Michael Fullilove began our series on great speeches about Australia's place in the world with a selection of ten speeches, here and here. Graeme Dobell's first pick in this series was Bob Hawke's APEC creation speech. His second choice is John Howard's speech on the US alliance and Australia's response to the September 11 attacks.

Australia's House of Representatives convened on 17 September 2001, six days after the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington had set the direction of the first decade of the 21st century.

The Prime Minister, John Howard, who was in Washington on the day of the attack, rose to give one of his finest parliamentary performances, formally invoking the treaty provisions of Australia's alliance with the US. It was a speech from the heart as well as the head. Howard stood with a long line of Australian leaders over the previous century who had built the security relationship with the US. Howard's passion was clear, as were the principles he spoke to – but much that followed was to become a dark time in the alliance.

Howard moved a motion that the House:

  1. expresses its horror at the terrorist attacks which have claimed so many lives in the United States of America;
  2. conveys to the Government and people of the United States of America the deepest sympathy and sense of shared loss felt by the Government and people of Australia;
  3. extends condolences to the families and other loved ones of those Australians killed or missing as a result of the attacks;
  4. declares that such attacks represent an assault, not only on the people and the values of the United States of America, but of free societies everywhere;
  5. praises the courageous efforts of those engaged in the dangerous rescue operation still underway;
  6. believes that the terrorist actions in New York City and Washington DC constitute an attack upon the United States of America within the meaning of Articles IV and V of the ANZUS Treaty;
  7. fully endorses the commitment of the Australian Government to support within Australia's capabilities United States-led action against those responsible for these tragic attacks; and
  8. encourages all Australians in the wake of these appalling events to display those very qualities of tolerance and inclusion which the terrorists themselves have assaulted with such awful consequences.

I've watched many Howard performances in the old and new parliament, and this was one of those rare times when he stepped beyond his role as a political warrior and a great debater. It was the speech of a leader explaining to Australia that 'the world has changed. We are all diminished, we are all changed, and we are all rather struggling with the concept that it will never be quite the same again.'

The speech had three parts: the first focused on what Howard called 'a tragedy and an obscenity of an appalling and repugnant magnitude'; then on the fight ahead and the values involved; and finally ANZUS.

Tragedy:

In the 27 years that I have been privileged to be a member of this parliament, I can think of no more sombre occasion than the circumstances under which this House meets today. We have had tragedies of a national and international kind before. We have been touched by the poignancy of the deaths of people. We have confronted significant moral and national challenges, but none matches in depth, scale and magnitude the consequences of what the world must now do in response to the terrible events in the United States last week. In sheer scale, the death and destruction are almost incomprehensible in a time not regarded as a time of war...It goes beyond the death so cruelly inflicted without warning, without justification and without any skerrick of moral authority on innocent people merely going about their daily lives; its context represents a massive assault on the values not only of the United States of America but also of this country— the values of free men and women and of decent people and decent societies around the world. It is an act of terror. It is an act which is repugnant to all of the things that we as a society believe in. On occasions like this, those things that divide us in this parliament, those things that we might bicker and quarrel over as a people, as we go about our lives, are so suddenly and so quickly put into perspective. I remember the morning in Washington— as the House knows, I had been in the United States. I had been for an early morning walk. It was a beautiful Washington morning— there was just a touch of autumn. I had walked past the Lincoln memorial and many of the other great memorials of that great nation which stood between us and tyranny on one critical occasion in our history. I, like millions of other Australians, was deeply moved and distressed. I felt an enormous sense of empathy towards the American people who had suffered this awful deed.

Values:

There is united, righteous, deep, seething anger around the world at present. But, as the months go by and as perhaps the early dividends of retaliatory action are not ready and not apparent, some of that anger may subside; and some may argue that the extra miles that are required to be travelled are not really worth it. But, if those who died last Tuesday are not, in the judgment of history, to have died in vain, there is an obligation on all of us to persevere, to travel the distance, to persist and to root out the evil that brought about those terrible deeds. But, in the process of responding, we must do so with care as well as with lethal force. We should understand that barbarism has no ethnicity and evil has no religion. Both around the world and within our own society, we should take pause lest we engage in the evil of scapegoating individual groups within our society. I have said on a number of occasions that I know that my fellow Australians of Islamic faith are overwhelmingly as appalled about what happened as I am, as an inadequately practising Christian. This is an assault on values common to all the great religions of the world, and it is also an assault on the values of many people who profess no religion. I say to my fellow Australians of Islamic faith or of Middle Eastern descent that I extend to you the hand of friendship. You are part of our great society; you are part of the fabric of the great, decent, freedom loving, fair minded Australian nation; and you are as entitled to share my outrage, my sorrow, my anger and my sadness as are others within our community—because wouldn't it be a terrible, tragic, obscene irony if in responding, however we do it as individuals or as nations, to these terrible terrorist attacks we forsook the very things that we believed had been assaulted last Tuesday in New York?

Alliance:

In every way, the attack on New York and Washington and the circumstances surrounding it did constitute an attack upon the metropolitan territory of the United States of America within the provisions of articles IV and V of the ANZUS Treaty. If that treaty means anything, if our debt as a nation to the people of the United States in the darkest days of World War II means anything, if the comradeship, the friendship and the common bonds of democracy and a belief in liberty, fraternity and justice mean anything, it means that the ANZUS Treaty applies and that the ANZUS Treaty is properly invoked. As a proud, patriotic Australian, I was literally moved to tears by what occurred in the United States. I was filled with admiration for the spirit of the American people. I can with genuine affection and fondness say that their behaviour in the wake of those events and their determination to respond appropriately, to heal the wounds and to help those who mourn and grieve demonstrates very powerfully that the American people do live, in the words of their wonderful national anthem, 'in the land of the free and the home of the brave'.

Formally invoking the treaty for the first time, Howard marked another moment in an Australian tradition: Deakin inviting the US Great White Fleet; Curtin turning to the US in the Pacific war free of any pangs for the traditional links to Britain; Spender achieving the ANZUS treaty; Menzies committing to Vietnam with the new great and powerful ally; Holt going all the way with LBJ; Whitlam hanging on to the alliance despite Vietnam and the controversy over the US bases in Australia; Hawke incorporating the US bases into the alliance.

The course Howard, set with his speech and parliamentary resolution, took Australia to Afghanistan and Iraq. The commitment Howard made was not just to the alliance but to George W Bush. The Push With Bush was to impose great political costs on Howard and Tony Blair, and significant alliance burdens on their nations. Iraq divided Australian politics while, by contrast, the major parties maintained their consensus on the commitment to Afghanistan over the 12 years of what became Australia's longest war.

Throughout Iraq and Afghanistan, the centrality of the US alliance for Australia endured with barely a wobble, proving the strength of the idea about the US relationship at the heart of Howard's speech.