Chapter 13 - The New Minister to Washington

Posted in The Forgotten People

The Government has recently appointed Sir Owen Dixon to succeed Mr Casey as Australian Minister to the United States of America.

The term "minister" is occasionally confusing to people because we normally use it in its political sense, whereas in the case of these overseas appointments, both the title and the post are diplomatic.

I wonder if we are always clear in our minds as to the function of a diplomat, and in particular of an Australian minister accredited to the USA. A cynic said many years ago that a diplomat was a man who was sent abroad to lie for his country, and though we have no doubt got over that idea there must still be many people who believe that the chief function of such a man is to eat and drink and make after-dinner speeches. There can be no greater mistake. In modern times, and particularly at a time like this, the function of a diplomatic representative is of the highest gravity and complexity.

Just let me occupy a few minutes in describing, for example, the nature of the work which has to be done at Washington by the Australian minister to that capital.

First, he is the direct representative of His Majesty's Australian Government, and as such he has a heavy individual responsibility for the dignity and reputation of his own country. This is not to be underestimated. Representatives of other countries are much in the public eye, and their fellow countrymen are liable to be judged favourably or badly according to the standard they exhibit.

Second, the minister is the channel of communication through which important and intricate matters are discussed with the President of the United States, with his most important ministers, and so on. This does not mean that our minister is a sort of postman who merely conveys, for example, to Mr Cordell Hull, what the Australian Government is thinking, and then send back to the Australian Government what Mr Cordell Hull's answer may be. Important discussions are not conducted in that fashion. They contain an exchange of ideas, argument, explanation, suggestion, and they cannot bear fruit unless the men taking part in them are of such a calibre that they meet each other on proper terms and with a proper mental equipment. It follows from this that an Australian Minister to Washington requires much more than a capacity for easy good-fellowship. He requires education, knowledge, skill, flexibility of mind, a constructive capacity, and marked judgment.

Third, he must keep our Government in Australia informed as to the opinion and policy in the United States. He must have and transmit, not vague notions but positive ideas. This requires that he should have a penetrating eye and a clear understanding.

Fourth, he will have a golden opportunity to impress the significance and quality of Australia upon the American mind - that is, the American public mind. By his various public speeches and broadcasts he is enabled to direct the thoughts of perhaps millions of American citizens toward Australia and its problems, not as things possessing merely geographical flavour, but as real matters of urgent international importance and of great significance in the winning of the war.

And finally, he has many economic and financial matters to handle, of the details of which we can know but little. Take, for example, the vast network of complicated problems which surround the assistance that the United States of America is giving to the Allied nations under the Lend-lease Act.

On the face of it, that Act authorized the raising and spending of great sums in America for the provision of materials of war to the Allies, not in exchange for cash or for some set future liability, but on a basis which still remains flexible, if not actually vague. In the atmosphere of generous impulse in which we now live, the implications of lend-lease assistance to the Allies may attract but little attention. But surely it is quite clear that when the war has been won the Allied nations, including our own, will need to have far-reaching mutual adjustments of an economic kind if the friendly and intimate association of the war is to be a powerful and good thing in time of peace.

During this war we have all been, willynilly, forced into the most acute development of self-sufficiency or, as it has been called, "economic nationalism". There will need to be a lot of reconstruction of our ideas some day - not, of course, with the idea of hindering our own development, to which we properly attach immense importance, but with a view to using the resources, for example, of the British Empire and of the United States of America to the fullest mutual advantage.

Even while the war is on, great wisdom is needed in the handling of these matters, and the part to be played by the Australian Minister in Washington must be of major importance.

Now, having as I hope indicated to you the first-rate importance of the work Sir Owen Dixon goes to take up, I should like to add a few words about Sir Owen himself. I am perhaps not unqualified to do this for, when I first went to the Bar, I was a pupil in his chambers - his first pupil, I am happy to recall - and for many years I have known him intimately, both professionally and personally. I speak of him, not as one sitting judgment but as a profound admirer.

He is a scholar in the truest sense, in a period in which pure scholarship has been somewhat jostled on one side by what we are pleased to call "more practical matters". He is a lawyer of the first water, challenging comparison with any other lawyer in the English-speaking world. He is a man of shining integrity and high outlook, with a Spartan simplicity of personal habits which recalls the old tag about plain living and high thinking. He has an immense capacity for work. Frequently when I was his pupil and we had worked in his chambers until midnight, I was staggered to learn next day how much he had apparently accomplished in the way of really hard legal work between then and the following morning.

When the war broke out, an interim judgment upon him night have been that in the academic and legal worlds he had achieved pre-eminence, but that he was relatively unacquainted with affairs. But that interim judgment must now be overhauled. In the last two or three years, as chairman of the Central Wool Committee and as chairman of the Shipping Board, he has, on the evidence of all interests - and, if you like, on my own as Prime Minister for a considerable portion of that time - displayed administrative gifts of a high order; all of which goes to show that though a man may not, as in the case of Sir Owen Dixon himself, have had any political experience, there is no branch of knowledge which need remain closed to a man of ability, application, and wide comprehension of mind.

As I have said, I was his pupil when I first became a barrister. I need only add that I have been learning from him in a variety of fields ever since.

He does us much honour by representing us abroad. Washington will come to know him and to value him as a most distinguished representative of the best Australian culture and civilisation.

15 May, 1942