Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Whitlam on the world stage: Courage, vision and wit

Whitlam on the world stage: Courage, vision and wit
Published 28 Oct 2014 

Gough Whitlam with the author in Manila, 1973.

Gough Whitlam had political courage and a vision for Australia. A forward-looking, pragmatic realist, he sought to reshape Australia's approach to the countries of North and Southeast Asia, the region in which we are forever situated.

It was stimulating to be a senior official in the then Department of Foreign Affairs when Gough became prime minister on 2 December 1972 and the winds of change swept so forcefully through this country. Three days after his election, Whitlam said:

...the change of Government provides a new opportunity for us to reassess a wide range of Australian foreign policies and attitudes...the general direction of my thinking is towards a more independent Australian stance in international affairs, an Australia which will be less militarily orientated and not open to suggestions of racism; an Australia which will enjoy a growing standing as a distinctive, tolerant, co-operative and well regarded nation not only in the Asia Pacific region but in the world at large.

Whitlam certainly did 'reassess a wide range of Australian foreign policies and attitudes'. It was Whitlam who pushed through Australia's transfer of recognition from Taiwan to China and the need to substantially develop relations with Indonesia, our large and growing neighbour of increasing importance.

Whitlam redirected Australian foreign policy away from its established World War II roots based largely on the 'anglosphere'. He also acknowledged that the US and its allies, including Australia, had virtually lost the war against North Vietnam. He completed the withdrawal of Australian forces from the Vietnam War and abolished conscription, which was feeding young Australian troops into a losing conflict.

On East Timor, Whitlam's critics maintain he gave 'the green light' to Suharto for the Indonesian invasion in December 1975. Between 1973 and 1975 I was present at all Whitlam's meetings with Suharto (in Jakarta, Wonosobo, the Dieng Plateau, and in Townsville and Magnetic Island in Queensland). Gough told Suharto he believed the best outcome of the decolonisation of this neglected Portuguese colony would be for it to become part of Indonesia. But he maintained this would need an educational process of some years in East Timor, Portugal and Indonesia, followed by an act of self-determination.

Indonesia knew at the highest levels that Australia would not condone the use of force. Indonesia invaded East Timor on 7 December, almost a month after Gough had ceased to be the prime minister. [fold]

Gough's active and productive involvement in foreign affairs was not without error. I think it was a mistake to confirm that Australia recognised Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia as part of the Soviet Union. And while Gough made some good diplomatic appointments — for example Stephen Fitzgerald to Beijing and Mick Shann to Tokyo — he also made the bad political appointment of Senator Vince Gair to Ireland.

Gough has been criticised for damaging relations with the US. I accompanied Gough on his visit to Washington in 1973. President Nixon and Dr Kissinger were annoyed by the Australian Government's changing attitude to Vietnam and Cambodia. In my view, their criticism was fed largely by highly critical remarks made by other ministers such as Jim Cairns, Clive Cameron and Tom Uren.

Gough was determined to pursue an independent Australian foreign policy within the framework of the alliance with the US. He believed the alliance did not equate to compliance, and that understanding China's policies and role in the region did not equate to supporting it where we had disagreements.

Gough was attuned to the end of Western colonialism and wanted to avoid Australia being seen as the last European colonial power in the region. It was for this reason that he wanted to hasten the movement of Papua New Guinea towards independence, which he did in close co-operation with then Chief Minister Michael Somare. 

His strong support of an Australian republic was reinforced naturally by his dismissal by the Governor General. But he also saw the need for an Australian republic in the wider context of Australia's identity in the world. He saw the final public abandonment of the White Australia policy, which he acknowledged was started by Prime Minister Harold Holt in the late '60s, in the same light.

I had many conversations with Gough Whitlam over a period of 45 years. I recall clearly that he said to me in 1973, 'I have always had a long-standing and deep belief that we must have good relationships with China, Indonesia and Japan as well as with the United States and Great Britain.'

It was a pleasure to travel with him. While he expected well informed, culturally sensitive and carefully evaluated advice from officials, he was receptive to other views. I observed during these trips that many leaders were impressed by Gough's knowledge of their countries, histories and cultures, which he was often able to relate to Australia. This was particularly evident in his eight hours of discussion with Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai. In Manila the head of the Catholic church, Cardinal Sin, was surprised when Gough detected a mistake in a Latin inscription in the Manila Cathedral. After checking, the Cardinal had it changed.

Gough had an excellent and at times self deprecating sense of humour. There are many stories I could quote, but two will have to suffice.

On an official visit to Papua New Guinea we attended a colourful Sing-Sing in Goroka. A local who was very short in stature and wearing little more than bird of paradise feathers on his head and red and white football socks on his feet was standing beside me looking at Gough and me. I realised he wanted some explanation. I had acquired some very rusty Pidgin, and when he next pointed at Gough, I said to the Papua New Guinean, 'Him long fella number one belong Australia.'

An Australian official turned to me. 'Do you realise you have just referred to the Prime Minister as the biggest prick in the country?'

Overhearing this, Gough said to me, 'Thank you comrade. Not all my attributes are known to public servants.'

Another story I recall was when I was travelling with Gough on a somewhat criticised visit he made to 15 countries in four weeks. In The Netherlands, as we waited in an outer office to call on the prime minister, Gough browsed through the London Times. He looked up and said, 'Have you seen this comrade? Guinea-Bissau, Bangladesh and Grenada have just been admitted to the United Nations. They are creating these countries more quickly than I can visit them.'

Gough was a towering figure in the pantheon of regional leaders. I am proud to have served him as a foreign policy adviser and from March 1975 as ambassador to Indonesia.

You may also be interested in