John 'Black Jack' McEwen - Reclaiming his Legacy

It is a great honour to rise tonight on a day where some history has been made in this place with the historic signing of the trade agreement between Australia and China. Tonight I too want to talk about history, the history of the National Party, or the Country Party as it was called. 

This year, 2014, marks 80 years since 'Black Jack' McEwen, or John McEwen, was first elected to parliament. He was first elected as the member for Echuca on 15 September 1934. I want to speak of him tonight not just because of that anniversary but also because the Page Research Centre, the National Party's think tank, has republished John McEwen's autobiography, which was originally published in 1980.

At the time only around 200 copies were printed. I think that was quite a shame. I remember buying one of these books at a Lifeline book fair in Canberra for $2. Apparently, I got it at a bargain price because of the limited number of copies published. I thought it was a disgrace to have that out of circulation, something as important as an autobiography of a former Prime Minister. For a long time, I felt that we needed to do something about it. I did nothing for a long time until around Christmas last year, when my wife and I retyped it and put it in an e-book. Finally, we were able to convince the Page Research Centre to help republish it. It is great that it is out now and hopefully will remain in our nation's records.

McEwen was an amazing person. He served in the other place here for more than 36 years as a member for three different federal seats. He was a minister for around a third of the first 70 years of this nation as a Federation and had a remarkable influence on the development of that nation. He was Prime Minister for a very short period—22 days—after the death of Harold Holt, but he was Acting Prime Minister for 550 days over his career—almost a year and a half.

I think that that record means that it is very important that we have a written record of what he did and achieved. The fact that only 200 copies were originally printed has contributed, I think, to something of a distortion of John McEwen's record and legacy. His name has been variously used to promote or detract from certain policies, particularly protectionist policies, and he is no longer viewed as a man or someone of different hues and colours; he has become just a symbol for a set of ideas—for protectionist ideas.

When you look at McEwen's record and legacy and what he said, he is not just a two-dimensional figure of protectionism. Indeed, in John McEwen's first speech to parliament, in 1934, he said that our export industries:

... have to regain the overseas markets which they have lost largely as a result of the national policy of protection. I admit that the people of Australia have always supported a protective policy, and that, while we are entitled to disagree with that policy to a certain extent, we must submit to a decision reached by an overwhelming majority of the people

So, very clearly, from the start McEwen only adopted protectionist policies because other parties in this parliament adopted them and there was no way of changing them. Indeed, the second-oldest party that still remains in this parliament, the Nationals or Country Party, is the only party that was formed for the ideas of freer trade. In 1920—the very first year of the Country Party—the trade minister at the time, Walter Massy-Greene, proposed substantial increases in tariffs. It was the Country Party who stood against those increases, unsuccessfully.

In 1934, the Country Party made a condition of forming a coalition government with the United Australia Party that tariffs be removed on 465 items of machinery. That was to help farmers reduce their costs and avoid the increased costs of protection that often fall on our agricultural and mining sectors. Overall the Country Party at the time had more losses on free trade than victories, so it adopted the maxim, 'If you can't beat them, join them,' and thus was protection all-round given birth to.

It was not just the Country Party, the Liberal Party, the predecessor to the Liberal Party or the Labor Party that were supportive of protectionist policies at the time; people now forget that most Australian economists had that view too. Indeed, probably Australia's most famous economist, Colin Clark, bemoaned that fact in 1962 when he said that economists had taught:

… the current of popular protectionist sentiment and have avoided the unpleasant task of having to educate public opinion out of its prejudices …

So, in my view, we should be very careful not to condemn John McEwen for tactics that he used on the battle ground that he found himself on, especially when he did not choose that battle ground. He did not choose to be fighting specifically for protection; what he did do, though, was choose to support and protect what he called the wealth-producing industries of our nation. He spends quite a bit of time in his autobiography talking of those: in his view, the agriculture, mining and manufacturing industries, which export goods and produce wealth in this nation to allow us to buy other things and also buy public services. That was his ultimate goal. That was the end for which he wanted to achieve things. We should judge him on his success in achieving those objectives, not on the specific tactics that he had to use to do so at the time. He was very much a product of his times, as we all are.

He was quite successful in meeting those goals and objectives. Today, we have signed a historic agreement with another nation to our north. He showed incredible courage and foresight to drive the push for a trade agreement with Japan in 1957. That agreement was struck just 12 years after the end of World War II and just 12 years after Australia saw fully the impact of the great abuse of Australian prisoners of war during that war by the then Japanese Imperial government. Just a decade after that, McEwen was driving an agreement with that nation within cabinet—often a sole battle without the wider support of the RSL and definitely without the support of the Labor Party. That agreement has served this country well in the 50-odd years since it was signed, and we would not be the same nation today if it were not for that.

Some people say that, because of his protectionist policies, McEwen blackmailed the cabinet or he blackmailed the Liberal Party to support coalition policies. That is not true either. It was the policy of all major parties to support protectionism. Indeed, John McEwen was a coalitionist first and foremost. People forget that in the 1930s he was kicked out of the Victorian Country Party for forming and joining a federal coalition government, but he felt that a coalition government was the best way to achieve things.

He once described the Liberal Party as the Country Party's 'political blood brothers'. He went on to say:

There seems to be a view in some quarters that all we have to do is sit on the cross benches and tell the government what to do. That is ludicrous. It doesn't work that way.

That is advice that we could all still use today: it does not work that way. We have seen in the last few years how government to the highest bidder works and how disastrous it can be for our nation. We have always had the most successful governments in this country where there are people willing to work together towards common goals, not trying to buy each other off based on who can offer the greatest price at the time.

I said earlier that John McEwen was very much a product of his times. As history recedes, the other thing that we forget is that the generation of leaders in the 1950s and 1960s went through the crucible of the Second World War. John McEwen was right there at the forefront of that. He was a member of the War Cabinet for part of the war, and also a member of the wider Advisory War Council in the Curtin government. He saw firsthand that Australia really only could put up a token defence of its nation, particularly early on in the war. People also forget that he played a crucial role in capturing New Caledonia from the Vichy French government of the time, which was very important for the defence of this nation. Because he had seen that firsthand, he wanted to make sure that we could defend ourselves going forward. That was another reason why he supported building up a strong manufacturing base in this country: we wanted to avoid another existential threat.

All of this detail is often lost now. It is often lost 80-odd years since McEwen started his career. It is lost because the people who are writing about John McEwen now often did not know him or certainly do not read firsthand accounts. Hopefully, this new edition of John McEwen's autobiography can play a small role in helping to correct that. It is 80 years since his election. I think it is certainly time that his story is told in his own words.

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