Rotary Club of Melbourne, 4 August 2021
I begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land on which we meet, the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin nation, and pay my respects to elders past, present and emerging.
I felt deeply honoured to have been awarded the Monash Medal, named for one of the greatest figures in Australia’s history. Sir Gustav Nossal was awarded the first Monash Medal in 2010 and other heroes of mine on the list include Patrick McGorry, Fiona Wood, Michael Kirby, Geoffrey Blainey and Tim Fischer.
Major-General Jim Barry, another Monash Medallist, is with us today.
The Rotary Club of Melbourne, founded in 1921, was the first to be established in Australia, and your centenary is a cause for celebration.
Your first President was William Alexander Osborne, often better known by his initials, Professor of Physiology at Melbourne University. He was the star of the radio program Information, Please and my principal mentor in childhood.
I wrote his rather cautious entry for the Australian Dictionary of Biography. He had a very wide range of interests. According to legend (put about by his enemies) he had simultaneously applied for the chairs in English and History and was appointed to the one which interested him least.
John Monash succeeded W A Osborne as the Rotary Club of Melbourne’s second President 1922-23.
I knew two of Sir John’s grandsons, the late David Bennett, educator and Labor activist, and Colin Bennett, The Age’s film critic, who supported Phillip Adams and me in our attempts to revive – exhume, even – the Australian feature film industry.
Michael Bennett, great grandson of John Monash, is also here with us.
I was a friend of Geoffrey Serle, Monash’s biographer, and also close to Tim Fischer, our former Deputy Prime Minister, who wrote another biography.
The Rotary Club of Melbourne has played a significant role in the campaign to recognise Monash’s outstanding contribution by posthumous promotion to the rank of Field Marshal. Peter Rogers was a committed advocate. I played a minor role in making representations on the issue, but I surmise that the argument for promotion was a factor in the award of the 2021 Monash Medal.
I have been thinking about the central elements of leadership for many years.
In 2003 I delivered your Angus Mitchell Oration in a wide ranging speech which included reflections on leadership. It is sobering to reflect that so much of the material in the speech, notably the need for urgent action on climate change, retains its relevance in 2021, 18 years later. Only the names of the leading characters would need to be changed.
As I recall, it was an address of pitiless length and detail and as it ended I thought that many of your members had aged visibly.
So I apologise for that and I am relieved that the Rotary Club of Melbourne has forgiven me.
In 2003 I thought there were five essential qualities of leadership: Vision, Urgency, Courage, Knowledge, Judgment.
I have now expanded this to ten:
- Curiosity – pursuing the unknown
- Knowledge – mastering the evidence
- Vision – taking the long view and thinking globally for the long term
- Judgment – capacity to balance conflicting factors and reach a conclusion
- Urgency – capacity to organise time, set goals and priorities
- Courage – preparedness to take unpopular decisions and then explain and convince
- Ambition – having an eye to history: ‘How will I be remembered?’
- Capacity to inspire trust – being able to inspire confidence, and sacrifice
- Concern for welfare of others – avoiding suffering and recognising the value of individual lives
- Risk taking
A great leader must have at least seven of these qualities. Monash, in my opinion, had all ten. Donald Trump has only three: Ambition, Capacity to inspire trust and Risk taking.
Monash was a ‘citizen soldier’, not an army professional, essentially a volunteer.
Unlike many of his fellow generals in World War I, he had no interest in fighting in South Africa. I suspect that the first shots in anger he ever heard were at Gallipoli. In the Australian army he was a classic ‘outsider.’
Before World War I, he had a very impressive record as a civil engineer and pioneer in the use of reinforced concrete.
At Melbourne University he gained the degrees of BCE 1891, Master of Engineering 1893, BA and LLB 1895 and DEng 1921. However, he was essentially an autodidact and seems to have rarely attended lectures, preferring to do his own cramming at the Public Library, as the State Library of Victoria was then known.
He was active in debating, a good pianist and widely read.
As a civil engineer his practice included railway, road, bridge and water-supply design and construction, including the sadly lost ‘outer circle railway’ line.
It is an urban myth that Monash designed the dome of the SLV: this was done by Norman Peebles of Bates, Peebles & Smart 1909-13. But Monash was a consultant on the use of reinforced concrete in the great dome, enraged when his firm failed to win the tender for its construction.
Robert Menzies told me (and many others) that John Monash was by far the most impressive advocate that he had ever seen, especially as an expert witness in court actions involving technical assessments on disputes about building and engineering contracts. Much of his court work was in other states – NSW, Queensland, WA.
The mythic status of Gallipoli
Alan Bond hailed the win of his yacht Australia II in the 1983 America’s Cup as being ‘the greatest Australian victory since Gallipoli.’ Many Australians felt the same way.
However, it is important to resist the dangerous belief, promoted by John Howard, that Gallipoli is Australia’s – White Australia’s, that is – great creation myth, and that the ANZAC tragedy brought us together as a nation. Gallipoli was, in many ways, the unmaking of a nation.
Australia was a far more vital, optimistic, and creative place in the twenty years before 1915 than in the two decades following.
Major developments in 1895–1915 included, for example, Federation, securing votes for women, setting up federal institutions such as the High Court and the Commonwealth Bank, introducing the Arbitration system, and establishing a minimum wage through the ‘Harvester judgment’, as well as old age and invalid pensions.During this era, Australia also elected the world’s first Labor national governments, established its own stamps and currency, started to explore Antarctica, began the Trans-Australian railway, chose Canberra as the national capital, and fostered important developments in developments in science and education. There was a strong sense of independence and recognition of Australia as a social laboratory.
There were fewer achievements in the period 1915–35, apart from establishing the CSIRO and the ABC, inaugurating Canberra, setting up the Commonwealth Grants Commission, and building the Sydney Harbour Bridge.
The argument that Gallipoli was central to establishing a modern, confident, innovative Australia is demonstrably false.
There was heroism, sacrifice, and stoicism at Gallipoli, but the invasion was deeply flawed. Ironically, over-emphasis on Gallipoli has obscured Australia’s significant role on the Western Front in the last months of the war under the leadership of John Monash, our foremost military commander.
His role as the first Australian commander the Australian Corps, in 1918 the largest on the Western front culminated with his detailed innovative planning for the Battle of Amiens which was decisive in Germany’s defeat in the war.
The English historian A. J. P. Taylor described Monash as ‘the only general of creative originality produced by the First World War’ and Field Marshal Montgomery wrote: ‘I would name Sir John Monash as the best general on the western front in Europe.’
The magnificent Sir John Monash Centre, a museum and interpretive centre at Villers-Bretonneux , on the Somme, part of the military cemetery, was opened in 2018 by Malcolm Turnbull. And the date chosen? 24 April, to fit in with Anzac Day, naturally.
However, Gallipoli has had its uses. In the 1930s George Patton, later a controversial American general in World War II, conducted a devastating analysis of Gallipoli and in 1944 before the Normandy landings it was used as a case study of how not to mount an invasion.
More British than the British
After 1915 we became more defensive and anxious, more dependent on the British connection, more derivative, and more divided on sectarian lines.
Australia felt oddly isolated after World War I and emotionally more dependent on the British imperial connection than ever.
The reaction to the visit of the Prince of Wales, later King Edward VIII, to Australia in 1920 could only be described as hysterical. (His letters to his then mistress indicated that he hated it.) In the same year General Sir William Birdwood, the British officer who had commanded the ANZAC Corps in Gallipoli, was honoured in the Australian Parliament – a distinction never given to Sir John Monash.
King George V wanted Birdwood to become Governor General in 1931 but Prime Minister Scullin insisted on appointing an Australian. Scullin won, and Isaac Isaacs was appointed. It is likely, but not certain, that consideration was given to appointing Monash, but he would have been unlikely to accept. His health was failing and he wanted to keep his private life private.
Monash was aggrieved that Scullin was the only Australian Prime Minister ever to write him a personal note of thanks.
Australia deferred adoption of the Statute of Westminster (1931), which provided for Constitutional sovereignty, for fear of weakening the British connection.
After World War I
Monash was exceptionally active after the war’s end.
He was appointed as Director-General of Repatriation and Demobilisation 1918-19, as Chairman and General Manager of State Electricity Commission of Victoria 1920-31 he directed the electrification of the state, and was the driving force for planning, design, construction and establishing the Shrine of Remembrance 1921-31.
In addition, he was Vice-Chancellor of the University of Melbourne 1923-31 and President of the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science (later ANZAAS), Adelaide, 1924 (BJ Perth 1993).
He became President of the Victorian Institute of Engineers and chaired the Royal Commission into 1923 Police Strike.
He declined the Federal presidency of the RSL.
Surprisingly, he found time to be the Chair of Luna Park.
He had a library of 4000 books, many of them autographed. He haunted the bookshops of the Hill of Content, Ellis Bird and E.W. Cole (before my time). He had a large collection of gramophone records, and some erotica.
He was a moderate Zionist. (Isaac Isaacs was a fervent anti-Zionist),
Monash’s defence of liberal democracy
Monash made a very robust defence of liberal democracy in November 1930 at a time when it was new, fragile and untested in most counties.
Australia was an exception, to a degree, with manhood suffrage from the 1850s and votes for men and women (but not Indigenes) in two colonies in the 1890s and in Commonwealth elections from 1902. Nevertheless, this had only been 28 years earlier.
In many countries, adopting universal suffrage had been a consequence of World War I and the Versailles Treaty. The United States gave women the vote in 1920 but found ingenious ways to prevent African-Americans from voting until 1965. Great Britain gave votes to all men and women over 30 in 1918, and to all everyone over 21 in 1928, only two years before Monash’s defence.
In World War I, British and Australian soldiers fought ‘For King and Country’, nit for democracy. It comes as a shock to realise that in 1914 a higher proportion of citizens had the vote in Germany and Austria-Hungary than in Britain, although it must be conceded Britain had a more liberal tradition, with the monarchy stripped of executive power. It was not until 1917 that Woodrow Wilson proposed ‘democracy’ as a war aim.
But after 1918, there were millions of men who had served together under authoritarian rule, where survival depended on discipline. It was easy to feel contempt for politicians who made fundamental decisions about life and death without personal risk – although many suffered grievously from the deaths of children.
But it is easy to understand the appeal of fascism when things turned sour in the 1920s and 1930s and democratically elected regimes proved ineffectual. Force and discipline had a strong potential appeal.
This theme had been taken up by D H Lawrence, then living briefly in New South Wales, in his novel Kangaroo (1923) – the Digger Movement led by Benjamin Cooley, known as ‘Kangaroo’.
He wrote angrily in response to repeated suggestions that, supported by former ‘diggers’, he should become a dictator, at least for the duration of the Depression (Serle, p. 520):
What do you and your friends want me to do? To lead a movement to upset the Constitution, oust the jurisdiction of Parliament, and to usurp the governmental power? If so, I have no ambition to embark on High Treason, which any such action would amount to. ….Depend upon it, the only hope for Australia is the ballot-box, and an educated electorate….If it be true that many people …are prepared to trust to my leadership, they should also be prepared to trust my judgement.
Monash refused to associate with The New Guard.
Monash University was named for him in 1959.
In 2018 the name Monash Forum was adopted by a group of climate change sceptics or denialists, including Tony Abbott and Kevin Andrews, pointing to Monash’s development of brown coal in Yallourn. Seven of Monash’s descendants protested angrily, arguing that Monash’s central passion was mastering the evidence on a subject and making a cool judgment after careful analysis. The case for brown coal may have been compelling in the 1920s, but not a century later.
The Field Marshal issue
Monash had powerful critics – C E W Bean (although he later changed his mind), Keith Murdoch, Billy Hughes, John Gellibrand and Frederic Eggleston.
Tim Fischer, former soldier, then Deputy Prime Minister, and biographer of Monash campaigned assiduously to secure the posthumous promotion of Sir John Monash to Field Marshal.
Tim thought that Australia had only had one Field Marshal – Sir Thomas Blamey, promoted on his deathbed. I pointed out, with my characteristic tact, that there had been four –Sir William Birdwood in 1925, King George VI in 1938, Blamey in 1950 and the Duke of Edinburgh in 1954, a promotion not by Tony Abbott, as you might have thought, but by Sir Robert Menzies who did but see him passing by.
The Government of Stanley Melbourne Bruce which made Birdwood a Field Marshal in the Australian Forces in 1925 refused to promote Monash from Lieutenant General to General.
James Scullin was sworn in as Prime Minister on 22 October 1929. Barely three weeks later, Monash was promoted to full General, long after he had retired, together with Sir Harry Chauvel. A tiny notice in the Government Gazette for 14 November announced promotions for Chauvel and Monash – in that order, dating from 11 November (‘Armistice Day).
Tim’s mission failed – essentially because of strong opposition by the Defence high command, but the cause is well worth pursuing.
The Age of anti-Leaders
Geoffrey Serle wrote:
In the 1920s Monash was broadly accepted, not just in Victoria, as the greatest living Australian. The soldiers had to have a representative hero who was a volunteer; he was acceptable to the community as a seemingly unpretentious outsider, not really part of the Establishment. His commanding intellect was sensed as well as his basic honesty and decency. He was one tall poppy who was never cut down. His knowledge ranged extraordinarily widely, but was neither very profound nor original. He achieved greatness essentially as an administrator, by cultivating to a super-pitch of excellence the ordinary qualities such as memory, concentration, stability and common sense, allied with temperamental capacity to work harmoniously with colleagues. He had the gift of being able instantaneously to turn from one task to the next.
No one in Australia’s history, perhaps, crammed more effective work into a life; but, he said, work was the best thing in life. In later years at least, his charm, courtesy and impression of simplicity were striking, though traces of deviousness, sensitivity to slights and constant need for approval remained.
We now live in an era of anti-leaders, where the greatest issue is winning (or failing to win) the next election, so politicians are walking on egg-shells, fearful of offending powerful vested interests, incapable of thinking globally, or contemplating the long term future and 2030 or 2050 seem unimaginably distant. There is a bipartisan failure in the hegemonic parties – both the Coalition and Labor, to act courageously on major issues – dealing with the COVID pandemic, taking effective action on climate change (where we are determined to be last among developed nations, and proud of it), refusing to plan for a post-carbon economy, elevating opinion and feeling over evidence and experience, refusal to act on corruption, restore the concept of truth and accountability, in government, getting the Constitution right, pursuing indigenous reconciliation, preserving the environment, adopting humane, compassionate policies on refugees, tackling gambling and drug dependence, ending misogyny and exploitation of women.
All depend on qualities of leadership – starting with curiosity and respect for the facts.
Monash had these qualities.
Our current crop of Commonwealth anti-leaders do not.