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Wednesday, 11 August 2004
Page: 26127

Senator EGGLESTON (12:51 PM) —The former President of the United States of America, Ronald Reagan, passed away on 5 June 2004. Today I would like to make some observations about the man who I think deserves the title of peacemaker of the latter part of the 20th century. Those Australians born after 1980 probably do not remember very much at all about the Cold War. These days, with the United States of America as the world's sole superpower and with a cooperative and peaceful Russia, it is hard to imagine a time when we had two mutually suspicious and hostile superpowers—the United States and the communist Soviet Union—facing off against one another. It was a time when we had a world that was composed of two diametrically opposed camps—the free Western world and the communist bloc—and when we had an `iron curtain' dividing Western and Eastern Europe which had been in place since the end of World War II.

Such was the secretive nature of these communist regimes in Eastern Europe that we could never be entirely sure what was going on, and it was only after the end of the Cold War that the true nature of the horrors which characterised their countries became widely known. The communist bloc, which was claimed to be a workers' paradise but was in practice anything but, was a world eerily reminiscent of George Orwell's prophetic novel 1984, with its omnipresent Big Brother syndrome.

The communist bloc was composed of a series of totalitarian, one-party states, each without any respect for the human, political or civil rights of the individual, in which all manner of vile human rights abuses could be justified on the basis of being for the collective good. It was a world that had no respect for individual freedom, that tolerated no dissent and where the population was kept in check by a brutally repressive state apparatus, and those who refused to follow the rules risked a late night visit from the secret police to be `disappeared' or sent off to a prison or a psychiatric hospital. It was a world of central planning, where market forces were held in contempt and where the ordinary population endured chronic shortages of everyday necessities, but where, remarkably for a supposedly classless society, the party hierarchy enjoyed a life of rarefied privilege.

Let us bear in mind George Orwell's Animal Farm as a metaphor. By the end of the novel, the pigs had become indistinguishable from the repressive human farmer that they had helped to banish from the farm. The slogan `four legs good, two legs bad' had by the end of the novel metamorphosed into something completely different: `four legs good, two legs better'. One of the seven commandments, `all animals are equal', had been perverted in a classic case of the doublespeak that characterised communist regimes and became `all animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others'.

The threat represented by the Cold War was only too real. Every day the world faced the possibility of a deadly nuclear conflagration. In a world with two superpowers, each with their finger on the nuclear trigger, just one small mistake could prove fatal. In the case of nuclear war, there could have been no learning from mistakes. In the nuclear age it is a truism that there is no room for mistakes, because the first is the last. Just one mistake would have brought thousands of intercontinental ballistic missiles raining down from the heavens on the United States of America, the Soviet Union and their allies, including Australia. Australia would undoubtedly have been a nuclear target, with the north-west radio base, the Harold E. Holt base and other places in Australia being targets for nuclear weapons. A nuclear holocaust would have occurred which would in all likelihood have spelt the extinction of life on earth, certainly of all human life.

This was the high-stakes environment in which President Ronald Reagan assumed office on 20 January 1981. As it happened, I was in East Berlin as a tourist in July of 1980 and was disturbed by the drabness of the city, the long queues of sad looking people outside shops and the grey, bullet-pockmarked buildings which had remained untouched since the end of World War II. The only colour in the city was in the form of huge banners proclaiming the people's thanks for their liberation by the forces of the Soviet Union nearly half a century before. Given that it was so many years after the end of World War II that these banners were still on display in the streets, there was a sense that the whole of East Berlin had been caught up in some kind of weird time warp.

My bus driver warned repeatedly that were Ronald Reagan, that well known enemy of the working class, to be elected President of the United States of America, the world would face nuclear disaster. How wrong that old communist bus driver proved to be. President Reagan was a Republican, an avowed anti-communist and a champion of freedom, liberty and democracy. His eight-year presidency was to alter the course of the Cold War and change the world for the better. As another old Cold War warrior, former United Kingdom Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, observed—

Senator Abetz —A great lady.

Senator EGGLESTON —Senator Abetz has observed that Margaret Thatcher was a great lady, and indeed she was. A few years ago, Margaret Thatcher observed in relation to Ronald Reagan that he won the Cold War without firing a shot, and that was in fact the case. Ronald Reagan's policy of peace through strength hastened the collapse of the communist bloc and accelerated the end of the Cold War. President Reagan identified the stagnation of the Soviet Union's economy and the fact that it had fallen behind the USA technologically as the Achilles heel of the communist empire. Reagan's response was to ramp up the pressure on the Soviet Union via an arms race, knowing full well that it would economically cripple the Soviet Union. Between 1981 and 1986, President Reagan increased the defence budget of the United States by over 50 per cent, from $178 billion to $367 billion.

On 8 June 1982, President Reagan addressed the British parliament and said:

In an ironic sense Karl Marx was right. We are witnessing today a great revolutionary crisis, a crisis where the demands of the economic order are conflicting directly with those of the political order. But the crisis is happening not in the free, non-Marxist West but in the home of Marxism-Leninism, the Soviet Union. It is the Soviet Union that runs against the tide of history by denying human freedom and human dignity to its citizens. It also is in deep economic difficulty. The rate of growth in the national product has been steadily declining since the fifties and is less than half of what it was then.

Reagan went on:

The dimensions of this failure are astounding: a country which employs one-fifth of its population in agriculture is unable to feed its own people ... Overcentralized, with little or no incentives, year after year the Soviet system pours its best resources into the making of instruments of destruction. The constant shrinkage of economic growth combined with the growth of military production is putting a heavy strain on the Soviet people. What we see here is a political structure that no longer corresponds to its economic base, a society where productive forces are hampered by political ones.

However, President Reagan was no inflexible ideologue, as my East Berlin bus driver had thought. Although in 1983 he had derided the Soviet Union as the `evil empire', he reached out to the Soviet Union when Mikhail Gorbachev came to office in 1985. These two presidents had a series of summit meetings, culminating in the signing of an intermediate nuclear force treaty in 1987 which eliminated an entire class of nuclear weapons. On 12 June 1987, President Reagan stood at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin and called on Mr Gorbachev to tear down the wall which separated East Berlin from West Berlin. He said:

General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization: Come here to this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!

It was in November 1989 that the Berlin Wall finally came crashing down. In many ways, President Reagan's greatest achievements occurred after his presidency had ended. In 1989 the communist bloc imploded and, in the space of 10 months, freedom was achieved in six countries. It was at the end of 1991, after Reagan had left office, that the Soviet Union collapsed, spelling the end of communism in eastern Europe and bringing the Cold War to a close. Following Reagan's death, Mr Gorbachev paid tribute to him. He said:

I deem Ronald Reagan a great president, with whom the Soviet leadership was able to launch a very difficult but important dialogue ...

He continued:

Reagan was a statesman who, despite all disagreements that existed between our countries at the time, displayed foresight and determination to meet our proposals halfway and change our relations for the better.

Apart from his foreign policy achievements on the domestic front, Ronald Reagan was renowned for his optimism and is credited with restoring American pride after the grim toll in American lives from the foray into South-East Asia in the sixties and seventies. President Reagan was an unapologetic proponent of the free market and small government, lending his name to `Reaganomics'. His extensive tax cuts, the largest in American history, brought the top marginal rate of taxation down from 79 per cent to 28 per cent and played a major part in ensuring a sustained period of economic growth in the United States.

President Reagan was underestimated for most of his presidency. He was derided as being a simpleton, too old and a mere B-grade actor. He was renowned for his ability to connect with the American people, to the extent that he became known as the `great communicator'. In fact, for many years before and during his presidency, Reagan reached out to people all over the United States with a weekly radio broadcast to which literally tens of millions of Americans tuned in. In these broadcasts Reagan espoused his version of American philosophy and values, which grew out of his small town, middle-American background and which obviously resonated with his countrymen. The great esteem in which he was held by the American people was evident by the many thousands of them who visited his coffin as it lay in state in Washington and who lined the streets during his funeral.

Undoubtedly his most significant contribution to the world was to hasten the collapse of the communist bloc and accelerate the ending of the Cold War. President Reagan helped to bring the world a sense of peace and security, unknown for nearly 50 years, so that today we can live in a world no longer under the constant threat of nuclear annihilation. President Reagan well deserved the epithet of peacemaker.