Yet more revisionism

The Oz runs yet another piece of anti-Curtin revisionism, though from the line has shifted 180 degrees. Whereas Stephen Barton argues that Curtin, as PM, should have allowed the Japanese to take Port Moresby and Northern Queensland, in order to fight in Europe, Bob Wurth counts Curtin as an appeaser of Japan. His story is incoherent to put it mildly, since he quotes generic statements of desire for peace in 1939 as appeasement, while noting that by 1941 Curtin was among the leaders in warning of war.

The main focus of the story is on Curtin’s friendly relationship with the Japanese ambassador (who became a prominent pacifist after the war) and an alleged agreement over Western Australian iron ore, reported by ambassador Kawai. Wurth’s story suffers from the fact that Curtin took office a few months after Kawai reported the supposed agreement, and that no such agreement was implemented. All in all, this sounds more like Curtin manipulating Kawai in the hope of assisting the peace faction in Japan than the other way around.

One feature that seems to pop up regularly in all of this is the name of Alexander Downer, who’s cited in the Wurth piece. He’s led the attack on Curtin in the past and he seems to be linked fairly closely to Barton, who wrote a full-length piece in Online Opinion to defend him against claims of draft-dodging. Certainly, if Downer disagrees with the latest attacks, and the Barton line that an invasion of Australia is a reasonable price to pay for alliances with the great and powerful, he ought to say so now.

The Brisbane Line in the 21st century

When I suggested yesterday that Stephen Barton had reinvented the Brisbane Line with his claim that Kokoda didn’t matter I was making the standard argumentative move of drawing a logical inference from Barton’s position which, I assumed, he would indignantly reject. Far from it! As Mark Bahnisch observes in comments, Barton explicitly endorsed the Brisbane Line strategy when he was interviewed on Lateline, saying

What I was saying was that it was an important campaign, but it wasn’t the battle that saved Australia. Australia was engaged in a world war. What that means is that events far beyond our control and far beyond our borders are ultimately going to secure our future. Now let’s take the worst-case scenario, that say they did a diversionary raid or they occupied part of Queensland. Now ultimately did that mean that Australia would lose the war? Well, once the allies won in Europe and the full might of the allies came to bear on the Japanese, ultimately the Japanese would be defeated. So it would have been a terrible situation, it would have been grim and appalling, but it ultimately would have been a temporary situation. We have to remember that this was a world war and when we talk about the battle that saved Australia, we’re sort of putting these parochial blinkers on and seeing the centre of the war’s gravity in New Guinea. We’ve got to sort of step back from that and recognise that it was a world war. (emphasis added)

Given that Barton explicitly draws parallels with the present, it’s reasonable to ask whether he thinks the same reasoning is applicable today. If strategic decisions made in Washington or London require that Australia be left open to attack or invasion, should we be comforted by the thought that “Australia’s security has traditionally been won far beyond our borders, as a member of grand alliances. ”

Barton has previously been a Liberal party staffer, and the ideas he’s presenting are consistent with (an extreme interpretation of) the government’s defence strategy of reducing emphasis on the defence of Australia in favour of a capacity to send expeditionary forces to distant conflicts. So, is anyone from the Liberal side of politics going to step forward and speak in favour of defending Australia, either in 1942 or today?

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Who’s lying about Resolution 1441?

Among the articles of faith on the pro-war right, few have been had more megabytes of text spilled over them than the claim that the war on Iraq was authorised by UN resolution 1441. So, it’s surprising to see Mark Steyn denying this claim in the course of an attempt to score points off me, cheered on by Tim Blair and JF Beck. Steyn says

I don’t believe I was ever aware that Aussie prof John Quiggin had launched a competition to demonstrate I was a congenital liar, but apparently he did back in 2002, indignantly objecting to my “lie” that Australia, Spain, Italy and co were “on board” for an America-led Iraq invasion without UN authorisation. Yup, he certainly nailed me on that one.

I’ll note first that Steyn scores yet more points for my claim of congenital dishonesty with the “and co”, which, in the original, read “Qatar and Turkey”. Like most of the other countries on Steyn’s list, Turkey had made no public commitment to invade Iraq at the time Steyn was writing. Unlike most of the others, Turkey held a parliamentary vote, which led to a decision not to invade.

But the real issue is that of UN authorisation. As I noted at the time, Australia’s public position was exactly the same as that of Britain, the country where Steyn’s piece was published but one that curiously failed to make his list. That’s because, as Steyn concedes here (July 2003), Blair was publicly opposed to going to war without a UN resolution, and it wouldn’t have done for Steyn to say that it was all a sham. As he says

In the end, Britain officially went to war on a technicality, and … that technicality – Saddam’s technical non-compliance with Resolution 1441 – still holds.

Of course, as we now know, it was all a sham. Bush was going to war regardless, and Blair was privately committed to following him, despite his public pronouncements at the time which, I have to admit, I believed. But without the figleaf of the UN, and the bogus interpretation of Resolution 1441, it’s doubtful he could have conned enough Labour MPs into supporting him.

Howard similarly made a string of statements to the effect that there would be no invasion as long as Saddam complied with Resolution 1441. I don’t have any details on Berlusconi, Aznar and others, but I’d be surprised if the same wasn’t true of them too.

A sensible privatisation

I was somewhat alarmed to read in today’s Australian that “THE Beattie Government will today put up for sale the state’s two monopoly power retailers – Ergon and Energex – in an attempt to get the best price for the assets before they have to compete with private-sector companies.” While Ergon and Energex are indeed power retailers, their much more important role is running the electricity distribution network, an area where there is no capacity for competition.

The Courier-Mail does a better job, saying that the retail arms will be sold off, though it also fails to say what will be done with distribution. The estimated price of $1 billion is reasonable (maybe a bit optimistic, but I haven’t looked in detail) for the retail businesses, but far below the value of the distribution network.

To the extent that the current electricity model, including retail competition makes sense at all, selling off the retail arms of public distribution monopolies is a good idea. Retail and distribution don’t fit together at all well in this model. In fact, it would make some sense for electricity generators (most of which are publicly owned in Queensland) to buy or establish their own retail outlets. This would enable an efficient matching of risk.


The day before Anzac Day might not seem the best time to publish a piece claiming that the significance of the Australian victory at Kokoda was a myth propagated by the Labor party, but that’s what we got from Stephen Barton, a political scientist and former Liberal apparatchik.

The second part of the claim is both the most offensive and the most easily demolished. I got the full Kokoda legend taught to me at school in South Australia in the early 1960s, straight after saluting the flag and reciting our loyalty to the Queen at Assembly. That was about thirty years into the premiership of Sir Thomas Playford. The idea that the Labor party, or radical historians, managed to sneak the story into the school curriculum as propaganda is as unbelievable as it is offensive.

Now let’s turn to the substantive claim. I’m not an expert on military strategy, but neither is Barton, and he doesn’t cite anyone who is. He defends Churchill’s strategy of fighting Germany first and Japan second, and claims that

Japanese supply lines were overextended, their best troops were in China and their southern thrust had run out of steam


Had the Japanese driven south to Port Moresby it would have been a grim setback, but not a decisive blow.

This argument sounds plausible, but it would sound even more plausible if you crossed out “Port Moresby” and substituted “Townsville” or “Rockhampton”. The lines would have been extended even further then and the Japanese occupiers could have been left, as Barton suggests, to “wither on the vine” until the war was over. In effect, Barton has reinvented the Brisbane Line.*

* There’s no reason to believe the claim made by Eddie Ward that the Menzies government adopted, or even considered, a “Brisbane Line” plan. But it’s an obvious corollary of reasoning like Barton’s and there’s little doubt that such ideas were discussed.

BrisScience plug (again)

For Brisbane readers, tonight’s BrisScience lecture is on THROUGH THE ELECTRON LOOKING GLASS – John Drennan

In this second BrisScience talk, Prof Drennan will cross live to an operating electron microscope to take us on a real-time journey down to the atomic scale, from exploring the minerals that make up the deep earth to understanding biological cells.

Time: 6:30pm to 7:30pm (doors open at 6:00pm); complimentary wine, soft
drinks, and nibblies follow
Venue: Judith Wright Centre of Contemporary Arts (420 Brunswick St,
Fortitude Valley)

Contact Jennifer Dodd (0408 796 357, with
any questions.