Michael Kilmister

National Archives of Australia/Australian Historical Association postgraduate scholar, 2015–16

Topic: ‘Unity in matters of major importance’ – John Latham’s 1934 Eastern Mission and the Australian–British relationship

Biographical note

Michael Kilmister is a PhD candidate and sessional academic in History with the School of Humanities and Social Science, University of Newcastle. He is also the Seymour Scholar at the National Library of Australia for 2015. His thesis examines Australia's interwar foreign policy-making through a biographical focus on the political and diplomatic career of one of Australia’s leading interwar politicians and legal figures, Sir John Latham (1877–1964).

Project summary

The visits of prime ministers, foreign affairs ministers and other high-ranking politicians to Asian nations are a current fixture of Australia’s political calendar. This was not always the case.

It took until 1934 for Canberra to send the nation’s first official diplomatic mission to Asia. This landmark effort in diplomacy was known by several titles, including the ‘Goodwill Mission to Asia’ and the ‘Australian Eastern Mission’ (AEM). It was conducted by its chief architect John Latham, the then Attorney-General, Deputy Prime Minister, and Minister for External Affairs.

The mission was conceived and carried out amidst the Great Depression; growing Australian sovereignty in foreign affairs; the declining position of Great Britain in and increasing instability in the Asia–Pacific region. Unsurprisingly, multifaceted defence, diplomatic and economic objectives guided the mission’s agenda.

Michael Kilmister’s research project examines the ideological and imperial dimensions of the AEM. He takes into account both Latham’s Anglo-centric world view and the high level of coordination evident with British authorities. The diligent chaperoning by British diplomatic staff was augmented by their close attention to Latham’s discussions in Hong Kong, Singapore and Tokyo.

Apart from this focus, Michael’s research also recovers other threads in the historiography, including the mission’s stopovers in South-east Asia, Vietnam, and China. During current public discussion about Australia’s role in the Asian century, closer examination and reinterpretation of this pioneering example of cultural, diplomatic, and economic exchange with Asia is timely.

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