800th anniversary of the sealing of the Magna Carta and the Australian Defence Force

13 mins read
The Hon. Dr Brendan Nelson AO

The Runnymede Memorial is in Englefield Green, Surrey. It overlooks the River Thames and Runnymede Meadow.

Known as the Air Forces Memorial, it commemorates 20,456 men from across the air forces of the British Commonwealth killed in operations during the Second World War.

Inscribed onto the memorial are the names of 1,382 Australians who died fighting with the RAF while serving in the Royal Australian Air Force.

None has a known grave.

They died in defence of the truths upon which we pause here to reflect.

We do so as free and confident heirs to a legacy conceived in a document signed 800 years ago, shaped in free democratic debate, forged in bloody self-sacrifice and passed now to our generation.

One Australian commemorated on the Runnymede Memorial who died in the struggle to defeat Nazism is Flight Lieutenant John William Yarra DFM. A decorated Spitfire pilot who had flown in the defence of Malta, Yarra was killed on 10 December 1942 attacking a German convoy and a flak ship off the coast of Holland.

He was 21 years old.

Months earlier, John Yarra had written a letter to his mother, Harriet, to be sent to her in the event of his death:

My Dear Mother … I entered this war with the knowledge that I had a rather small chance of coming out of it alive. I was under no false impression – I knew I had to kill – and perhaps be killed. Since I commenced flying I have spent probably the happiest time of my life … Above all, Mother dear, I have proved to my satisfaction that I was, at least, a man.

His younger brother, Robert would give his life for us, shot down over France in 453 Fighter Squadron in April 1944. A third Yarra brother would survive the war fought in the Pacific.

One family, three sons, two Australian lives - sacrificed in the name of all we hold dear.

The Yarra brothers are just two of the more than 102,700 Australians who have given their lives in defence of the truths by which we live.

Each lies as a silent witness to the future they have given us.

We honour them best by the way we live our lives, shape our nation and resolve to be steadfast in defence of those truths.

Whilst democracy might be regarded as a ‘work in progress’, those truths have their origins in Magna Carta, signed in 1215 at the place where John Yarra’s name is now, and will forever - be remembered.

When serving as Australia’s ambassador to the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), I was invited to deliver an address in honour of NATO’s seventh Secretary General – the reformist visionary, Dr Manfred Worner.

I used the opportunity before NATO’s leadership across twenty eight nations, to answer the question most commonly asked of me - why is Australia, not a NATO member so deeply and strongly committed to the Afghanistan campaign?

Australia, I said, was committed to Afghanistan and the war within it for four reasons.

Firstly, three thousand innocent civilians were murdered on 11 September 2001 – including ten Australians, in an attack on the United States.

An Alliance means something to us.

We are Australians - we value loyalty, we say what we mean and we mean what we say. Five days after those heinous attacks, Australian Prime Minister John Howard committed our nation to do whatever would come next in defence of our ally and was supported in it by the then opposition.

Secondly, a year later, 88 Australians were among the 202 civilians murdered in Bali. Death had come from three men who had trained in Afghanistan with Al-Qaeda under the protection of the Taliban.

Our direct interests of the most important kind were directly affected.

Thirdly, our generation is facing a resurgent totalitarianism in the form of Islamic extremism. An earlier generation fought to defeat fascism and militarist imperialism in the 1930s and 40s.

The next generation had stared down communism through the cold war.

We are now engaged in a generational struggle against those who have hijacked the name of Islam to build a violent political utopia. These are people fanatically opposed to not only the United States, but to nations and people of all faiths committed the ideals of mankind, the equal treatment of men and women and the liberating power of education.

But the fourth is perhaps the most important.

It is the right thing to do.

Two years ago, the Chief of the Turkish Air force stood in the commemorative area at the Australian War Memorial. He pointed to one of the names in bronze of the theatres where Australians have fought and died over more than a century and asked of me “why were Australians there?”

“That is a very important question, General”, I replied. “In answering it, your journey of discovery will lead you to an understanding of who we are and in what we believe”.

To him, as to the NATO audience, I said the Australian government’s decision to use of the Australian Defence Force also reflects our nation’s values – the belief in individual political, economic and religious freedom; commitment to the rule of law; a free press; free academic enquiry; the co-existence of faith and reason; equality; fair play; compassion for those in need and pursuit of the public good.

We regard it as both immoral and delusional to think we can leave the fight against tyranny, oppression and brutality to the United States and a handful of other nations.

The decision making matrix of every Australian government to deploy the ADF – in peace and in war, has included that key question, what is the right thing to do?

No surprise then that the men and women who wear – and who have worn, the uniform of the Royal Australian Navy, Australian Army and Royal Australian Air Force over more than a century, are widely regarded as having given most and worked hardest to shape our values and beliefs, our nation’s sense of itself and place in the world.

Much of the foundation for those values that so anchor our nation, lies in the tenets of Magna Carta.

It has as much to do with our future as it does our past.

A people that loses sight of its history and that in which it believes – is dangerous.

Winston Churchill described Magna Carta as, “the most famous milestone of our rights and freedom”.

“The Great Charter” began life as a document sealed by John, King of England, at Runnymede – a meadow on the River Thames, near Windsor, Surrey on 15 June 1215. Its intent was to end the rebellion of a group of barons against the much hated, friendless and frightened king.

That charter agreed, promised much - the protection of church rights; protection for the barons from illegal imprisonment; access to swift justice; and limitations on feudal payment to the Crown.

The initial charter was a failure.

After John’s death, the regency government of his young son, Henry III, reissued the document. It was stripped of its more radical content, in an unsuccessful bid to build political support for the royal cause. At the end of the first barons’ war, the charter formed part of a peace treaty agreed to at Lambeth.

It would then be known as “Magna Carta”.

Henry reissued the charter again in 1225 in exchange for a grant of new taxes; his son Edward I did the same in 1297, this time confirming it as part of England’s statue law.

Magna Carta is one of the most important documents in British history.

Its clauses bear the principle that both king and subjects were bound together by the common law of the land.[1]

The charter has assumed iconic status. Commonly assumed to be a law protecting individual English freedoms, it is a lighthouse for liberty. 

The values of Magna Carta are enshrined in British institutions as fundamental tenets of British belief.

When Captain Arthur Phillip raised the Union Jack over the Port Jackson Foreshore on 26 January 1788, under imperialist legal theory he imported into this country as much of British common law as was capable of application to its penal conditions.

As Geoffrey Robertson QC has reminded us, whilst waiting at the Admiralty for provisioning of the First Fleet, it was Phillip who drafted what he described as the first law for a land that only he envisaged might become a nation:

“There can be no slavery in a free land and consequently, no slaves”.

This legacy is shared across the British Commonwealth and within western liberal democracies.

In living memory these values and institutions came under their greatest threat during the Second World War in the fight against fascism in Europe and Japanese imperialist militarism in the Pacific.  

Sir Winston Churchill said of Magna Carta[2]:

Throughout the document it is implied that here is a law which is above the King and which even he must not break. This reaffirmation of a supreme law and its expression in a general charter is the great work of Magna Carta; and this alone justifies the respect in which men have held it.

Western Allies in wartime drew on Magna Carta as a powerful reminder of what was at stake.

In January 1941 when Europe and much of the world were at war, US President Franklin D Roosevelt in his third Inauguration address, spoke of the need to defend democracy and freedom.

He evoked Magna Carta as inspiring democracy:[3]   

The democratic aspiration is no mere recent phase in human history. It is human history. It permeated the ancient life of early peoples. It blazed anew in the middle Ages. It was written in Magna Carta.

Franklin D. Roosevelt

As leader of the Australian opposition in 1940, John Curtin said:

“The things for which we are fighting in this war are surely those which are conferred in Magna Carta and the Bill of Rights.”[4]

Then as Australia’s Prime Minister in October 1942 - the most important year in Australia’s history after 1788, he again drew from it to inspire and lift the nation[5], reminding us of the very foundations of our belief:

Today, seven centuries after Magna Carta, we are faced with the necessity to defend all that was won on the struggle for human liberty.

When war broke out in 1939, an original copy of the 1215 Magna Carta was on display at the New York World’s Fair.

With Germany’s crushing, early blitzkrieg successes and America neutral, the British cabinet considered gifting this copy to the United States.

The British government declared common history and shared values: “Magna Carta is a part of American, as well as English history and both peoples equally trace their personal liberties from the signing of that document.”

The manuscript was found to belong to Lincoln Cathedral, returning from Fort Knox, Kentucky in 1946.[6]

It was in the war’s aftermath that the Charter inspired perhaps its greatest modern aspiration.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the United Nations in 1948. The ideal was that this declaration would promise individual liberty to all and become the “international Magna Carta of all men everywhere”.[7]

That is – the rule of law is central to our democracy and is the well spring of the freedoms we so cherish. Every person – irrespective of rank, status or office is subject to the same laws, legal and judicial processes.

Just as we citizens must obey the law, so too must our governments and its officials.

No person or entity can ignore the law and act with arbitrary power. The executive government and its agencies, including the Australian Defence Force are required to follow fair procedure and respect the rights of citizens.

The Australian Defence Force (ADF) is an instrument of national power and is responsible to the Australian Government.

Australia’s democratic institutions underpin our society and way of life.

We believe change to be the consequence of vision informed by persuasive debate, rejecting violence as a means to change either minds or the law.

The decision to deploy the ADF is made by government within the terms of the Australian Constitution. The Defence Act 1903 defines and provides the legislative basis for the political and military relationship.

The Australian government’s use of the ADF is for the defence of Australia and its interests. But that use also reflects our nation’s values.

Young Australians in the ADF are trained and encouraged to regard themselves not only as soldiers, sailors, airmen and women, but also as aid workers, teachers and diplomats.

There are limitations on executive power. The government cannot exercise coercive powers against an individual unless that conduct is authorised by legislation or the common law.

Where legislation does exist, there must be compliance with it. It in turn limits the power of the executive government.

In practical terms, power of direction over the ADF is exercised by the Minister for Defence in conjunction with the Prime Minister and other members of the National Security Committee.

As the government is responsible to the parliament and through it to the people, ultimately it answers to the people for any decisions it makes in relation to defence power.

Government is a compact between the ruler and the governed.

These are basic tenets drawn from Magna Carta.

At the conclusion of the third session of the Australasian Federal Convention in March 1898, to debate of a motion calling on delegates to take the draft bill back to each colony for the approval of the people, a South Australian delegate, Josiah Symon said this:

…..sir, no man can remain unmoved upon this momentous occasion. We who are assembled in this Convention are about to commit to the people of Australia a new Charter of union and liberty; we are about to commit this new Magna Carta for their

acceptance and confirmation, and I can conceive of nothing of greater magnitude

in the whole history of the peoples of the world than this question upon which we

are about to invite the peoples of Australia to vote. The Great Charter was wrung by the barons of England from a reluctant king. This new charter is to be given by the people of Australia to themselves.

And so for our young nation, the principles enshrined in Magna Carta informed both federalism and the framing of our constitution.

Quite simply, we cannot have democracy without the guarantee of the rule of law provided by Magna Carta.

Upon that foundation, our nation’s system of government has been built. This principle and guarantee needs to be defended – politically, diplomatically and at times, militarily.

As Frederick the Great observed, ‘Diplomacy without the sword is like music without the instruments’.

To the Australian Defence Force falls the responsibility to do so when asked – at home, on our borders, in our region and in distant parts of the world.

On the 23rd of August 1916, Second Lt Edward Lionel (‘Leo’) Butler wrote to his wife after the bloodbath of Pozieres in which Australia had sustained 23,000 casualties in three weeks.

“I couldn’t help wondering if it was worth it – whether there was anything gained in this war which justified such sacrifices.”

Four months later just after Christmas, a short distance from here at the Presbyterian Church in Ainslie, a large multidenominational crowd packed the church and its surrounds to honour the life of Private Malcolm ‘Mac’ Southwell of the 20th Battalion. Waist deep in mud, he was killed by shell fragments at the battle of Flers on 5 November 1916.

As if to answer Leo Butler’s question – the very question asked by the families of every one of the 102,700 Australians listed on the Roll of Honour at the Australian War Memorial, those assembled at the church and the broader community heard these words said to Malcolm Southwell’s family:

“It must be their chief consolation to know he laid down his life in the noble cause of righteousness and liberty, and therefore died not in vain”.

For righteousness and liberty, 2 million Australian men and women serve – and have served this nation over more than a century, upholding values enshrined in Magna Carta.


Flight Lieutenant John William Yarra DFM, left, and his brother, Sergeant Ernest Yarra, both served in England with No. 453 Squadron, RAAF in 1942. Flight Lieutenant Yarra was killed in action on 10 December 1942. Sergeant Yarra was killed on 14 April 1944.

[1] Robert Bartlett, The Plantagenets: the devil’s brood, BBC, History Production, London, 2013.

[2] The history of the English-speaking peoples, vol. 1, ch. 7 (1956).

[3] “Magna Carta quotations”, Magna Carta 800, http://magnacarta800th.com/schools/downloads-and-resources/magna-carta-quotations, <accessed 3 June 2015>.

[4] “Mr Curtin’s view: what we are fighting for”, The West Australian, 9 April 1940, p. 8.

[5] “Hold on in north for six months: prelude to victory drive, says Mr Curtin”, Sydney Morning Herald, 5 October 1942.

[6] “Gifting Magna Carta to the United States”, Magna Carta in the twentieth century, http://www.bl.uk/magna-carta/articles/magna-carta-in-the-20th-century, <accessed 3 June 2015>.

[7] “Magna Carta and human rights”, Magna Carta in the twentieth century, http://www.bl.uk/magna-carta/articles/magna-carta-in-the-20th-century, <accessed 3 June 2015>.

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