In Kerry O’Brien’s ABC1 four part documentary Keating: The Interviews, the former Labor treasurer and prime minister presents himself as the great moderniser of the Australian economy. There is much truth to this claim provided it is remembered that Paul Keating was not the only politician advancing this cause. Important contributions were also made by the likes of Labor’s Bob Hawke and Peter Walsh and the Coalition’s John Howard and Peter Costello.
However, on some issues Keating is disturbingly old-fashioned. On Remembrance Day last week, he was invited to address the Australian War Memorial on the 20th anniversary of the establishment of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Keating was prime minister on November 11, 1993 and delivered a notable oration on this occasion, which he prepared with Labor speech writer Don Watson.
To use a well-worn phrase, last week the former prime minister exhibited more front than Mark Foy’s – or Myer’s in Melbourne parlance. He used the platform provided by the Australian War Memorial, an occasion which remembers the 60,000 Australian dead in 1914-18 to declare that “the war was devoid of any virtue”.
Sure, there was considerable tension in Europe before the outbreak of hostilities in 1914. Yet one fact is incontestable. What was called the Great War began when Germany conquered neutral Belgium and invaded France.
In 1914 only the pacifists and some revolutionary socialists, for differing reasons, believed that Imperial Germany should get its way with respect to France and Russia. Yet, about 99 years after the guns began firing on the Western front, Keating has declared that the war was devoid of any virtue.
Keating believes that the First World War “arose from the quagmire of European tribalism; a complex interplay of nation state destinies overlaid by notions of cultural superiority peppered with racism”. Nonsense.
As a one-time successful politician, Keating knows that the leadership in Britain had to make a decision in August 1914 – one that was unrelated to tribalism or cultural superiority or racism. It was this: should the Kaiser and his armies be allowed to conquer France and Belgium? Or should Britain with the assistance of its then dominions, support France and take a stand against German militarism?
Then there is Australia’s support for Britain. According to Keating, “we had no need to reaffirm our European heritage at the price of being dragged into a European holocaust” but “we returned to Europe’s killing fields to decide the status of Germany, a question which should earlier have been settled by foresight and statecraft”.
Not so. In 1914-18, it was not the status of Germany that was an issue but rather the status of Belgium and France. Moreover, this was not merely a European conflict. Germany had possessions in the Pacific. Britain’s defeat at the hands of Germany during the First World War would have dramatically changed the nature of Australian society and probably have resulted in the overturn of representative government in Australia.
In 1914, no significant group thought that Australia was fighting what were later called “other people’s wars”. Not the Liberal government, led by Joseph Cook. And not the Labor opposition, led by Andrew Fisher – who became prime minister in September 1914. Certainly Labor split over conscription in 1916, but Labor never adopted the view that the resistance to German aggression – in the northern and southern hemisphere alike – lacked virtue.
On economic policy, Keating was in the forefront of reform. Yet as a historian, his isolationism resembles that of one-time Labor leader Arthur Calwell (1896-1973) who never got over his experience as an opponent of conscription during the Great War.
At the Australian War Memorial, Keating said that “young Australians can no longer be dragooned en masse into military enterprises of the former imperial variety on the whim of so-called statesmen”. This is a meaningless statement. The Australian Imperial Force in 1914-18 was a volunteer army.
Keating seems to retain an Oh! What a Lovely War interpretation of 1914-18 in which the Allied politicians and military leaders of their day were fools and the Germans misunderstood. Very few historians hold this view today.
In the conclusion of Broken Nation: Australians in the Great War, Joan Beaumont reminds her readers that in 1914-18 Australians chose “to fight in the defence of core national values” and that “these values may at times have to be defended far from Australian shores”. Perhaps Dr Beaumont should be given a speaking gig at the 2014 Remembrance Day ceremony at the Australian War Memorial.
Gerard Henderson is Executive Director of The Sydney Institute.