Why towering McEwen should be honoured

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Sir John McEwen… unceasing work and a torturous dermatitis had taken a physical toll.

“Truth is, Dr Headon, it was John McEwen who provided the engine that powered the Menzies government through those days of plenty as our country grew towards adulthood,” writes “The Gadfly” columnist ROBERT MACKLIN. 

THE news that one of the towering figures of Australian government in the 20th century is to be honoured with a statue in Canberra’s Parliamentary Triangle triggered a squeak from one of the lesser known academic historians of the 21st century

Dr David Headon who, we are told, “worked at the National Capital Authority during the 2000s and assisted in the installation of Reconciliation Place and the Menzies Wall”, said: “Quite simply, it is impossible to make a credible case for McEwen, and for half a million taxpayer dollars to be spent on it is unconscionable”.

As Sir John McEwen’s press secretary for the last four years of his parliamentary career – 1967-71 – I’m happy to take up the challenge. 

I should mention that I was a beardless youth when I joined him as the only other male on the six-person staff. I had met Mr McEwen (as he then was) only once when researching a story on his idea for a Resources Development Bank designed to fund the downstream “value-added” potential for our mining and agricultural industries. 

Billy McMahon and the laissez faire Libs killed that one in Cabinet; and today it remains a great gap in our economic armoury, with Labor still making vague promises of something similar.

At the time McEwen was 67 and had been in the parliament since 1934. A combination of unceasing work and a torturous dermatitis had taken a physical toll and the likelihood was that he’d retire in a year when his successor – either Doug Anthony, Ian Sinclair or Peter Nixon – was ready to take over. I’d returned to “The Age” having had the good fortune of working with one of the few genuine statesmen we’ve produced. So we had a meeting which ended with his firm handshake and, “Welcome to the family”. 

By then, Dr Headon, this is what he’d already achieved:

As Minister for External Affairs and Minister for Air in 1941, he knew that with the Vichy French running New Caledonia, Japan could secure a foothold within bombing distance of our east coast. He devised a scheme involving Menzies, Churchill and Charles de Gaulle to raid Noumea, extract the Vichy governor and his staff, load them on to a Norwegian freighter and dump them on an Indo-Chinese beach. The territory then became an important Allied base. He regarded this as his most significant achievement.

After the war, as Minister for Trade and with Britain an economic basket case, he braved the ire of the returned men in the Liberal and the Labor parties and negotiated the Australia-Japan Trade Agreement that transformed our export economy, thus laying the foundation for today’s excellent relations with that country.

In the early 1960s with the UK retreating from its “Far East” in favour of the European Common Market, he not only fought for a special deal on primary products for Australia, he allowed NZ to piggyback on it, thus earning that government’s (but not the All Blacks’) everlasting gratitude… for a month or two.

In 1967, when shipping containers were transforming the carriage of Australian trade, he created and forced our own fleet into the British “shipping conference” that monopolised the market, thus saving Australian exporters and importers millions, and earning that government’s deep and permanent respect… for a week or two. 

And throughout it was his policies of industrial protection, via the tariff, that provided the jobs for a massive influx of the migrants that has made our country the thrilling place to be, even with the wretched pandemic that has sundered other countries.

So Dr Headon, is it really “impossible to make a credible case for McEwen” and is it really “unconscionable for half a million taxpayer dollars to be spent on it”?

Truth is, Dr Headon, it was John McEwen who provided the engine that powered the Menzies government through those days of plenty as our country grew towards adulthood. 

He was not perfect. Some say he and protection policies stayed too long. But he was old fashioned; he thought real wealth came from making things such as cars and widgets, so that in emergencies we’d have the capacity to retool to meet the new demands. 

Now, where have I heard that lately?



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Robert Macklin
Journalist and author. Contact robert@robertmacklin.com

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