This opinion piece from John Brogden, AICD Managing Director & CEO, appeared in The Australian newspaper on 1 July 2016. A version of this article was first sent as an email to Australian Institute of Company Directors members on 22 June 2016.
After a lengthy campaign unblemished by inspiring oratory, Australia’s best unknown political speech cries out for attention and reflection.
Just months after the end of World War II local orchardist and former RAAF Flight Lieutenant John Grey Gorton was chosen to speak on behalf of local returned men at the welcome home dinner at the Mystic Park Hall in Kerang, rural Victoria.
Post war community events like this took place around Australia. Simple dinners where funds were raised to present small, practical gifts to returned men from local towns and suburbs. At this event in a humble country hall, the Oxford graduate and future Shire President delivered an extraordinary speech.
“We did not go to war to make a new and better world. We cannot expect to make a new and better world as the result of the exercise of brute military force. We can only expect to achieve the kind of world we want by the use of brains and effort during peace.
“It was not wasted. We got what we went after. We retained a system of government in which we, the people, choose our governors, dismiss them when we wish, and have a voice in our own destiny. We retained a conception of justice in which the humblest one amongst us has equal rights before the law. We believed those principles were worthy defending, not because in themselves they provided all that could be desired for human happiness, but because we believed that we could only advance to a full and satisfying life for all if we retained the freedom on which to build.
“It is now, in the peace, that we must make our advances. I believe that the returned serviceman wishes us to secure for all men that economic freedom which we have never had, and to which all who are willing to work are surely entitled. We must remove from the minds of men the fear of poverty as the result of illness, or accident, or old age. We must turn our schools into institutions which will produce young men and women avid for further education and increased knowledge.
“We must raise the material standard of living so that all children can grow up with sufficient space and light and proper nourishment; so that women may be freed from domestic drudgery; and so that those scientific inventions which are conducive to a more gracious life may be brought within the means of all. We must raise the spiritual standard of living so that we may get a spirit of service to the community and so that we may live together without hate, even though we differ on the best road to reach our objectives. And we must do all this without losing that political freedom which has cost us so dearly, and without which these tasks cannot be accomplished.
“Outside Australia peace has set us tasks as hard. And we must take our place in the world, not as a self-sufficient, sealed-off unit, but as a member of a family, the members of which are dependent the one upon the other. What can we do? We can practise tolerance and understanding. And we can be ready always to defend against attacks, either from within or without, the political freedom, the measure of freedom which we already have.”
Then Gorton spoke of the only man from the local area killed in action. “I want you to forget it is I who am standing here. And I want you to see instead Bob Davey. And behind him I want you to see an army; regiment on regiment of young men, dead. They say to you, burning in tanks and aeroplanes, drowning in submarines, shattered and broken by high explosive shells, we gave the last full measure of devotion.”
The disfigured pilot went on to be Australia’s 19th Prime Minster between 1968 and 1971.
His speech, delivered three years before he entered the Commonwealth Parliament and over twenty years before he became Prime Minister, surely ranks as one of the great Australian speeches of the 20th century. It is as simple as it is visionary. He tells of the horrors of war with blunt eloquence, his own face permanently scarred from air crashes. Yet it is his demands of Australians in peace that lift the importance of the speech and force comparisons with the political rhetoric of today.
John Gorton does more than demand payment in peace for those who sacrificed in war. He demands a future of progress, of protection of the weak, the best future for our children, of woman fulfilling to the fullest and contribution through community service. Surely this is what we mean when we say vision.
As a young aspiring politician I sought him out in the early 1990s when the Liberal Party at the national level was in its darkest winter, seeking inspiration from this unlikely, unconventional, accidental Prime Minster.
Widowed, aged but alert, forgotten by the Liberal Party, John Grey Gorton did inspire with the same sentiment from the speech he had given almost 50 years earlier.
He finished the 1946 speech “We bought your freedom with our lives. So take this freedom. Guard it as we have guarded it, use it as we can no longer use it, and with it as a foundation, build. Build a world in which meanness and poverty, tyranny and hate, have no existence. If you see and hear these men behind me - do not fail them.”
So have modern politics and modern Australia lived up to what John Gorton fought for in war and served in peace?
I hope so. We are more prosperous than ever before. We live longer, more comfortable lives. Fewer people are starving. Yet we live in a world more uncertain than any time since the Cold War where fear of terrorism is real. Nationalism is on the rise. Many people see themselves as losers from global economic reform. Nations are withdrawing from the world.
Tomorrow Australians choose their government. Despite the length of the campaign we have not been offered a long-term vision that inspires.
We can blame our leaders and be done with it.
Or we can acknowledge that we have created a political culture over recent years where the hard truth about the decisions we need to make is all too hard, so we ask our leaders to tell us what we want to hear in full knowledge they can’t deliver.
A better future – the sort John Gorton called us to – requires difficult choices, difficult reform and some self-sacrifice for broader national gain. We know we’re made of weaker stuff than the war generations, but we owe it to them to do better.