questions such as a speedy settlement of the operation and control of the Suez Canal, of measures to stop the march of communism and other matters vital to our well-being and survival.

Mr Cairns - Does the honorable member intend to get his uniform out?

Mr DOWNER - I can well understand how unpleasant the prospect would be to the honorable member. Sir, we should apply our minds urgently to the underlying problem of Commonwealth integration. Is it wise to leave things as they are? Is it safe in the tempo of contemporary life to allow Commonwealth consultation to evolve in an incoherent and haphazard fashion without any real plan? Honorable members will recall that in the 1920's Lord Bruce, echoing the ideas of Alfred Deakin some years earlier, talked of the creation of an empire secretariat, a concept later revived by Mr. Curtin and, since the war, by a number of members of this House. However attractive these ideas may be, I do not think we can usefully develop them further. South Africa and Canada, to take only two instances, have never supported them, and obviously, a large measure of agreement is essential amongst the partners for the creation of any future scheme.

Sir, Iwould like to suggest to the House and to the Government for its consideration the establishment by each Commonwealth country of a Resident Minister in London. He would, by definition, be a member of the ministry of his own land. He would, hy the nature of his office, be in constant consultation with his cabinet, with the British Government and with other Resident Ministers. It may be objected that this would duplicate the work of the existing high commissioners. I think not. The high commissioners have already acquired multifarious duties, and they are increasing. Honorable members may recall that the retiring Australian High Commissioner in London more than once complained that his title should bc changed to " High Commissionaire ". This division of administration from political and diplomatic functions could well work out to the advantage of both. Moreover, the speed of air transport to-day, with its acceleration in the future, will permit of a Resident Minister returning for a consultation to his own country at least twice a year, and probably oftener. Nothing but a growing mutual enlightenment and benefit could flow from that.

Furthermore, as a Minister, he would be subject, as all Ministers are, to the ebb and flow of political fortunes, and thus in the nature of practical politics, there would be a quicker interchange of representatives than at present with high commissioners occupying a customary term of five years in London.

Again, Mr. Acting Deputy Speaker, I think the House might agree that a Resident Minister could speak more authoritatively in the United Kingdom than a High Commissioner. His voice would certainly be more persuasive on public opinion in the country to which he was accredited. He could possibly, when the occasion arose, attend meetings of the British Cabinet, and a moment's reflection will convince even the most sarcastic of honorable members of the immense value of this in events such as we have just come through. 1 see great merit in the doubling of official representation. After all, you would have two top men instead of one. All these considerations would make for a closer understanding between Commonwealth countries and would avoid the sharp and dangerous divisions, the wrongful lack of consultation between Commonwealth countries which occurred last November over Suez.

I put forward these suggestions tentatively, in no sense dogmatically, in the hope that the Government will consider them in the light of the necessity for improved Commonwealth relationships. Circumstances to-day are forcing us to re-define our attitude on this whole subject. Time is running against us. People are looking to the next Prime Ministers' conference as a step towards a new reality instead of being merely another unconvincing essay in make-believe.

Debate (on motion by Mr. McMahon) adjourned.

Suggest corrections