Bob Carr’s central complaint during his time as Foreign Minister (my review of his Diary here) was not the travel, food or company, but a lack of time. 18 months was too short to do anything he moaned. Percy Spender had just 16 months and was the most influential Australian Foreign Minister of the 20th century.
Spender is something of a forgotten figure in Australian history. This is partly because his time at the top was so short, but also because his story runs against the dominant narrative of his era. We think of the Menzies reign as British, cautious and somewhat lethargic. Spender was none of these things.
In this highly readable — albeit academic — biography, David Lowe illuminates a figure who is brash, bold and innovative. Spender was willing to take risks, worked at racehorse pace (often managing a federal parliamentary seat and significant caseload at the NSW bar) and challenged many of the fundamental ideas of his time.
Spender belongs to a significant, though minority school of foreign policy in Australia: The rationalists. This is not to claim a super intelligence. Rather he was guided less by tradition, culture or national pride and more by a nose for where the big geopolitical trends were taking his country and a willingness to embrace them.
Out of his wide reading and early embrace of air travel (allowing multiple quick trips at a time when his Prime Minister still took a month to sail to England) Spender helped form two of the pillars of current Australian foreign policy.
Most famously, he cemented an alliance with the United States, securing something that half a century of Australian leaders such as Deakin, Lyons, Curtin and Evatt had only talked about. This was a singular feat, given the deep reticence in both Washington D.C and Canberra for any such pact. Such was the importance of this relationship, Spender jumped from Foreign Minister to Ambassador to America to help cement the ties beyond what the legal framework assured.
Spender also helped to push and drag a reluctant Australian government towards embracing Asia. As Menzies once mocked him lightly in a cabinet meeting ‘Come on Percy lets have your thesis about Southeast Asia’. While many saw the coming Cold War as requiring Australia to return forces to the Middle East or Europe, Spender helped keep the focus on Asia and combatting Asian communism.
His main achievement in this direction was the Colombo plan. Often seen today as merely a form of student exchange (as its namesake today embodies), it was part of a far grander effort to help build and develop Southeast Asia as a bulwark against communism and as a neighbourly gesture of service to integrate Australia and the developed world into the developing one.
Spender had hopes of becoming Prime Minister, but he never seems to have gotten very close to the big chair. When all hope was extinguished in 1951 his energy soon turned away from federal politics. After just 1 year and 128 days as Foreign Minister (along with Treasurer in the 1939-40 government and member of the War Cabinet and Advisory War Council for the length of the Second World War) he left.
After that he spent seven happy years as Australian Ambassador to the United States and nine less successful years on the International Court of Justice in The Hague. He was and remains the first and only Australian appointee and spent three years as President and chief justice.
We should not be surprised that Spender’s story is unknown today. Most Australian foreign policy history is. To those on the left anything before Gough or even Keating is dismissed as cringe worthy dependence. To those on the right, only two relationships mattered, the UK then US and anything else was somewhat pointless and a waste of time. Spender’s story however shows that there is much to be proud of, and nothing to take for granted in the evolution and development of Australia’s approach to international affairs.
The revival in the last few years of interest in Spender’s story is important not just to overcome a historical ignorance. Spender’s actions matter because his, like our own, was a time of change and transition. He cut through because he was prepared to assess the big changes and push, negotiate, bargain, bully and dream about where and how his country could succeed. Such ambitions and innovations are needed again today, and time once again, is not on our side.