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  • Writer's pictureStuart Jeffery

Common(wealth) Knowledge #77: World War I and Australian independence

The Treaty of Versailles was Australia's first independent venture in foreign affairs.

World War I is famously remembered for helping shape Australia’s national identity. However, what it meant for Australia’s global identity is often overlooked on Remembrance Day.

Despite the Federation of Australia in 1901, many Australians were more likely to identify themselves as British subjects and residents of their state, with their citizenship of Australia taking the back seat.

WWI, especially the Gallipoli campaign, changed this. The ANZAC legend gave Australians a value system and national image to rally behind. Although Australians entered the war as British subjects, they emerged out of it as Australians.

Just as World War I created an Australian national identity, it also helped create Australia’s international identity, taking part in the Treaty of Versailles in 1919.

Australia, under Prime Minister Billy Hughes, was invited to the Treaty of Versailles as both part of the British Empire and as an independent nation that participated in the war. It was this dual identity that played a major role in Australia’s role at Versailles.

Previously, the British Colonial Office had been responsible for the Empire’s foreign affairs, acting on behalf of Australia, India, and the other Dominions of Canada, South Africa, and New Zealand. That is what happened at the end of the Second Boer War from 1899-1902.

In 1919, Australia was in the middle of the White Australia Policy. Because of this, it was disgusted about Japan’s contributions at the Paris Peace Conference during the drafting of the treaty. At the time, Japan was seen as a threat, and Australia did not like Japan’s naval treaty with the British.

This came to a head when discussing the League of Nations, the predecessor to the United Nations, which was created by the treaty.

Japan, an Asian power that had proven its ability to defeat European powers in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05 and WWI, sought to include a provision about racial equality in the treaty.

Australia led the charge in having this proposal struck down. Japan’s outrage about the Western-centric nature of the treaty would go on to become one of the reasons that they sided with Nazi Germany.

Australia’s participation in the treaty also meant it was one of the founding members of the League of Nations, and attended the League as an independent nation, rather than being represented by the British.

This also handed Australia control over German New Guinea, the northern half of what is now Papua New Guinea, formally governing it on behalf of the League of Nations as a ‘mandate.’

Australia had controlled Papua since 1902, when Britain transferred control of it to Australia. It had been in British possession since 1883, when Britain stopped Queensland from annexing Papua in its own right.

Two other Dominions, New Zealand and South Africa, also received land this way. New Zealand was granted Samoa, while South Africa gained German South-West Africa, now known as Namibia.

However, Australia did not fully abandon the British Empire. When it did not have its own interest in a matter being discussed in Paris, it voted with the British. Australia, India, and the other three Dominions effectively gave the British five free votes, which they could include many of their proposals in the treaty.

The Balfour Declaration of 1926 would see Britain surrender all control over foreign policy to the Dominions, formalising the reality seen at the Treaty of Versailles.

Australia’s ability to gain German land on its own, change provisions of the treaty, and take part in negotiations in its own right showed the world that Australia was truly no longer a colony, and was prepared to act independently on the world stage.

The Treaty of Versailles led to three decades of Australia shifting away from its status as a British Dominion.

This culminated with the ANZUS treaty of 1952, when Australia and New Zealand decided that a treaty with the United States offered better protection than Britain. Meanwhile, H.V. Evatt, the Minister for Foreign Affairs, helped establish the United Nations, and spent a year as President of the General Assembly.

Although it would take several more decades for Australia to remove any British influence over it, especially in the Australian legal system, the process that began in 1919 and ended in 1952 saw Australia cast off its shackles and became a truly independent nation on the world stage.

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