Launch of two volumes of Australia in the World, covering 1920-1930 and 1931-1936

  • Speech

I acknowledge the Ngunnawal and Ngambri peoples, the Traditional Custodians of the ACT and surrounding areas, and pay my respect to their Elders past and present.

I extend that respect to any Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples here with us today.

And I reaffirm the Australian Government's commitment to implementing the Uluru Statement from the Heart in full – Voice, Treaty, and Truth.

Australia's foreign policy begins with who we are.  

As Minister Wong said in Singapore last year: “at its core, foreign policy is an expression of national values, national interests, and national identity”.

Our identity is both the prism through which we see ourselves and through which the rest of the world sees us.

It is fundamental to shaping our engagement with the world.

Of course, national identity – the way we conceive of ourselves as Australians – isn't static.

Our identity has evolved over time and it will continue to evolve.

Historians like Ward, Stanner, Reynolds, Hughes and Wright have shaped and reinterpreted our understanding of ourselves.

So as a tragic for Australian history, I am pleased to be here to launch these two volumes by Professor Cotton, Australia in the World 1920–30, and 1931–36.

The memorandums, cables, policy briefs and correspondence between early practitioners of Australian foreign policy contained in these volumes illuminate the way the diplomats of this newly federated nation thought about Australia and the world.

In doing so, these volumes highlight the single greatest act of national self-sabotage in our history: the White Australia Policy.

In perusing the more than 2,200 pages in this collection, it is impossible to miss how significantly the White Australia Policy handicapped development of the way Australia thought about itself and the way the world saw us.

It was a conscious national endeavour to shape and define the identity of our young nation in a profoundly damaging way.

The White Australia Policy was a bear trap we attached to our leg in the early years of our nation.

It badly hindered our foreign policy on multiple fronts.

First, it poisoned our relations with our region.

Professor Cotton's first volume in particular shows the way the White Australia Policy coloured every dimension of our engagement with our neighbours.

In a record of conversation between Director of the Pacific Branch in the Prime Minister's Department, E. L. Piesse, the Japanese Vice-Minister for Foreign Affairs, Mr Hanichara, and the Consul-General for Japan, Mr Shimidzu, on Christmas Day 1919, it was recognised that:

“It was the passing of the Immigration Restriction Act [better known as the White Australia Policy], and the discussions to which it gave rise that perhaps first attracted the adverse attention of Japan to Australian affairs”.  

The subsequent discussion of Australian justifications for the scheme mixed confused economics and a peculiar - and uncomfortable to read - fear of miscegenation.

In a memorandum in March 1919, Piesse pointed out that “all Japan is boiling with this cry for racial equality” and yet, in opposing these calls in defence of the White Australia Policy, Prime Minister Billy Hughes:

“[chose] to emphasise the national distinctions between the Japanese and ourselves in a way that could not fail to be offensive”.

In a May 1920 note by Piesse on Australian attitudes to the Anglo-Japanese Alliance, he described Australia's reasons for refusing proposals from Japan as being “centre[d] in the White Australia Policy”.

The handicap of the White Australia Policy didn't just harm our reputation and relationships in the region.

It hurt our own ability to think about, understand and engage with the region.

In a 1934 paper listed in the second volume called “A foreign policy for Australia”, A. C. V. Melbourne, the Chair of the Federal Advisory Committee on Eastern Trade, said that:

“It is necessary to observe that, in Southern and Eastern Asia, Australia policy will be concerned not merely with foreign, but also coloured peoples

…in this way, and for these reasons, a harmful exclusiveness has developed in Australia; which, in its turn, has given birth to an unjustifiable feeling of superiority, to a stupid arrogance, and an unintelligent contempt of all things foreign…

…Indeed, one is almost forced to think that the regulations are sometimes used deliberately in order to affront the people with whom Australia should be trying to develop friendly intercourse.”

The White Australia Policy did not just hurt our reputation and our relationships with the countries in our region.

It held back the natural growth and development of our national identity for decades. 

The second way the White Australia Policy damaged our foreign policy was it made Australia's early forays into multilateralism much more difficult.

It significantly impacted our willingness to enter the League of Nations, the most significant multilateral endeavour of the time.

In the memorandum, referenced earlier, from Piesse about Billy Hughes' engagement with Japan in March 1919, Piesse wrote:

“On the one hand, Japan says she will not enter the League of Nations unless it abolishes racial discriminations; on the other hand, we say absolutely that [Australia] will not enter if the League does abolish them”.

To modern readers, it is extraordinary how our preoccupation with race hindered our early engagement with the most ambitious multilateral endeavour of the day.

Thirdly, the White Australia Policy preoccupied the limited resources and the capabilities of the then Department of External Affairs and its staff.

At a time when Australian officials should have been building connections with our region, they spent their time justifying why the White Australia Policy should continue – inside government and out.

A series of cables, memorandums and radio messages between Piesse, Billy Hughes, Sir George Knowles, the advisor to the Australian delegates at the League of Nations, and Senator Millen is illustrative.

As summarised by Professor Cotton in his first volume:

“To provide a counter to possible Japanese objections to racial discrimination, Piesse prepared a brief on the restrictions placed upon foreigners in Japan. While he defended the ‘domestic' basis of Australia's control of immigration, he also expressed some scepticism of the usual grounds advanced for justifying racial inequalities, and outlined some measures that could be taken to lessen the offence taken in Japan towards restrictions on the entry of Japanese nationals to Australia”.

As Professor Cotton writes, these papers produced an internal flap in the Australian Government.

Senator Millen was “aghast at what he took to be the proposed relaxation of the White Australia Policy and contacted [Billy] Hughes for advice. Hughes was dismissive and advised Millen to ignore Piesse's opinions”.

Piesse was then forced to send a lengthy follow up to the Prime Minister reiterating his support for the White Australia Policy in the most fawning terms.

“My own private views on White Australia are not relevant to the consideration of Senator Millen's message. Nevertheless no one who wishes to be thought a good Australian can be ready to allow of any doubt of his views on our national policy; and the message may be taken to imply a doubt of the soundness of my opinions. Therefore, I ask to be allowed to state on this official paper that I have not a shadow of a doubt that White Australia must be maintained”.

It was, as they say, a different time.

In spite of our own self-sabotage, the pages also offer glimpses of the opportunities that were being missed by the newly federated nation.

In a 1934 report by JG Latham about his Australian Eastern Mission, which he described as “the first mission of a diplomatic character which the Commonwealth of Australia has sent to foreign countries”, Latham said that:

“We had great pleasure in meeting a number of Australian-born Chinese who now hold leading positions in the commercial world of China. Their kindness and courtesy knew no bounds and they could not do enough for us. The largest retail trading concerns in Shanghai (as well as in Hong Kong and Canton) are conducted by these men and are in fact developments of a most striking nature from the parent concerns in Sydney”.

As the Foreign Minister said in London a few weeks ago, confronting these sorts of stories about our own past “can sometimes feel uncomfortable”.

But, as the Foreign Minister went on to say, “understanding the past enables us to better share the present and the future.”

In 2023, we as a nation are far more confident in our identity, our diversity and our position in the Indo-Pacific.

What was once a profound weakness is now one of our greatest national strengths.

Modern Australia looks vastly different to the Australia of one hundred years ago.  

A memorandum in this collection refers to the 1911 Census, which recorded 37,709 people in Australia were of “non-European race”.

Today, there would be more Australians who fit that description in my electorate alone.

Now, more than one in two of us was born, or had a parent who was born, overseas, from all corners of the world.

Australia is home to more than 300 ancestries and the oldest continuing civilisation on earth.

Hinduism is Australia's fastest growing religion, particularly due to migration from India and Nepal.

And Mandarin the is most spoken language in Australian homes other than English.

Our Parliament was MPs with Vietnamese, Chinese-Malaysian, Chinese-Laotian, Tamil, Sinhalese, Afghan and Keyan-Goan heritage.

This would have been unimaginable in the 1920s.

Australia even has a very different set of diplomats featuring in important international affairs roles.

On this International Women's Day, it is worth noting that all the senior diplomats whose correspondence is represented in these volumes are men.

That is no longer the case today.

More than 40 percent of Australia's Ambassador and High Commissioner roles now filled by women.

Through my recent travels, I have had the pleasure of working closely with Ambassador Penny Williams in Jakarta and Ambassador Amanda Gorely in Geneva.

And of course, our Foreign Minister, Penny Wong, who embodies the way Modern Australia is connected to our region, through our people, in a way in which the men in these volumes could never have imagined.  

As the most successful multicultural society in the world, Australia has an amazing story to tell the world about diversity, community and progress.

Our history holds profound lessons about our identity.

About where we've come from and the journey our nation has travelled.  

It might sometimes be uncomfortable, but denying our past denies our greatest strengths as a society and as a democratic system.

Our ability to recognise our past mistakes and to correct our course.

To continue to change and grow.

To become a greater nation today than we were yesterday.

2023 promises to be a year that future historians will look back on as a time of significant progress in our nation's journey.

Australians will have an opportunity to vote in a referendum to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the Constitution with the creation of a Voice to Parliament.

Yesterday, Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Linda Burney, Special Envoy for Reconciliation and Implementation of the Uluru Statement from the Heart, Patrick Dodson, and the Foreign Minister announced the appointment of Australia's inaugural Ambassador for First Nations People, Mr Justin Mohamed.

Mr Mohamad will lead a newly established Office of First Nations Engagement in DFAT.

Detailing and acknowledging our history, so we can show to the world how far we come, remains an important task.

These volumes are an important contribution in that endeavour.

Thank you for inviting me here today, to help launch these two magnificent volumes by Professor Cotton.

Thank you to Professor Cotton for all his work in compiling these important volumes.

And finally, thank you to DFAT for the continued importance it attaches to understanding Australia's place in the world, including through its historical publications.

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