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A new home - and library - for AIIA Victoria

Remarks at the opening of new office of Australian Institute of International Affairs (AIIA), Victoria Branch, 356 Collins Street, Melbourne, 22 February 2024

If organisations and institutions could ever be living national treasures, the AIIA – and in particular its Victorian Branch – would very much deserve a place in the Pantheon.

For nearly a century now the Institute – established in NSW in 1924, Victoria in 1925 and as a national body in 1933 – has been a non-ideological, non-partisan forum for rational debate on the great issues of Australian foreign policy. It continues to play that role superbly – engaging senior ministers and officials, currently in office or retired, academics, media players, and internationally experienced business and professional figures, along with members of the foreign diplomatic community, in a large range of events and activities.

It has never been more important that it continue to play that role, and with even more intensity. The regional and global geopolitical order, while not necessarily in terminal decline, is more fragile and volatile than it has been for decades. Global norms that we thought were now pretty well established - against waging aggressive war, against genocide and mass atrocity crimes, in favour of an open rules-based economic order – are now under full frontal assault from multiple directions.

Within our own country – when it comes to attitudes to the US and China, and the choice between cooperative and confrontational responses to challenges, between diplomatic and kinetic approaches to meeting potential threats – there are real and obvious differences within the foreign policy community between optimists and pessimists, between true believers and sceptics, which have rarely been more stark. More broadly, the language of social media is getting ever more strident, the communication silos seem to be getting ever taller and stronger, and the willingness to listen seriously to opposing points of view becoming ever less obvious.

It has never been more important, under these circumstances, that the Institute play its role as an influential space for informed debate, as a keeper and publisher of journals of record, and platform for intelligent advocacy both publicly and directly to government - and that it expand its membership, visibility and outreach activity.

In that context, the opening of this new Victorian branch office is a big milestone. More easily accessible, more obviously welcoming at the entrance, and much more obviously workable as a space for roundtables, events and receptions, 356 Collins St has the potential to be a real game-changer.

Fast game-changing has not been an obvious part of the Institute’s DNA in the past: august institutions tend to move at a rather august pace. It took 37 years for the Victorian Branch to find distinctive premises of its own with the move into Dyason House in Jolimont in 1961, and another 64 to make the present move, though it has long been obvious that Dyason House, for all its charm and sentimental history, hasn’t really been fully fit for purpose.

It is to the enormous credit of our very energetic Executive Director Alastair Roff, President Richard Iron and his predecessor Patrick Moore, and the governing Council of the Branch, that the enormously complicated tasks – made even more so by the Covid shutdown – of negotiating the sale of Dyason House, the finding and leasing of this splendid new space in Collins Street, and all the nightmarish logistics of managing any major move, have all now at last been so triumphantly accomplished. Warmest thanks to you all from all the members and friends and supporters of the Institute, just a small representative fraction of whom are joining us today.

One of the logistic tasks in the move that made Alastair’s life even more burdensome, was carting to their wonderful new home here the dozens of cartons of books that now glory in the title of the ‘Gareth Evans Library’, and which now find an honoured place alongside the specialist collection known as the ‘John Legge Library’. The Legge collection, which the Victorian Branch has long had on its shelves at Dyason House, and is now relocated here (soon, Alastair reassures me, to have its own plaque restored), is of course named after the Monash historian of cherished memory to so many of us, who was a former president of the branch in the 1960s and an absolute mainstay of the organization over many decades both before and since then.

I have to say that I am delighted that so many of the books on international relations themes I have gathered over the years, about 1300 of them here – and which have played such a crucial role in developing my own understanding and foreign policy ideas – have now found this new home. They will certainly be accessible here to a much wider readership than they would have been had they remained just on my own shelves or, more likely – given that my home shelves are already more than full – had to be consigned to landfill, for want of other takers, when their previous home in my Melbourne ANU office was closed.

In those shelves of mine at home are currently sitting more than another 1000 works of biography, history and international relations, on which – as I have indicated to Alastair, and in my will – I am happy for the Institute to have first call, if the mood strikes, and shelf-space here permits, when mortality eventually catches up with me. With the current rate of decay of my now nearly 80 year-old infrastructure, I don’t think I can delay that indefinitely – but while I’m not planning to hang around for anything like as long as Henry Kissinger, it might be just a little premature for Alastair to be measuring up the new woodwork...

While all these books have their decorative uses – as that Anthony Powell character says “Books do furnish a room”, and they certainly look great here – my hope of course is that they will actually be browsed, borrowed and read by AIIA members. There’s a bit of work to be done in getting the electronic cataloguing and borrowing systems into shape – not least because my library and the Legge Library catalogues are based on completely different systems – but I’m sure that Alastair will shortly have on the case, as he did during the move, some of his army of interns, and maybe a retired librarian or two.

Having such wonderfully accessible and user-friendly new surroundings will certainly increase the chances of all these books finding new readers, and – apart from their nostalgic appeal to those like me of a pre-Kindle and i-pad age, who actually like turning real paper pages – hopefully will get some younger members, of the kind the Institute is now working hard to attract, started on their own intellectual journeys.

So thanks and congratulations to all those who have worked so hard to make this new chapter in the Institute’s history a reality. And thank you for giving me the honour and privilege of formally declaring not only my little library, but this whole grand new complex, duly opened.