Wednesday, 21 March 2018
Statements by Senators
I too rise to discuss the health of our democracy but in this case in relation to the enduring value of our liberal democratic allies globally. I was reflecting on the Prime Minister's successful visit to the United States last month and on the genuine warmth and mateship between Prime Minister Turnbull and President Trump. For me and, I'm sure, for others, it was a very timely reminder of the enduring values that have bound and continue to bind our two nations and, indeed, continue to bind Australia with other liberal democratic allies. The strength and value of this particular relationship was reflected in the achievements a couple of weeks ago of an exemption for our steel and aluminium industries from tariffs in the United States, something not achieved by any other nation outside of NAFTA. We're friends with shared values.
It is also timely to reflect that democracy, even here in Australia, is not self-sustaining and can never be taken for granted. Australia is not immune from threats to our democracy. One of them, as Senator Steele-John has just so eloquently described, is that our democracy does rely on citizens' engagement and enfranchisement. The sad fact is that, globally, democracy is on the decline. According to Freedom House's global freedom index, 71 countries last year alone suffered net declines in political rights and liberties. This marked the 12th consecutive year of decline in global freedom and the lowest point for democracy in more than a decade. It has caused me to reflect on the nature of our own democracy, and on what relationships and institutions we need to make sure we keep it strong here in Australia.
It's very clear to me and very clear to many in this place that democracies must continue to deliver both economic prosperity and security. One cannot be achieved without the other, and both economic security and security itself are required for a stable democracy. This means that we must maintain strong relationships with the nations who most closely share our values and with whom we have developed mutual trust and also genuine relationships. Statements last month by both the Prime Minister and President Trump on the enduring importance of global security, free trade and economic growth are reminiscent of the shared values and the relationships between Roosevelt, Churchill and Menzies at the height of World War II. These themes were also reinforced at last week's successful ASEAN Australia summit, which again affirmed the importance of the ASEAN-Australia strategic partnership. It was an explicit reaffirmation of a mutual commitment to rules-based order, sovereignty, economic growth, regional peace and security.
One of the many troubles, I was going to say of democracy, but perhaps I should say of ourselves as a people is that we do not think enough and that we take too many astonishing things for granted.
Then, as in 1942, Robert Menzies could've been referring to a great many issues we take for granted here in Australia. But in this particular address he was referring to what Winston Churchill, the year before, in 1941, had called 'the most unsordid act in the whole of recorded history'. This most astonishing and unsordid act was actually a little known statute, an American statute, called the Lend-Lease Act. It was a very short statute that was passed by the American congress in March 1941 to promote the defence of the United States. The act was integrated by President Roosevelt after a plea from Winston Churchill to the United States, which was a neutral nation at the time, to provide Great Britain with the tools to finish the war. In 1941, Churchill had provided both the moral and economic reasons for the United States' support. This is some of what he said:
The moment approaches when we shall no longer be able to pay cash for shipping and other supplies … if at the height of this struggle, Great Britain were to be divested of all salable assets, so that after the victory was won with our blood, civilisation saved, and the time gained for the United States to be fully armed against all eventualities, we should stand stripped to the bone. Such a course would not be in the moral or the economic interests of either of our countries.
This plea resonated with President Roosevelt—again, the president of a nation still neutral. He came to believe it was in the interests of the United States to support the war effort to defeat the Nazis, without once again saddling allied nations with crippling and politically destabilising post-war debts. Quite astonishingly, this act conferred upon the president wide-ranging powers to authorise the selling, exchanging, leasing and lending of any such defence article to the government of any country whose defence the president deemed vital to the defence of the United States. It also provided the president with post-war powers to determine the terms and conditions upon which payments or repayments were to be made, if they were to be made at all. In the words of Churchill, that was 'astonishing' and one of the most 'unsordid acts' ever: the parliament of a neutral nation giving their president wide-ranging powers to provide billions of dollars of materiel support to other nations, with the power to have it repaid, or not.
As astonishing as this unsordid act was to both Churchill and Menzies, the motives, which effectively ended a decade of United States neutrality, were complex, pragmatic and, ultimately, far sighted, and they still resonate with nations around the world today. President Roosevelt knew Great Britain was running out of money to fund its war effort and, when that happened, the US would have to enter the war to finish it themselves and pick up the tab for post-war reconstruction. The following year, in his lend-lease speech, as part of the 'forgotten people' series, Robert Menzies was also clearly considering what would happen post the world war. He said:
A world war makes us a world nation; not a parochial community, but a world community. Nothing so contributes to peace among men as the maintenance of ordinary, decent commercial relations, and these relations can be restored only by the most liberal statesmanship when the war is over.
What Menzies, Churchill and Roosevelt clearly understood then, at the height of World War II, was that both economic prosperity and security were required for democratic stability. Australia's future, I believe, has always been, and still remains, a shared one with our liberal democratic allies. In a changing global geostrategic environment, I think this is something incredibly important for all of us here in this chamber to remember—a future in which both our economic and security requirements remain inextricably linked with our liberal democratic allies. To endure, our democracy here in Australia has to keep delivering economic prosperity and security for all Australians.
History, I'm sure, will record our liberal democratic alliances as having been an astonishing and far-sighted commitment to the present and to our shared democratic futures, the very astonishing thing that Robert Menzies, in 1942, warned all Australians never to take for granted.