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John Wear Burton (1915–2010)

from Canberra Times

Labor prime ministers and foreign ministers often like to present themselves as working within an activist ''Labor tradition'' in foreign policy. An enthusiasm for engagement with Asia and the Pacific and a strong commitment to the United Nations and multilateral diplomacy are presented as elements of a distinctly Labor approach to diplomacy extending back to Dr H. V. Evatt who served as minister for external affairs from 1941 to 1949. Evatt steered Australia's diplomacy in the Second World War and championed the United Nations in the post-war period. Sadly the last direct link with that ambitious early phase of Australian diplomacy was broken earlier this week with the passing of economist, diplomat, academic and long time Canberra resident, Dr John Burton. The son of a Methodist missionary, Burton was born in Melbourne in 1915.

He graduated from the University of Sydney in 1937 and went on to complete a PhD at the London School of Economics before joining Australia's infant diplomatic service in 1941. Burton served as Evatt's private secretary and one of his closest advisers as he championed the rights of small powers at the 1945 San Francisco foundation conference of the United Nations. In 1947, aged 32, Burton was appointed as Secretary of External Affairs, becoming the youngest person to ever head a Commonwealth Department. At the time of his death he was also the longest-lived former departmental secretary. As Evatt's right-hand man, Burton played a prominent role in Australian diplomacy, especially in relation to Australia's early engagement with the United Nations, including a term on the Security Council in 1946-47, and the Chifley Labor government's critical decision to lend diplomatic support to Indonesia's independence struggle against the Netherlands. He turned Evatt's commitment to the UN Charter into practical diplomacy and brought his economist's perspective to the challenges of post-war reconstruction in the Asia-Pacific region. After the defeat of the Labor government in December 1949, Burton served as Australian high commissioner to Ceylon but resigned to run as a Labor candidate in the 1951 federal election of that year. He might have been a Labor foreign minister, but was defeated for the seat of Lowe by William McMahon. Burton spent the next few years as a farmer near Canberra and turned to writing.

At a time when Australian foreign policy makers were preoccupied with building security ties with the United States, Burton looked north and argued in his prescient first book, The Alternative, published in 1954, that Australia needed to find security and prosperity through positive engagement with our Asian neighbours. Burton went on to a distinguished academic career overseas. He taught international relations at University College, London, where he established the Centre for Conflict Resolution. His many books explored challenges in understanding human nature and world society as they relate to the causes and potential methods for resolving conflict. His problem-solving approach to conflict resolution has been adapted by academics and practitioners in relation to conflicts around the world including the Middle East, South-east Asia and the Caucasus. Burton was a controversial figure who aroused much suspicion from the conservative side of politics. In the depths of the Cold War, he was labelled the ''pink eminence'' of the Labor Party and was the subject of intense scrutiny by the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation that speculated, without any good cause, that his lack of enthusiasm for the US alliance reflected some connection with Soviet intelligence. Writing earlier this week the Director of the Australian Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, Professor Kevin Clements, recalled that ''John was a lively intellect, someone who knew how to generate conflict as well as resolve it. He was not an armchair theorist and always sought ways of ensuring that his theory was imbedded in concrete practice. He remained intellectually vital to the end.'' Having retired to Canberra, Burton remained engaged with politics at all levels. In his 90s, he wrote a long and thoughtful letter to Chief Minister Jon Stanhope setting out ideas to improve democratic governance and enhancing citizens' participation in the ACT Government. Sadly Stanhope's staff had no idea who Burton was and found much of what he wrote unpalatable. For his trouble Burton got a dusty two-sentence letter of acknowledgment and the correspondence was marked ''No further action.'' Even more regrettable has been the lack this week of any Government acknowledgement of Burton's contributions and achievements. Neither the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Stephen Smith, nor the Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Denis Richardson, made any statement or comment to mark the passing of one of the early and more distinguished members of Australia's diplomatic service, and one of the architects of the foreign policy tradition the Labor Government claims to uphold.

In an interview with The Canberra Times this week, Smith spoke at length about his satisfaction at being appointed Trade Minister as part of Prime Minister Julia Gillard's cabinet reshuffle. Burton, as an economist and strong advocate of Asian engagement, would no doubt have seen advantage in an even closer coordination of foreign and trade policy. Smith is the first cabinet minister to take on the roles of both Foreign Minister and Trade Minister since the two portfolios were merged with the creation of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade nearly 23 years ago. However, this will probably only be a temporary arrangement. As Foreign Affairs and Trade officials privately commented this week, while it might be ''OK and in some ways easier to have a single minister running the portfolio,'' such an arrangement was ''not viable other than as a short-term fix'' given the demanding ministerial travel schedule required to cover both Australia's diplomatic and trade interests. Reflecting on his work over the past two and a half years, Smith declined to single out an individual achievements of note, preferring to adopt a ''thematic approach,'' and declared the ''three pillars'' of the Labor Government's foreign policy approach to be in good shape: the United States alliance, deepening engagement with our Asian neighbours and a commitment to multilateral diplomacy including the United Nations.

The elements of a Labor tradition in foreign policy are still in place, at least in some of the rhetoric, though the tone is that of cautious and quiet managerialism rather than the ambition that characterised the pathfinding diplomacy of Evatt and Burton so many years ago. More often than not Smith is described as ''a safe pair of hands.'' That's often a good thing in the world of diplomacy and it's not a phrase that would always be applied to Evatt or Burton. Both were intensely ambitious and prepared to push the envelope to advance Australia's interests and to create a better world. Still there might well be a case for a more activist approach along the lines of former foreign minister Gareth Evans who was much more in the Evatt-Burton tradition. Burton certainly demonstrated an ability to surprise and generate controversy right to the end.

His wife Betty Nathan sent a note to friends after his death: ''He had a stroke and was in hospital for a couple of days. His ending was very peaceful, and in typical Burton style, gave everyone a shock. The nurses declared him dead, I was sent for, and by the time I arrived at the hospital, he had regained his pulse and was breathing Burton's Second Coming I call it. But a few hours later, when he stopped breathing, they waited half an hour before calling me, and this time he had put a period to the manuscript.''

John Burton: 1915-2010

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'Burton, John Wear (1915–2010)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 17 June 2024.

© Copyright Obituaries Australia, 2010-2024

Life Summary [details]


2 March, 1915
Melbourne, Victoria, Australia


23 June, 2010 (aged 95)
Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, Australia

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