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25 Speech by Mr J. A. Lyons, Prime Minister, to First Plenary Session of Imperial Conference

E 1st meeting (1937) LONDON, 14 May 1937

The Commonwealth of Australia is proud to be associated with this Imperial Conference, coming, as it does, immediately after the Coronation of Their Majesties, the King and Queen, for whom, in unmistakable manner, all the Dominions have shown their loyalty and affection. Australia joins whole-heartedly with the other members of this Conference in reaffirming that loyalty.


I wish to associate Australia with what Mr Baldwin and Mr Mackenzie King have said about the late King George V. It was my proud privilege to know him personally, and I came to realise his sterling qualities both as a King and as a man. All of us here appreciate the magnitude of the self-sacrificing services he rendered to the Empire during one of the most difficult periods of its history. In Australia he was loved and respected. His noble example of duty will, I know, be an inspiration to his son in the great task to which he has dedicated himself.


I feel that I speak for all sections of the Australian people when I say that we come to this Imperial Conference as willing partners in a great enterprise, the success of which will depend upon a spirit of co-operation, based upon mutual interest.

One of the most conspicuous features of the period since the last Imperial Conference has been the increasing participation in international affairs by the Dominions as sovereign nations.

The peoples of the Dominions-and this is very noticeable in Australia -are taking a widespread interest in all questions of foreign policy, because of the growing realisation that no nation can live unto itself. At successive Imperial Conferences since 1902, the development of the Dominions towards nationhood has been recognised, and the principles of free co-operation on a basis of equality have been consistently applied.

This has led to a rapid evolution in the relationship between the Mother Country and the self-governing Dominions, and yet, despite the forebodings of some who saw in this development a threat to Imperial unity, never has the Empire been more united.

This unity has its source in the unique position which the Crown holds in the British Commonwealth, and has been greatly strengthened by the affection and esteem which the King and the Members of the Royal Family have won by their devotion to duty, self-sacrifice, and spirit of high endeavour in the best interests of all their people.

To-day we stand as a group of peace-loving nations united by our allegiance to the Throne, and bound together by our faith in democracy and our common love of liberty and justice. World peace is the ideal which all the peoples of the British Empire have as their objective.


We are all members of the League of Nations, and of recent years the declared policy of the British nations has been based on the League's concept of permanent peace ensured by the principles of conciliation, arbitration, and collective action.

These principles constituted a focal point for a common Empire policy. Unhappily the experience of the last few years has shown the impracticability, under present conditions, of achieving to the full the great ideals which are embodied in the Covenant. The Australian Government, therefore, is of the opinion that an examination of the bases of the British Commonwealth foreign policy and of the position of the League should be one of the major considerations of this Conference, with a view to the formulation of a consistent and unified Empire policy.

In this examination, we of the Dominions must recognise that the new status which we have achieved and which we regard with such pride, carries with it not only great privileges, but also great responsibilities. These responsibilities involve the obligation of assuming the full burden of nationhood. No longer can we shelter behind our partnership in the British Empire. We must face to the fullest extent of our capacity the obligation to provide for our own national defence. We must be prepared to play our part in ensuring the peace of the world. We must be prepared to offer our counsel and to reinforce that counsel with our assistance should the circumstances ever arise wherein those great principles for which British people have ever stood are imperilled. Further, we must ever remember that never before have our own people and the people of the world looked more anxiously for British leadership.

All democratic peoples, and all who desire the maintenance of international law and order, are hoping for positive results from this Conference. They look for a clear lead along the path of stable and enduring peace, and the Australian Government feels that a statement should issue from this Conference which will demonstrate to the rest of the world that the countries composing the British Commonwealth of Nations are prepared to act together in support of the maintenance of international law and order.

As a result of the work of this Conference, we can make a great contribution to the stabilisation and pacification of the world.

It is my sincere hope that we will rise to the height of our opportunity.


While I do not desire to anticipate the discussion which will take place when we have the question of foreign policy before us, there is one area of the world, the Pacific, where Australia's interests are so vitally concerned that I desire to make a brief reference to it.

The Australian Government has noted the tendency of States to endeavour to enter into agreements in the form of regional pacts in respect of regions where their interests are directly concerned. Australia would greatly welcome a regional understanding and pact of nonaggression by the countries of the Pacific, conceived in the spirit of the principles of the League.

Towards the achievement of such a pact we are prepared to collaborate with all other peoples in a spirit of understanding and sympathy.


I now desire to say a word on defence. Australia views her security and that of the British Commonwealth as lying within three successive ramparts-the Covenant of the League, the strength of the British Commonwealth, and her own Defence Forces.

We recall the words of the United Kingdom Government that it can no longer close its eyes to the fact that adequate defences are still required for security, and to enable the British Empire to play its full part in maintaining the peace of the world. We are also aware of the extensive measures being taken by the United Kingdom Government to strengthen its defences, in conjunction with its declared intention to pursue the national policy of peace by every practicable means.

Australia looks for the frankest discussion during the Conference of the international position and its relation to the United Kingdom defence programme, in order to enable the Australian Government to review its defence policy in the light of the facts which emerge, and to put before the people and Parliament for endorsement the policy that the Ministry may decide upon.

We would submit that the British Commonwealth-a lesser League within the League-has its common interests developed to such a degree that it is vital to the welfare of its members to afford each other mutual support. The principle is really the same as, that which underlies the regional pacts commended to members of the League as the first stage of collective security. As our policy is one of peace and fidelity to the League, in looking to our own defence we also contribute to the general cause of peace and stability.

The recent experience of the League, however, has indicated the importance of machinery being ready to put into operation the provisions of the Covenant without undue delay. Australia feels that it is equally important for a common understanding to exist between the British Nations as to the manner in which measures should be concerted between them for the maintenance of their common ideals.

The weakening of the collective system has reacted more disadvantageously against the small nations of the world than against the great and powerful States, for the small Powers must look to a greater strength than their own to repel a strong aggressor. The Dominions, however, have the great good fortune to be members of the British Commonwealth, the main source of whose military, financial and economic strength is the United Kingdom;

but to receive we must be prepared to give.

Australia, therefore, subject to the sovereign control of its own policy, and without prior commitment, stands for co-operation in defence between the members of the British Commonwealth, and it has adopted the guiding principles laid down at Imperial Conferences as the basis of its policy for co-operation in Empire naval defence and for its own local defence.


In view of the suggestions I have made for the further development of co-operation, it is probably desirable that I should give to the Conference an indication of what Australia has done to implement the principles which I have indicated have governed our defence policy.

The naval principles provide for the maintenance of adequate naval strength, and the provision of naval bases and facilities for repair and fuel. Since the establishment of the Royal Australian Navy on a national basis in 1910, Australia has spent 70,000,000 on Naval Defence. Nine ships are at present in commission-three cruisers, three destroyers, two sloops and a survey ship-and three ships are in reserve. The squadron has recently been strengthened by one new cruiser and two sloops and the permanent seagoing personnel by 1,050 men. The re-arming of the fixed defences of the main Australian ports is being carried out at an estimated cost of 3,200,000, of which half has already been provided; air co- operation is being provided for these defences; facilities for naval repairs are being maintained; and naval oil fuel tanks have been constructed. Of the additional amount that will have been spent under the Three Years' Programme, ending on the 30th June next, 41 per cent. has been allotted to the Navy.

The Conference of 1923 declared that it is the primary responsibility of each part of the Empire to provide for its own local defence. In addition to strengthening the fixed defences of the important ports, the Australian Government has recently provided a special increase in the Army vote to bring the Field Army of seven divisions up to its minimum nucleus establishment.

The strength of the permanent forces is also being increased, and improvements are being effected in the efficiency, armament and equipment of the Army.

The Air Force completes this year Part 1 of the scheme laid down by Sir John Salmond, and it will have a first line strength of 8 squadrons and 96 aircraft, which will later be expanded to 17 squadrons and 194 aircraft.

The Australian Government has established munitions factories of various types at a capital cost of 3,500,000, and arranged for a strong industrial and financial group to erect a factory for the manufacture of aircraft. Australia also possesses dockyard resources for ship repairs and construction which are not being fully utilised. The proposal for cooperation would cover a survey of the munitions manufacturing resources of the Dominions in relation to probable demands of the Empire, and the Government feels there are considerable potentialities for Empire supply in the Governmental and other factories of Australia.

Australia is of the opinion that, if the several parts of the Empire implement the guiding principles already laid down and adopt the proposal for further co-operation, the security of the whole Empire should be assured. As the objective of the British Commonwealth's policy is peace and defence, and not war and aggression, it should become a rallying point for other peaceful States. In this respect all members of the British Commonwealth and other peace-loving States endorse wholeheartedly the declaration of the Foreign Secretary that British arms will never be used contrary to the spirit and principles of the Covenant of the League.


If, in regard to foreign affairs and defence, we have both a great task and a great opportunity, this is no less the case in the field of economic policy.

Free as each Empire nation is to choose its own path, we have a common purpose in our economic as well as in our foreign policies.

We are a group of nations practising economic co-operation, first for the welfare of each separate nation, but also for our mutual advantage.

Since the Ottawa Conference, we have made much progress in intra- Imperial trade. Our co-operation has enabled us to secure that, within the British Empire, trade could be carried on under stable conditions in spite of the world depression.

To-day all Empire countries and a number of foreign nations have emerged from the depression. The recovery of production and of internal markets is widespread but has not, as yet, been reflected to a corresponding extent in world trade.

The first purpose of economic policy is to secure the welfare of the individual citizens of our respective countries.

In achieving this object, Australia regards the development of secondary industries as highly important, and this fact is recognised in the framing of our trade policies.

Australia's future, however, is bound up with her primary industries, and the advancement of these industries makes vital the extension of our external trade.

This trade has been found to an important degree within the British Commonwealth, but almost every Empire country has become increasingly aware of the need for wider markets than even the Empire can supply. Hence, if we are able progressively to improve our standards of living, it is essential that there should be an increase in world trade.

Economic policy, however, also has profound effects upon the political relations of the countries of the world. To-day we are confronted by the picture of a world in which science has made possible standards of living for all countries far in advance of anything previously experienced, and yet in which poverty and unemployment have led to grave political discontents.

There is thus urgent need for wide policies of economic appeasement if our endeavours to bring about peaceful conditions in the world are to be successful.

For this purpose the revival of world trade is of first importance.

The Commonwealth Government, therefore, feel it essential that at this Conference we should undertake a general review of our trade relations. We believe that such a review will lead us to conclude that intra-Empire trade has been, and will continue to be, of the utmost importance to each part of the Empire, but that the incidence of our trade agreements amongst the various members of the Empire requires careful re-examination.

It is also essential to examine how we can jointly and severally contribute to the great objective of a restoration of conditions in the world which will allow of a freer interchange of goods and services, so that every country may be able to improve the well- being of its population.

There is in the world to-day a stronger tendency towards economic co-operation than has been evident for a number of years, and the Commonwealth Government greatly welcomed the currency alignment agreements. We also feel a warm interest in the mission which the United Kingdom and the French Governments have entrusted to M. Van Zeeland. [1]

It must be our task to see along what lines our national and Imperial economic policies can contribute to world prosperity. The paths toward these objectives can converge. Just as in the realm of foreign policy the group of nations which constitutes the British Empire must work for ideals embodied in the Covenant, so in economic policy we need to translate our strong existing co- operation among ourselves into policies which, while safeguarding our individual interests, will contribute to world prosperity and thus promote better relations both economically and politically between the nations of the world.

Australia would therefore urge that this Imperial Conference should give the closest attention to economic problems since it is in this field that it may be found that positive results can be achieved in the near future.


The Agenda for the Conference embraces many other subjects. I feel, however, that the questions with which I have dealt so far transcend any other matters to which we will have to direct our attention that it is desirable that I should confine my remarks at this opening session to outlining the view of the Commonwealth upon them, and with those who have already spoken I express the hope that the greatest possible success will result from our deliberations.

1 On 6 April 1937, Paul van Zeeland, Belgian Prime Minister, accepted a joint invitation from Britain and France to inquire into the possibility of obtaining a general reduction of quotas and other obstacles to international trade in order to give effect to the tripartite declaration of 26 September 1936 (see Document 17, section on France).

Last Updated: 11 September 2013

Category: International relations

Topic: History