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2019 John Gee Memorial Lecture: Introducing Hugh White

Welcome remarks to 2019 John Gee Memorial Lecture, ANU, Canberra, 30 October 2019

It’s my pleasure and privilege to welcome you all – especially the members of John Gee’s family: his widow Liv, and daughters Rebecca & Chrissy, son Nick, and sister Rose, all with their partners – to this 2019 John Gee Memorial Lecture, to be delivered by Professor Hugh White and hosted by the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre (SDSC) and National Security College within the Coral Bell School, ANU College of Asia and the Pacific.

This is the thirteenth lecture in the series which began in 2007, and which I have had the honour of chairing since I became Chancellor ten years ago. Reflecting the stature it has acquired, it has been delivered by a former Prime Minister and Foreign Minister, by the heads of the IAEA, OPCW, and CTBTO, and a series of world-ranking disarmament experts, both Australian and international.

We are breaking the sequence a little this year by hearing from Hugh White, who it might be fair to say is better known as an expert in armament rather than disarmament, and who is going to take us into hitherto unthinkable territory by asking whether Australia could ever contemplate acquiring nuclear weapons - but it should be an interesting debate.

One of the reasons this annual lecture commands such a stellar cast of speakers is the universal respect that is given to the man whose memory it honours. Dr John Gee made an extraordinary contribution to making the world a saner and safer place, in particular with the tireless and brilliant work he did in bringing to a conclusion the Chemical Weapons Convention and then implementing it in practice through the Office for Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPWC) – an institutional achievement that was recognized worldwide with the award to the OPCW of the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize. It’s one of the many tragedies of John Gee’s early death that he did not live to enjoy that recognition – which it’s not an exaggeration to say would not have occurred without his own remarkable work.

As I have described before in chairing these annual lectures, and make no apology for doing so again although I know the story is by now familiar to nearly all of you, I first became aware of John’s professional work in the mid-1980s, when as the chemical and biological weapons desk officer in the disarmament division of the Foreign Affairs Department, he was responsible, almost singlehandedly, for the establishment of the Australia Group: founded in the wake of the use of chemical weapons by Saddam Hussein in the Iran-Iraq war with the objective of denying access by countries of proliferation concern to chemicals and biological agents, precursors and dual-use equipment.

In the mid-1980s, again, John started to take a close interest in the long-stalled negotiations of a Chemical Weapons Convention, and, working closely with Defence Science and Technology Scientists Bob Matthews and Shirley Freeman, drafted the critical path for the acceleration of those negotiations, focusing particularly on the need to get industry support for a verification regime. That effort, with which I became closely associated as Foreign Minister after 1988, ultimately bore fruit in the conclusion of the Convention in 1992, an international achievement of which Australia can continue to be very proud.

In 1991 John was appointed by the UN Secretary-General to the UN Special Commission, or UNSCOM, which had been set up to oversee the elimination of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction after the first Iran-Iraq war.

In 1993 he was appointed Director of the Verification Division of the new OPCW being set up in The Hague under the Chemical Weapons Convention, charged with the complex and politically very sensitive task of developing and implementing all the institutions and procedures necessary to verify compliance with the Convention. When the Convention entered into force in 1997, John became its Deputy Director-General for the next six years before returning to Australia in 2003, working at the office of National Assessments (ONA) until he was struck down by the illness to which we lost him in 2007.

John Gee was absolutely one of the best and brightest public servants Australia has ever produced, and I am delighted that we continue to have the opportunity each year to celebrate his memory through this Memorial lecture.

The lecture was established at the initiative of Bob Matthews (who continues to be its prime organizational mover) and Rod Barton, and has had from the outset the actively engaged support of the SDSC, so our speaker this evening has been engaged in the enterprise right from the outset.

Hugh White hardly needs an introduction to any informed Australian audience these days, let alone an ANU one, but let me nonetheless pay some appropriate obeisance before he begins.

Hugh really has had an extraordinarily rich, varied, distinguished and influential career, starting with his honours degree in Philosophy from Melbourne University and his Oxford BPhil where in 1978 he won the John Locke Prize for Mental Philosophy (as if there were any other kind: although I guess if there had been a prize for physical philosophy he might have been up for that too…). In the 1980s and early 90s he was, successively, a Fairfax journalist, ONA intelligence analyst, and – where I first got to know and work with him – senior adviser to Kim Beazley as Defence Minister and Bob Hawke as Prime Minister.

From 1995 to 2000, he was Deputy Secretary for Strategy and Intelligence in Defence, where he was lead author of the 2000 Defence White Paper, and from 2001-04 the inaugural Director of ASPI (Australian Strategic Policy Institute). And since 2005, until pretending to hang up his boots last year, he has of course been here at ANU as Professor for Strategic Studies. Where he has been a formidably prolific author, most recently with the big book, How to Defend Australia, that really brings together all the themes he has been thinking and writing about for so many years.

But the fact that Hugh has been a great scholar and a great public policy intellectual in this country for as long as most of us can remember, doesn’t mean that he can’t on occasion be quite wrong-headed. It will be fascinating to hear him now try to persuade us -- and me -- that that is not the case in his willingness to even contemplate the possibility of Australia joining the ranks of the world’s nuclear-armed states.

Please welcome to the podium our 2019 John Gee Memorial Lecturer, Hugh White.