Unveiling of Sir John McEwen Sculpture, Canberra
I acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we meet, the Ngunnawal People, and pay my respects to their elders, past and present, emerging leaders and all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders gathered here today.
Linda and I are delighted to be with you at this ceremony to unveil this statue of Sir John McEwen.
Sir John was, by any measure, a significant figure in Australia’s recent history. As a former Prime Minister it is appropriate that this statue joins the growing number of such statues in the Parliamentary Triangle.
Many present here today are, I suspect, Members of the National Party. As Governor-General, I might leave it to others to reflect on Sir John’s contribution to political life. My remarks will focus on his legacy to Australia and what meaning can be attached to that legacy today.
A couple of weeks ago Linda and I were in Devonport, Tasmania. We had the pleasure of visiting Home Hill, the family home of Joseph and Edith Lyons. It is beautifully preserved — a credit to the team who look after it.
I was struck during our visit by how little is known of the Lyons’ and other key figures from our past. I knew of both the Lyons’ but I soon discovered that what I knew was very limited. I had the same experience when I began reading about Sir John McEwen. Understanding his history, especially the contributions he made during periods of stress for our nation, helps us to understand the challenges and opportunities we face today.
A man about whom Laurie Oakes said, at the launch of 'John McEwen: His story' in 2014, “He is one of the few people I’ve met in 50 years of journalism who I think deserves the description ‘great’.” Sir John McEwen was, in many ways, a man of his time.
He enlisted to serve his nation in World War 1. He was a farmer and dealt with all that comes with that — good years, bad years, drought, a rabbit plague in 1919. He organised, represented and fought for his fellow famers. He became a parliamentarian and, in that capacity, faced war again.
Appointed Minister for the Interior in 1937, he travelled widely in the Northern Territory and the outback — no doubt benefiting from meeting fellow Australians from regional and remote areas. As Minister for Air in the early part of the Second World War, he was responsible for establishing the Women’s Auxiliary Australian Air Force.
Such was his reputation that he was appointed by Prime Minister Curtin to the Advisory War Council and later served as a consultant with the Australian delegation to the United Nations Conference on internal organisation.
If Sir John’s story ended there it would be remarkable.
It does not.
He served continuously as Minister for Commerce and for Trade from 1949 until 1971. He was our 18th Prime Minister, but that brief tenure — from 19 December to 10 January 1968 — is but the tip of the iceberg (or the tip of the tip!). Oakes again points out that Sir John also served 550 days as Acting Prime Minister.
It is impossible to summarise more than two decades of achievement in just a short time.
Sir John was responsible for the Agreement on Commerce between Australia and Japan in 1957, a sensitive decision given its short time after the war; for rejuvenating the administration of primary industry; for many trade agreements, particularly with the UK — indeed for ensuring Australia’s place in the global post-war economy. He was enormously optimistic about Australia’s capacity to be a major resources provider, and agricultural and manufacturing power.
Sir John was, by all accounts, equal part fearsome — hence the nickname ‘Black Jack’ — and equal part jovial, pragmatic and accessible. His intellect was immense and admired. He was a hard man and also a man committed to service, to his community and to his country. In his words, “I’ll fight for a thing for five years, seven years, till I damn well get it.”
While his time as Prime Minister was brief, his impact in public life was enormous. Measured both by longevity and impact he was a remarkable player in our history.
In preparing for today, I considered the span of events in Sir John’s lifetime — The Great War, the influenza pandemic, drought, The Great Depression, World War 2, a tumultuous post-war world order, and the battle between protectionism and free trade.
Sir John McEwen’s many achievements and contributions occurred during these seemingly impossible challenges. Despite the challenges, he saw opportunity. He worked hard, with dogged determination and single-minded focus to realise those opportunities. We should take heart and inspiration from his example.
There is a temptation for each generation to consider that its challenges are unique. History suggests otherwise. Environments and circumstances change, but there is much to be learnt — both good and bad — from what has come before us.
In this context, a study of our recent history and of people like Sir John McEwen who shaped it is instructive. We should recognise the characteristics of Sir John McEwen — loyalty, pragmatism, determination and a willingness to work hard — and, in reflecting on them, use them to inform our behaviour today.
It is a great honour, therefore, to be asked to unveil Sir John’s statue today.