Wednesday 08 Apr 2020 | 23:39 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 08 Apr 2020 | 23:39 | SYDNEY

Freudenberg, Churchill and Australia


Graeme Dobell

3 July 2009 14:34

It is a rare writer who can inject the proper level of politics into an account of geo-politics. Graham Freudenberg’s life experience as a journalist and political insider means he can perform the trick, as shown by his Lowy speech and interview.

Strategists, military types and historians can lay out the problems and the plans, the campaigns, the movement of forces and the battles. Often, they stir in fine accounts of the personalities of leaders and generals. But sometimes the crucial political dimension doesn’t fit easily into the narrative – the way domestic politics shapes and defines the strategies and decisions of leaders.

All this is a round-about way of  underlining the must-read nature of  Graham Freudenberg’s Churchill and Australia. As with all good history, it offers a window on today as well as yesterday. (The Freudenberg themes of alliance and Australia’s great power interests offer a broad framework to assess Paul Keating’s Curtin speech.)

Freudenberg produced one of the best written Australian political biographies on his old boss, Gough Whitlam. He surpassses that achievement with Churchill. The inspired lens of Australia’s relations with Churchill allows Freudenberg to sweep across the first 60 years of Australia’s history as a Commonwealth.

He offers the reader history deeply rooted in the slow birth of Australia’s geopolitical awareness, told with the insight of one who spent his life amid the political maelstroms of Canberra and Sydney. This is the book of writer who devoted his pen (and typing fingers) to the service of the Labor Party. He understands how politicians work and talk and do their deals.

Not least, Freudenberg gets the politics right in the struggles of various Australian leaders – especially Menzies and Curtin — with Churchill. As an aside, Freudenberg opines that Churchill’s favourite Australian leader was Billy Hughes, because they were both buccaneers. Churchill sought to set his place in history by writing that history, and Freudenberg does a good job at deflecting or defusing some of the slights and backhanders Churchill delivered to Australia in his history of World War II.

The relevance of this book is in the way it relates Australia’s big strategic debates to their political roots. The argument about defence priorities may change its labels, yet the essential dilemma persists. For a period, it was Forward Defence versus Continental Defence. These days, the same argument rages between the globalists and the regionalists.

Freudenberg offers another window on one of the seemingly eternal dividing lines of Australian politics. The conservative political parties always bang the drum loudest for the Empire or the alliance. Labor always finds it easier to stand closer to the continental/regionalist end of the debate. Freudenberg points to the different instincts of the two sides in describing Australia’s military myopia in the 1930s: ‘In essence, the Australian conservative parties had no defence policy except loyalty to the Empire, while the ALP had no defence policy upon which it could unite except defence of White Australia.’

Curtin could not publicy confront the gathering geo-strategic storm. The Labor leader’s responsibility was to hold together a party that had a distressing ability to self-destruct. As Freudenberg so elegantly judges: ‘The ALP had received such terrible blows, and inflicted so many on itself, that its mere survival was marvel. The conscription split (in WW1) had twisted its soul, the Depression had broken its heart and the legacy of the Russian Revolution...had clouded its intellect.’

So many of the arguments get recycled. Consider the idea of Australian military contributions to the alliance as an insurance payment for future help to Australia. Here it is, expressed in this piece of Parliamentary oratory: ‘If England’s quarrels are not to be ours, when are our quarrels to be hers?’

The words are from Australia’s first Prime Minister, Edmund Barton. But they were uttered in 1885 when Barton was speaker of the NSW Parliament. The debate was about whether NSW should send a volunteer contingent to Sudan to confront Islamic fundamentalists responsible for Gordon’s death in Khartoum.

Freudenberg’s analysis of the political cost to Menzies of Churchill’s magnetism is masterful. The book elegantly captures the politics and the logic of the Party machinations that killed Menzies’ Prime Ministership in 1941. As a long-time denizen of the Federal Parliament, Freudenberg has a sharper feel for the political assassination of Menzies than is offered by AW Martin in his magesterial two volume biography of Menzies. After being knifed by his colleagues, Menzies left centre-stage with one of the best-ever exit lines of Australian politics, saying he would ‘lay me down and bleed a while.’

In capturing Churchill’s complex view of Australia, Freudenberg captures the blood and the tears, the love and the loathing.

Photo by Flickr user DarkB4Dawn, used under a Creative Commons license.