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The most outstanding Australian of our time  page image

Robert Menzies called him “probably the outstanding Australian of our time”.

Stanley Melbourne Bruce was born in 1883 in St Kilda, Melbourne. At 22 years of age he moved to London to be Acting Chairman of his father’s textile products importing company – Paterson, Laing & Bruce. His older brother, Ernest, was put in charge of the Australian end of the business.

In 1914, war erupted in distant Europe. Bruce fought in Gallipoli, where he was wounded, then again at nearby Suvla Bay, where he won the Military Cross for making contact with an isolated section. He also received the Croix de Guerre avec Palme, recognising the support his battalion had given the French.

Bruce returned to Australia in 1917 to take over as General Manager of Paterson, Laing & Bruce, which continued to prosper. The following year, however, his political destiny began to manifest, as he secured National Party endorsement for the Federal seat of Flinders.

At the same time he became the Director of Equity Trustees, a position he held until 1921 when he became Australia’s delegate to the newly-established League of Nations. Well-versed in the horrors of war, he warned his audience in Geneva: “If the League of Nations goes, the hope of mankind goes also1.”

Back home, Australia plunged into political crisis. Billy Hughes – the reigning Prime Minister and leader of the National Labor Party, for which Bruce was now Treasurer – had failed to get an absolute majority in the 1922 election. The Country Party refused to enter a coalition with Hughes, forcing him to step down. Suddenly, Bruce found himself elevated to the Prime Ministership. He made the strengthening of the fragile coalition his top priority, and was so successful that the alliance remains firmly in place in Australian politics today.

By 1929, Bruce was no longer Prime Minister and in 1933 he accepted a High Commissionership in London. In this role he again represented Australia at the League of Nations until 1939, the fateful year in which an even bigger and uglier European war broke out. Bruce astutely foresaw that Britain and France could and would not fulfil their obligations as allies to Poland, and also recognised the much closer danger that Germany’s ally Japan presented in the Pacific.

As High Commissioner, Bruce loyally served Australia’s wartime governments and in 1942 joined the War Cabinet, a specially formed commission to advise on the war situation. He retired from politics shortly after the war’s end in August 1945.

Hot war against Fascism transitioned to cold war against Communism, and Bruce used his position to advocate for improving the lot of the underdeveloped world. “Well-fed men,” he liked to remind his audiences, “are not apt to become revolutionaries2”.

As his biography in the ‘Australian Dictionary of Biography’ makes clear, although he saw out the remaining years of his life in London, “Bruce retained a strong sense of being an Australian. The English never doubted whose interests he had at heart3.” Fittingly, when he passed away in 1967, Bruce’s ashes were scattered around Canberra as per his wishes.

1, 2 & 3 Heather Radi, ‘Australian Dictionary of Biography’