Published in Prasser, Scott, & Clune, David, editors, The Whitlam Era. A Reappraisal of Government, Politics and Policy, Connor Court, December 2022.
On one view, Gough Whitlam was a passing flash, whose government was not around long enough to have had an appreciable impact on Australian foreign policy. On another, Whitlam’s foreign policy changes were immense and long lasting. This chapter, necessarily briefly, discusses the promise, creativity, problems, and influence of Whitlam’s foreign policy. Through such analysis, mature reflection on Australia’s legacy in relation to its obligations to and treatment of our alliances, commitment to the region, and human rights is enabled.
Whitlam and “Whitlamism”
Dean Acheson, US Secretary of State 1949-53, leading architect of the foreign policy of the post-war world, summarised the complex pressures in this field on a President, or any serious country’s leader:
The capacity for decision… does not produce, of itself, wise decisions. For that a President needs a better eye and more intuition and coordination than the best batters in the major leagues. If his score is not far better than theirs, he will be rated a failure. But the metaphor is inadequate; it leaves out the necessary creativity. A President is not merely coping with the deliveries of others. He is called upon to influence and move to some degree his own country and the world around it to a purpose that he envisions. The metaphor I have often used and find most enlightening is that of the gardener who must use the forces of life, growth and nature, to his purpose – suppressing some, selecting, encouraging, developing others. The central role of directing so great an effort of imagination, planning, and action cannot come, as some seem to imagine, from such spontaneous intuition among the hired hands as guides a flock of shorebirds in flight. It must come from the head gardener … (Acheson 1970: 731)
In the Australian context, Whitlam was chief batsman, weed puller, and imagination driver.
Whitlam prioritised international affairs above all other areas:
Foreign policy was one of my government’s strongest and most successful areas of achievement … in foreign as in domestic matters, the programs which we most promptly and effectively implemented were those we had most thoroughly thought out and thought through and most fully established in public acceptance; and because of the special intensity of the public debate … (Whitlam 1985: 25)
Graham Freudenberg, Whitlam’s Boswell, speechwriter, intellectual collaborator, and Labor historian, declared that, of all government agencies, the Department of Foreign Affairs was best prepared to handle the transition to government by Labor in December 1972.
Whitlam’s speech at the ALP launch of his election campaign in November 1972 encapsulated key priorities:
A nation’s foreign policy depends on striking a wise, proper and prudent balance between commitment and power. Labor will have four commitments commensurate to our power and resources:
First – to our own national security;
Secondly – to a secure, united, and friendly Papua New Guinea:
Thirdly – to achieve closer relations with our nearest and largest neighbour, Indonesia;
Fourthly – to promote the peace and prosperity of our neighbourhood. (Freudenberg 1993: 208).
Nancy Viviani acutely addressed the question of how a distinct Labor foreign policy tradition might be described. She also assessed Whitlam’s contribution in forging that. This is not to suggest that every time a change of government occurs, a revolution in thinking and policies follows. Indeed, during and since the Second World War, all Australian governments based their foreign policies in relation to the United States (US) alliance, regional engagement, and the “rules-based order.” Although there was some continuity, there were also differences in outlook, perceptions of the world, strategies, and priorities under Whitlam. He was entrepreneurial and bold in developing new relationships. He scared the horses: “… the change is real and deep because what has altered is the perception and interpretation of those interests, obligations, and friendships by the elected government” (Whitlam 1973b: 1). Viviani surmises: “What is distinct in the values is, of course, the idea that Labor’s concern for equality and social justice does not end at national borders” (Viviani 1997: 99). She sees three themes that predominate: nationalism, regionalism, international citizenship.
Distinct policy positions were taken early: recognition of China; bringing home the last troops from Vietnam; acceleration of Papua New Guinea’s independence; burial of the White Australia policy; bringing France before the International Court of Justice (ICJ) over nuclear testing; commitment to process (international treaties) (Evans 1997: 13).
On recognition of sovereignty, there were two main approaches: that control of a territory should be the sole criterion in determining recognition, versus a view that recognition signals approval and is something that therefore requires consideration of merit (Suter 1975). Prior to Whitlam, Australia adhered to the latter outlook (Suter 1975: 69). Under Whitlam, “…we have begun to deal with all the countries which satisfy the criteria of statehood. In this we have broken with the policies of our predecessors” (Whitlam 1973b: 337). On 22 December 1972 Australia formally recognised the Peoples’ Republic of China and East Germany. In Chile, there was no change in recognition after the coup in September 1973. North Korea was recognised on 31 July 1974. The Whitlam Government activated recognition of various states by setting up embassies in the Bahamas, Barbados, Guatemala, Guinea-Bissau, Guyana, the Holy See, Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Venezuela, and Iraq (Suter: 69).
Viviani sees Whitlam’s nationalism as: “… independent, non-military, anti-racist, region-centred and internationalist” (Viviani 1997: 100). The new regional approach relates to a more nuanced and engaged Asian orientation compared to previous Australian governments. Stephen Fitzgerald, Whitlam’s and Australia’s first Ambassador to China, said: “…he gave Australia Asia. He wasn’t Asia literate in the linguistic sense … [but] in visiting any Asian country for more than a few hours he’d plunge into learning about it and surprise his hosts with his curiosity and knowledge …” (Fitzgerald 2015: 256). Hawke’s Foreign Minister Gareth Evans says: “This was a new, much more confident nationalism clearly evident — one easily accepting the need for Australia to form independent judgements…” (Evans: 14). Whitlam saw it slightly differently: “Much is written about Australia’s ‘new nationalism’: I would rather put it in terms of Australia’s new internationalism” (quoted, Curran 2004: 130).
When Whitlam was a young man, serving in the Royal Australian Air Force, US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill on 14 August 1941 announced the Atlantic Charter, a statement of aims seeking to build a new world. This was a formative influence. On global citizenship, Whitlam saw international legal instruments and equality going together, hence the advocacy of the United Nations (UN) and International Labor Organisation (ILO) treaties. Further: “This theme, which requires Australia to act as a good international citizen, has a distinguished history in Indonesia’s independence struggle and in post-war relief in Chifley’s time, and was certainly crucial to Whitlam’s foreign policy in his concern with development, aid, apartheid and human rights issues” (Viviani 1997: 100).
On racial discrimination, Whitlam said: “We accept that racism and apartheid, whether in South Africa or elsewhere, must be obliterated” (Whitlam 1975b: 450). Whitlam warned that Australia could not be complacent:
As an island nation of predominantly European inhabitants situated on the edge of Asia, we cannot afford the stigma of racialism… I reaffirmed our intention to ratify the 1965 International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination… Our decision to deny racially selected sports teams the right to visit or transit Australia should also be seen in this light… (Whitlam 1973c: 342)
Whitlam in Opposition had interesting things to say about Australian focus and priorities. He honed his thinking over many years:
Long before 1972 his policy signals were there: the US alliance as one major element of policy, but not the dominant core; the recognition of China; the opposition to the military commitment to Vietnam; the importance attached to Indonesia (seen in his opposition to the government’s and Arthur Calwell’s stance [which favoured self-determination rather than annexation as part of Indonesia] on West New Guinea [Irian Jaya]); his focus on international instruments and human rights; independence for Papua New Guinea; and the end of the White Australia policy. (Viviani 1997: 101)
In Opposition, Whitlam regularly visited Asia. As he expressed the challenge: “[W]hat does constitute a foreign policy is striking and keeping a balance between a nation’s power and its commitment. This essentially means that a nation must recognise itself for what it is, should be, and can be.” Whitlam summed up:
Australia and Australia’s foreign policy makers have scarcely even attempted to answer these questions, because, perhaps, they are regarded as questions for the poet rather than the diplomat or the politician. Yet if we cannot answer these basic questions about ourselves, how shall we answer the more grandiloquent questions about ‘national interest’, or ‘national security’ – not to mention ‘national destiny’? I do not pretend that the Australian Labor Party has all the answers. I intend at least that we shall make an Australia in which they will be asked. (Whitlam 1973a: viii)
Answering those questions was the essence of “Whitlamism” in foreign policy.
Before becoming prime minister, Whitlam wrote: “Australia is indeed a lucky country. The foreign policy of this nation is in ruins; the foundations on which it rested for more than twenty years have crumbled. Yet we pass on with scarcely a tremor of alarm or a gesture of remorse” (Whitlam 1972: 1). The conservative realist and strategic policy scholar, Coral Bell, thought so too, describing 1969-72 as a period when Australian policy could be characterised as “incapacity to adapt, intellectual blankness, and psychological paralysis” as the foreign policy settings were changing (Bell 1977: 189).
Whitlam regarded the South-East Asia Treaty Organisation (SEATO) alliance formed in 1954 as redundant. W.L. Morrison, Whitlam’s Minister for External Territories, described SEATO as a “camouflaged corpse” (Hudson 1972: 115). Last rites followed in 1977 after most members lost interest and withdrew. The Australian presence in Singapore and Malaysia also came under review. Whitlam said: “We believe that our pledge to uphold the Five Power [Defence] Arrangements [FPDA] does not require the stationing of forces abroad on permanent garrison duty for its redemption” (Whitlam 1973c: 339). On 1 January 1975, the three-nation ANZUK force, based in Singapore, ceased to exist (AFAR 1975: 44). Singapore blamed Australia for the break-up (Johns 1974). In Asia, as much as with the US, Australia is at pains to demonstrate reliability, just as Australia sometimes worries about the reliability of others towards itself. This is a key piece of Whitlam legacy, including for the ALP, with Singapore and Malaysia. The Singaporeans and the Malaysians were highly critical of Whitlam’s stance on the FPDA and withdrawing Australian troops – and how this was done.
On Australia’s representation as a guest at meetings of the Non-Aligned Movement, Whitlam explained: “We are not moving into anybody’s orbit… There is nothing incompatible between our policy… No one has suggested that Australia was seeking to become a Latin American country because it welcomed the opportunity to attend the last meeting of the Organisation of American States in Washington as an observer” (Whitlam 1973c: 338). Foreign Affairs Minister, Senator Willesee, explained that “attendance at major non-aligned meetings would provide for gaining a closer and deeper understanding of the policies and aspirations of non-aligned countries, both individually and collectively” (Willesee 1975: 446).
In a February 1975 summation of policy achievements, Whitlam declared:
…Australia ha[s] at last got her relations right with the four powers of most immediate concern to us – with Indonesia, our nearest neighbour; with Japan, our largest trading partner; with China, the most populous nation on earth; and with the United States, the world’s most powerful nation and our firmest ally. My visit to China ended a generation of lost contact with a quarter of the world’s people (Whitlam 1975a: 69).
The policy context is important: détente between the superpowers; the US-Sino rapprochement; the running sore of Vietnam coming to an end; Nixon’s Guam doctrine that Allies need to provide for their own self-defence and could only expect American support in extreme circumstances (Murphy 1973: 331; White 2019).
After the first year in office, foreign policy correspondent Peter Hastings, opined: “In the end, after a year of ‘Whitlamism’, we have been offered some brilliant and salutary initiatives in foreign affairs, but we have nothing as yet approaching a foreign policy. Mr Whitlam has whistled some exciting, disparate and long-awaited tunes. He needs now to orchestrate them into respectable music” (Hastings 1973: 6).
Whitlam was in the process of developing his approach to many challenges, repositioning in the context of a changing world, responding to “events”, and, in Acheson’s words, finessing the capacity for good decisions. Hastings thought Whitlam’s positions on China, moves towards the NARA Agreement with Japan (formally known as the Basic Treaty of Friendship and Co-operation between Australia and Japan, eventually signed by Malcolm Fraser in June 1976), and relatively small but important moves like Whitlam’s attendance in 1973 at the Pacific Forum meeting in Apia, Fiji, were immensely important in developing a credible style and substantive approach to policy. (This was the first year an Australian prime minister attended the Forum.)
Perceptively, Viviani thought: “Whitlam was able to change, decisively, the foreign policy climate in Australia.” In doing so, “Whitlam broke the conceptual grid of previous governments’ Cold War policies in the minds of most Australians, and this was perhaps his greatest achievement” (Viviani 1997: 102). The insight espoused by Whitlam and emphasised by all Labor governments thereafter was that the region itself is not threatening. ‘Whitlamism’ saw the end of “forward defence” and the beginning of common security in the region. As Hawke expressed it: “Australia should seek security ‘in and with Asia, not against it’” (Woolcott 2018: 14).
Nine days before Kissinger, nine months before Nixon’s visit, Australian Opposition Leader Whitlam visited China in July 1971: “On no diplomatic issue has the McMahon government suffered more embarrassment than that of relations with China” (Hudson 1972: 113). On 12 July 1971 Liberal Prime Minister McMahon boasted: “In no time at all Zhou Enlai had Mr Whitlam on a hook and he played him as a fisherman plays a trout” (Mullins 2018: 435). McMahon “was left uninformed” about Nixon’s strategy to open diplomatic channels to China (Woodard 2018: 172). Within weeks, the Americans announced a China strategy that made Australian conservatives look awkward and locked into an out-of-date policy paradigm. Recognition of the Peoples’ Republic of China was conferred by Whitlam on 22 December 1972. Australia “acknowledged” China’s claim to Taiwan. In contrast, in October 1970 the Canadians “took note” of the claim (Clark 1974: 8). The word “acknowledge” is stronger than “note” as the former can mean “accept the validity or legitimacy of” (Oxford English Dictionary).
Perceptively, on future Australian-Taiwanese relations, Whitlam in a memo written on 1 April 1973 to Australian Ambassador Fitzgerald wrote:
Present Chinese thinking appears to be against armed action and in favour of liberation by ‘people’s diplomacy’. We hope that this policy will continue and be successful. In the meantime, we intend to be quite firm in insisting that private trade and travel between Australia and Taiwan should continue. To use Peking’s own argument, we have nothing against the people of Taiwan (Curran 2022: 36).
Fitzgerald himself confidently proclaimed: “[Australia] is able to contemplate a rational relationship with China, independent, and free from the neuroses of the Cold War” (Fitzgerald 1973: 176). More realistically: “Whitlam’s China initiative involved a felicitous combination of timing, courage and luck” (Freudenberg 1993: 202). Indeed. Deng Xiaoping was still banished to the countryside, a worker at the Xinjian County Tractor Factory in rural Jiangxi province. The disastrous Chinese Cultural Revolution was unsubdued. Reform prospects looked unpromising.
In 1972, Deng’s apology to Mao led to the possibility of return from exile to Beijing. In 1973, Premier Zhou Enlai brought Deng back to Zhongnanhai, the central government compound, to focus on reconstructing the Chinese economy. Whitlam, based on his meeting with him in early November 1973, recollected that: “[Mao] lacked Zhou’s grasp of detail and incomparable knowledge of particular events and personalities, but his wisdom and sense of history were deep and unmistakeable” (Whitlam 1985: 59). It was wise for Australia along with other nations in the 1970s, the United States particularly, to belatedly cultivate healthy diplomatic relations with the Peoples’ Republic of China. But given Mao’s murderous legacy, his “wisdom” is an odd thing to note in celebratory terms.
Of one thing there can be no doubt. Whitlam’s realism about recognition was consistent throughout his political life. As he said in the debate on international affairs in the parliament on 12 August 1954:
We must recognise the fact that the government installed in Formosa [the name for Taiwan coined by the Portuguese] has no chance of ever again becoming the government of China unless it is enabled to do so as a result of a third world war. When we say that that government should be the government of China, we not only take an unrealistic view but a menacing one. The Australian Government should have recognised the Communist Government in China, in view of the fact that all our neighbours, including the colonial powers, Great Britain and the Netherlands, have recognised it. (Whitlam 1954: 275)
On this score alone – initiative, boldness, and long-term impact – the visit to China in 1971 and return as Prime Minister in 1973 marked Whitlam’s importance as one of the greatest of Australia’s foreign ministers.
Papua New Guinea (PNG)
It was only in June 1971 that the ALP’s National Conference declared that “the Labor Party will ensure the orderly and secure transfer to PNG of self-government and independence in its first term of office” (Denoon 2012: 104). Whitlam wrote that Australia had to anticipate and get ahead of any separatist or PNG independence movement: “The most effective way of stopping the growth of separatism is to create an independent Papua New Guinea as quickly as possible” (Whitlam 1972: 16). Interestingly, however, nothing was directly said in Whitlam’s 1972 election policy speech or McMahon’s in late 1972 to commit either party to acceleration of independence. But within two and a half years, independence was granted on 16 September 1975, even if the country, economically, remained “a client state” of Australia’s (Standish 1976: 107). The contrary argument to this ‘success’ of independence is the assessment that independence was thrust upon PNG to avoid the UN characterising Australia as a colonial power. On this view, PNG was not properly prepared for independence. Another perspective is that the campaign for independence was “used by an educated elite obsessed with and overwhelmed by the rush to take over political and economic power” (Kari 2005: 3). Given subsequent failures of governance it might have been wiser for Australia to better help PNG ready itself beforehand. But to this author, arguments for delay are unpersuasive and would have tested Australian-PNG relations – potentially, to a disastrous breaking point. Independence was achieved without much rancour and with the support of the local, self-governing PNG Assembly (Griffin et al 1979: 178-235). A fair assessment is: “Papua New Guinea since Independence is neither a triumph nor a tragedy. It has done some things better than most foreigners expected – the critics of Independence in 1975, but also the promoters of Independence in Australia’s national interest” (Garnaut 2000: 35). One part of the achievement was that despite some reservations about “haste”, the Opposition was mostly supportive of Whitlam’s PNG policy. The PNG Governor-General at the time, Sir John Guise, said: “The Australian flag was not torn down but came down with honour” (SMH 1987: 12).
The American alliance was severely tested in the first six months of Whitlam’s prime ministership. Yet, as Whitlam pronounced:
The maintenance of our alliance with the United States under ANZUS remains most important for our security, since by its very nature it has created and guarantees in the Pacific a zone of peace in which the peoples of the region have for the last 20 years been free to pursue their political, economic and social goals without fear of hostile intervention or attack. The ANZUS Treaty reflects a natural relationship between these countries of the Pacific. Its continuation is not questioned by any of its partners. (Whitlam 1973c: 341)
That was said, however, after a fraught period of Australia being in the “deep freeze”.
Condemnation by Australian Government ministers, mainly from the Left, attacking American bombing raids on Hanoi, Haiphong, and other North Vietnamese targets in Indo-China at Christmas time 1972 and in early 1973 infuriated Nixon. Whitlam wrote a letter to the American President expressing opposition to what he deemed was excessive American firepower and strategy. After the 27 January 1973 Paris Vietnamese Peace Agreement was unveiled on 26 February, Australia announced recognition of North Vietnam, without consultation with the Americans (Hearder 2016: 147). In March 1973 President Nixon ordered that no Cabinet member was to meet with Australian officials. He made it known that he would not meet Whitlam when he planned to visit Washington mid-year. As is now better known thanks to James Curran, the hostility in Washington towards Whitlam was at boiling point (Curran 2015).
Whitlam rang Ross Terrill, the Australian academic at Harvard, who knew Henry Kissinger, to obtain an audience for Peter Wilenski, Whitlam’s Principal Private Secretary, with Kissinger, which occurred in early May. This was aimed at smoothing the waters for a meeting with the US President. Near contemporaneously, Opposition Shadow Foreign Minister Andrew Peacock on a visit in June to Washington, met George H.W. Bush, then Chair of the Republican National Committee, and US Vice President Spiro Agnew. Peacock made it clear that refusing to meet Whitlam might be harmful to both Australian and American interests, and dangerously undermine support for the alliance in Australia. They conveyed the message to the White House.
Sir James Plimsoll, Ambassador to the United States 1970-1973, tried to assuage impressions by members of the Nixon administration and the President himself that the Whitlam Government could not be trusted (Bell 1988b: 144). Whitlam met Nixon on 30 July 1973 for 40 minutes. Nixon was persuaded it was best to get to know his counterpart. Each was wary of the other, yet both leaders distinguished themselves by recognising the new, more complex post-Vietnam world. Most important for the Americans, on a realist perspective particularly, was consideration of their defence assets in Australia and how best to retain and protect them.
The question as to whether all or some US Defence facilities, under joint control or otherwise, should be managed was one of the most vexed issues for the Whitlam Government. It was also one of the most successful examples of Whitlam managing his party, explaining, and justifying a position to the public, and achieving practical outcomes that respected Australian sovereignty and won admiration even in Washington.
In March 1963, at the famous “faceless men” meeting (Fitzgerald and Holt 2010: 152-164), Australian Labor Leader Arthur Calwell, Labor Leader, 1960-1967, sought a favourable ruling from the ALP Federal Executive on the North-West Cape which was carried 19-17 (Whitlam 1985: 33). The North-West Cape base, since renamed the Harold E. Holt Naval Communication Station, in Western Australia is on the Indian Ocean, 6 km north of the town of Exmouth.
Not that the 1963 ALP Executive resolution constituted whole-hearted support. Beazley notes that the debate then and later was important in reorienting Australian Labor away from neutralist viewpoints of the Left: “… this debate shifted Labor’s foreign policy from a non-aligned tendency to a commitment to the US alliance” (K.C. Beazley 2016: 210). Because of the ALP splits between 1955-1957: “For a time the party’s Left, who were sceptical of the alliance, dominated organisational policy outcomes despite the fact that a majority of the Parliamentary Caucus disagreed with their line” (K.C. Beazley 2016: 210). According to Freudenberg: “Foreign affairs became the line of division not only between two parties, but between the Labor factions” (Freudenberg 1993: 204).
In 1972, there was ambiguity on what Labor might do. The 1972 ALP Platform was a compromise between the hostile and the accommodating. The policy “On Joint Facilities and US Bases and Facilities”, read:
Labor is opposed to the existence of foreign-owned, controlled or operated bases and facilities in Australian territory, especially if such bases involve a derogation from Australian sovereignty.
Labor is not opposed to the use of Australian bases and facilities by Allies in war-time, or in periods of international tension involving a threat to Australia, provided that Australian authority and sovereignty are unimpaired, and provided that Australia is not involved in hostilities without Australia’s consent. The tenure of these bases and facilities by other powers should not be of such a character as to exclude properly accredited access by authorised Australians charged with the duty of evaluating Australian defence policy, whether members of the Australian Parliament, defence departments or armed services. (Complete Guide to Labor’s Policies 1972: 44-45).
In Whitlam’s November 1972 Policy Speech, he promised to renegotiate terms with the Americans. Freudenberg pointed out: “In March 1973, [Whitlam] headed off moves originating in the Victorian branch to revise party policy on the presence of American bases by asserting that such a change would be a breach of the mandate” (Freudenberg 1993: 205). This was a neat way to thwart any moves by the Left to hijack or disrupt Whitlam’s authority to deal with this issue.
Labor did what it pledged to do – renegotiate the treaties which set up various bases, turning them into joint facilities. Did the negotiations lead to substantive or trivial change? One contemporary assessment was: “…it was on this issue that it became clear how little real change the government was prepared to contemplate in the fundamental defence alliance, however audacious ministers might be at a verbal level” (Goldsworthy 1974a: 106). This view downplays what was achieved, which was significant.
After all, “… it had been virtually ingrained in the DNA of Washington’s foreign policy establishment that Labor posed serious difficulties for the alliance – that, in effect, it was spoiling to expel the US intelligence facilities from Australian soil” (Curran 2015: 311). As Bell acidly comments: “…it is impossible entirely to dismiss the idea that behind the scenes in Washington, some backroom boy deep in the bureaucracy of the intelligence communities was interpreting or misinterpreting these early signals from Canberra to somewhat alarmist effect” (Bell 1988a: 121).
Whitlam explained why the Government supported the facilities:
Prompt, reliable, and comprehensive information is vital to the maintenance of global peace and security. We have previously informed the public that the Joint Defence Space Research Facility at Pine Gap near Alice Springs and the Joint Defence Space Communications station at Nurrungar are related to satellites and that they analyse and test data. We. have also stated that neither installation is part of a weapons system, and neither can be used to attack any country, and we have been convinced that they contribute specifically to the improvement and development of Australia’s defence system. (Whitlam 1973c: 342)
But he also said: “The Government still has certain reservations about the United States Naval Communication Station at North-West Cape and it is our intention to seek a renegotiation of the original terms of the agreement establishing this station in Australia” (Whitlam 1973c: 342). When the Yom Kippur War broke out in October 1973, Whitlam was unsure how the American facilities in Australia were being used. In January 1974, Barnard went to Washington, where the Americans agreed Amberley and the Alice Springs facilities would be totally under Australian control, and an Australian would be second in command at the North-West Cape (Goldsworthy 1974a). The agreement went further than just that. Des Ball explained: “Following discussions in Washington between Defence Minister Barnard and [US] Defence Secretary Schlesinger, it was agreed that the Royal Australian Navy would increase its use of the station for its communications with surface and submarine vessels; that some 35 Australian service personnel would be stationed at the facility to assist” (Ball 1980: 56). Additionally: “Willesee presided over the 1975 renegotiation of the agreement between Australia and the United States regarding the American communications base at North-West Cape, under which the facility would now be operated jointly” (Oliver 2010: 482). Interestingly, the facilities are now more than defensive in their operations, as they are intimately integrated into American strategic defence operations.
Throughout his long career, Whitlam highlighted the overriding importance of achieving closer relations with Indonesia. This was a bipartisan objective. Foreign Minister Richard Casey (1890-1976) declared in 1954 that: “We have every reason to want to live in harmony with our largest and closest neighbour” (quoted in Woolcott 2003: 120). It might be said that: “Relations between Indonesia and Australia are too precious to be left to the whims and moods of their leaders and politicians, but this is exactly what has happened …” (Bayuni 2018: 304). There is only one thing worse: not having regular contact between the political class and leadership of both countries.
Whitlam in Opposition was a regular visitor to Indonesia. He thought that the relationship should be the centrepiece of Australian foreign policy engagement. On assuming ALP leadership, Whitlam wrote: “We are the only European people next to a large Asian nation” and that in contrast to the challenge: “…our aid to Indonesia… is trifling and ineffective” (Australian, 18 February 1967). In government, Whitlam boasted: “Our civil aid… two and a half times the value of our defence aid – is an even more important element in our relations with Indonesia” (Whitlam 1973c: 340).
Nearly all subsequent Australian prime ministers followed Whitlam’s lead in making Indonesia the first port of call on an overseas visit. At least three times, when Whitlam was Opposition Leader, he visited President Soeharto in Indonesia. As Prime Minister Whitlam visited Jakarta in 1973 and 1974, and the two leaders forged a close relationship. Whitlam hosted Soeharto in Townsville in 1975, which would prove to be his last visit to Australia. However, closer Australian-Indonesian relations were “truncated by Indonesia’s military incorporation of East Timor in 1975” (MacIntyre 1991: 145).
A few issues of neutral significance
Whitlam set a pattern for Australian leaders travelling extensively, as a means of developing a rapport with other leaders. This was a soft projection of Australian influence, an opportunity to listen and gather intelligence, and a means to pursue Australian interests.
Since Whitlam, Australian prime ministers have travelled far more extensively, to more places, particularly in the Asian region, than was the pattern previously. Whitlam’s pace, however, did not find universal favour. J.B. Paul complained of the Prime Minister’s “forays, his posturing and his peregrinations as Foreign Minister” (Paul 1973a: 104). Opposition Leader, Billy Snedden, said: “… most people in Australia [say] that we would have our reputation more enhanced if the Prime Minister stayed here and did not go overseas with a giant caravanserai which pays tribute to him” (Snedden 1974: 4690).
The controversy was about to get worse, because Cyclone Tracey in Christmas 1974 hit Darwin and wiped out much of the city’s infrastructure and housing. After Christmas 1974, Whitlam hurriedly returned to Australia from a European tour and then, after a few days, resumed his overseas trip.
In February 1975, Whitlam said: “I stress … [a] Prime Minister… has a special and at times an overriding duty to promote Australia’s place in the world” (Whitlam 1975a: 61). John Menadue, recalled: “He loved travel… [I] pleaded with him not to go back overseas (to Greece and Rome [in early 1975]): ‘Comrade, if I am going to put up with the fuckwits in the Labor Party, I have got to have my trips’.” (Menadue 1999: 135; almost the same words, Menadue 2020). Menadue, however, insists that: “The trips were never junkets; they recharged his spirits and refreshed his mind” (Menadue 1999: 134). Further, as Whitlam said: “Only a visit by a head of government enables Australia to put her point of view at the highest level and in the most forceful terms. Only a visit by a head of government obliges the countries visited to clarify and co-ordinate their policies towards us” (Whitlam 1975a: 61).
The Middle East
Whitlam advocated an “even handed” approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the Middle East. He had met every Labour Prime Minister of Israel (Whitlam 1985: 124). In a statement in February 1975, he said:
In my discussions on the Middle East I asserted the right of all countries in the Middle East including Israel, to secure and recognised boundaries. I believe that Israel’s integrity as a state must be upheld. At the same time, a lasting solution in the Middle East will require withdrawal from occupied territories and measures to meet the legitimate needs of the Palestinian people. (Whitlam 1975a: 64)
This was broadly uncontroversial and a bipartisan position. (Albinski 1977: 135-143).
In meetings in Moscow in January 1975, Whitlam met Soviet Prime Minister Kosygin and made a presentation on the question of Jewish emigration from the Soviet Union: “No purpose is served if we avoid issues where agreement is unlikely. The Soviet Union has a better understanding of our views and, I believe, a greater respect for our candour” (Whitlam 1975a: 66).
In the 1960s, Whitlam tried to balance support for the US alliance with opposition to extreme non-alignment and left-wing sentiment. Labor’s position in the latter 1960s shifted from withdrawal of conscripts and consultation with allies about what would happen next, to a harder position – total withdrawal and scepticism about involvement in what was frequently, if simplistically, called a civil war (Beazley 1983).
Arthur Calwell’s anti-war speech of 1965 canvassed the issues:
We believe that America must not be humiliated and must not be forced to withdraw. But we are convinced that sooner or later the dispute in Vietnam must be settled through the councils of the United Nations. If it is necessary to back with a peace force the authority of the United Nations, we would support Australian participation to the hilt. But we believe that the military involvement in the present form decided on by the Australian Government represents a threat to Australia’s standing in Asia, to our power for good in Asia and above all to the security of this nation. (Calwell 1965).
Conscription was particularly divisive. In 1971, the McMahon Liberal-Country Party Coalition Government announced the withdrawal of Australian combat troops by Christmas 1971, and conscription was reduced from two-years to 18-months.
In government, Whitlam sought to shift Australia from military interventions as the focus of policy: “Isolationism is not an option for Australia … We shall, for example, be giving even more economic aid to South Vietnam in the coming year than the previous government did in the last” (Whitlam 1973c: 338). But as Saigon was beginning to fall in April 1975, the Prime Minister Whitlam dismissed concerns: “Who rules in Saigon is not, and never has been, an ingredient in Australia’s security. Our strength, our security, rest on factors and relationships ultimately unchanged by these events”:
The really important factors and relations are… our relations with our closest and largest neighbour, Indonesia; our relations with our greatest trading partner, Japan; our relations with China; our active support for the development of cooperation between the members of the Association of South East Asian Nations; our efforts to ensure that the Indian Ocean does not become the next area of confrontation between the super-powers as Indo-China became, in a sense, the first. Above all, Australia’s security, as with the peace of the world, rests ultimately upon making the détente between the United States and the Soviet Union a success and upon associating China in a wider détente. These are the great relationships and the great factors which determine the security of Australia (Whitlam 1975c: 1260).
A few years earlier, a pithy summary of Whitlam’s wrestling with the demons of policy, the requirements of realism, and avoiding capricious policy change, came in this assessment: “Mr Whitlam genuinely abominated the Vietnam war in which he saw the United States playing out a monstrous role of oppression and intervention in a daily betrayal of traditional American ideals” (Hastings 1973: 6). That is an interesting statement capturing the dynamic pressures involved in conducting Australian policy. Singapore’s leader, Lee Kuan Yew thought that American intervention enabled the newly minted, post-colonial governments in south-east Asia, to find their feet: “Although American intervention failed in Vietnam, it bought time for the rest of Southeast Asia” (Lee 2000: 457).
As Saigon was falling (4 March to 30 April 1975), on 8 April 1975, Whitlam said: “While the security of Australia has never rested solely upon the American alliance, that alliance remains a key element in it. And whatever the outcome of the events now unfolding in Vietnam, the basic elements of Australia’s security remain untouched” (Whitlam 1975c: 1260). As the South Vietnamese regime began to collapse, Foreign Minister Willesee was much troubled by the fate of those who might be identified with the former South Vietnamese regime. To Whitlam’s annoyance, “[Willesee] made a determined attempt to convince Whitlam that Vietnamese wishing to enter Australia should not be subject to the restrictions applicable to other migrants, recommending in particular that asylum should be given to Vietnamese employed by the Australian Embassy.” But Whitlam was not persuaded (Oliver 2010: 482). Because of Whitlam’s intransigence concerning accepting a reasonable quota of refugees, Singapore’s Lee said: “I was prepared to expose his moves and show him up as a sham white Afro-Asian” (Lee 2000: 395). Arguably, Whitlam adroitly managed Vietnam policy until thousands of boats, laden with their frightened human cargo, pushed out to sea to escape Communist rule.
Worth noting, though, is Freudenberg’s spirited defence of Whitlam’s handling of the collapse of South Vietnam and the consequent humanitarian crisis (Freudenberg 1977: 327-41). Former Whitlam minister Clyde Cameron claimed Whitlam said to him that he did not want any “Vietnamese ‘Balts’ coming into Australia” (Cameron 1990: 801). But those words were recorded in a diary entry dated Sunday 27 November 1977, recollecting what Whitlam allegedly said in April 1975. Whether or not such a brutal line was ever used by Whitlam, when Vietnamese refugees were pouring out of the country, he was not generous towards them (Viviani 1984: 53-115). Menadue regarded the handling of East Timor and treatment of Vietnamese refugees as the low points of Whitlam’s prime ministership (Menadue 1999: 134).
There are few more fraught episodes in Australian foreign policy than the “who-knew-what, who-nodded-to-what, what-should-have-happened” controversy about East Timor in 1975 and beyond.
Portugal’s “Carnation Revolution” in 1974-75 saw a popular uprising against the dictatorship which had ruled since 1926, and an unravelling of relations with and the administration of the country’s colonies. These carnations had thorns. In August 1975, the Portuguese Governor fled Timor, carelessly leaving behind weapons which were captured by the Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor (Portuguese: Frente Revolucionária de Timor-Leste Independente, abbreviated as Fretilin), the radical pro-Marxist wing of the independence movement. Civil war broke out, including with pro-Indonesian allies. Any Australian Government faced an unappetising “dilemma” or, rather, a series of them (Adams 1976: 125-126).
On 15 September 1974 in Jogjakarta Whitlam talked to President Soeharto, expressing the opinion that an independent Timor was not viable. On 3-5 April 1975, they met again in Townsville, but what was said between them remains murky (Walsh and Munster 1980: 186-188; incidentally, their book was temporarily banned – Walsh and Munster 1982). Whitlam comments on that meeting: “We were frustrated … by the irresponsibility of the Portuguese and the intransigence of the Timorese parties” (Whitlam 1985: 108).
Curiously and controversially, Hocking argues:
The Whitlam government’s overarching policy on Portuguese Timor was simple and consistent: self-determination, the form of which to be decided by an ‘internationally recognised’ expression of the will of the people. The very notion of enforced incorporation … was completely at odds with Whitlam’s fundamental commitment to ending colonialism, and with Labor Party policy (Hocking 2012: 379).
More bluntly, Foreign Minister Willesee believed Australia should “try to persuade Indonesia to accept an independent East Timor and was troubled that Australia might be seen as complicit in any military action by Indonesia.” So seriously did he regard the situation that: “In August 1975 he wrote to the Prime Minister arguing that if the Australian Government, having been forewarned of Indonesian military intervention, failed to state its views clearly, it would be placed in an ‘embarrassing and politically indefensible position’.” (Oliver 2010: 483).
On 16 October five Australian journalists covering the unrest were killed in the town of Balibo, apparently by Indonesian troops “secretly” in the territory in support of their proxies in East Timor. Whitlam was out of office (dismissed by the Governor General on 11 November 1975) when Indonesia invaded on 7 December, six days before the Australian election. Whitlam believed that the Indonesian invasion of East Timor “would not have taken place had he remained in office” (Hocking: 385). Yet, he had said: “I am in favour of incorporation, but obeisance has to be made to self-determination” (Gyngell 2017: 117). Ambivalence can have drawbacks and permissive consequences.
There is an extensive, critical literature alleging that the Whitlam and Fraser Governments, downplayed the human catastrophe occurring in East Timor (Job 2021). Watson describes the tiny, former Portuguese colony as “forgotten”. He contrasts the self-image of Whitlam as an erudite social democrat with the person allegedly and culpably involved in Indonesia’s invasion. Watson claims that Australian leaders “greenlighting” of Soeharto was an exercise in realpolitik (Watson 2021). Coral Bell comments that “on the basis of a realpolitik analysis, there was clearly logic in Whitlam’s policy” (Bell 1988b: 126). Whitlam was also consistent with his earlier position on the incorporation of Irian Jaya as part of Indonesia.
When Whitlam was unsympathetic to claims for East Timor independence, he had in mind the colonial legacy; amongst the Europeans, the Portuguese were second worst to the Belgians in their woeful management and lack of application to the development of their possessions. They left little behind. How could any Timor state survive?
Whitlam probably knew General Soeharto would strike and seize East Timor. Kim Beazley Snr. thought: “Whitlam believed in a world uncluttered by minor powers” (K.E. Beazley 2009: 225). Viviani, partly in sympathetic regret, has said: “It was Indonesia that was the centrepiece of Whitlam’s Asia policy, and Indonesia in the end that cost Whitlam most in his foreign policy record” (Viviani 1997: 106).
Whitlam, in his capacity as Acting Foreign Minister, endorsed a recommendation from Alan Renouf, the Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs, 1974-77, that in support of détente, Australia should change from de facto to de jure recognition of Soviet sovereignty over the Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia (Bilney 2013: 278; Freudenberg 1993). His Foreign Minister, Senator Don Willesee, then overseas in South America, was not consulted. Yet on August 13, 1974, the Foreign Affairs Minister thought he himself should announce in the Senate that in the previous month the Government had decided “to accord de jure recognition of the incorporation of the Baltic States into the Soviet Union” (Willessee 1974: 781-2). “Publicly, he endorsed the decision while, privately, he regarded it as hasty and politically inept” (Oliver 2010: 481). This was one of the strangest decisions in Whitlam’s time, as “no domestic political grouping was campaigning for this recognition” (Suter 1975: 73).
Were there trade considerations? Apparently not. In March 1973, the Whitlam Government hosted Nikolai Patolichev, the USSR’s Minister for Foreign Trade (Whitlam 1973c: 337). But on that visit, there was no pressing of Australia for diplomatic gestures. Whitlam’s account of his visit to the USSR refers to his arrival on 12 January 1975 and two days later in Moscow “where I had wide-ranging discussions with President Podgorny and Prime Minister Kosygin of the Soviet Union and signed cultural and scientific agreements between the Soviet Union and Australia” (Whitlam 1975a: 63). In conclusion, the acceptance by Whitlam of Renouf’s advice conferred no advantages and generated a backlash domestically in Australia.
Arguably the most disturbing episode in Whitlam’s political career concerns the secret effort to procure an AUD$500,000 donation from the Iraqi Ba’ath Socialist Party to fund Labor’s election campaign in 1975. The 11 November 1975 dismissal caught Labor by surprise, campaign funds were near empty and, given the controversial period of Labor-in-office, donations from business circles had vanished. In late November 1975, national ALP secretary David Combe along with Victorian Labor luminary, hard socialist left ideologue, and former state secretary Bill Hartley – soon to be forever known as ‘Baghdad Bill’ – concocted the scheme and consulted with Whitlam (Oakes 1976: 270-295).
The money failed to materialise (Hocking 2012: 364). In March 1976, the ALP national executive condemned all three for their “grave errors of judgment” concerning the proposed gift for the 1975 election campaign (Reid 1976: 453). That came after Combe and Whitlam in January 1976 falsely assured the ALP national executive that there were sufficient funds to meet the party’s debts from the just concluded December 1975 election campaign. Whitlam owned up after he was re-elected by the parliamentary party as leader.
The bizarre story included a post-election breakfast meeting in McMahon’s Point attended by the Labor trio, a two-man delegation from the Iraqi Foreign Ministry, secret police chief and torturer Farouk Abdulla Yehya and Saddam relative Ghafil Jassim Al-Tikriti, and their shadowy intermediatory, Henry Fischer, who had not long before edited a lunar right political journal (Connor 2016: 36).
The Iraqi loans affair is not strictly a matter of foreign policy, but legitimate questions arise as to whether this “blood money” might have resulted in a change in policy by Whitlam on Middle East issues. The secrecy of the deal exposed Whitlam to potential blackmail. Moreover, proximity to the “disastrous attempts by members of the Whitlam Cabinet to raise overseas loans in 1974 and 1975, demonstrated that, whatever his other qualities, Gough Whitlam was grossly deficient in the crucial area of political judgment” (Henderson 1990).
At a University of NSW ALP Club meeting on 31 March 1976, I asked Whitlam-supporter and ALP Senator Jim McClelland about this affair. He looked down, sighed, and proffered the answer that even after the stress of the Dismissal, for Whitlam to entertain this idea was a moment of insanity. McClelland urged that Whitlam should not be judged by that mistake alone. True. But it was more than a momentary lapse given the months from being first told, enthusiasm for the idea, and the coverup by Whitlam. Others were not as generous as McClelland. Kim E. Beazley resigned from the Federal Shadow Ministry: “I felt broken-hearted about Whitlam’s leadership” (K.E. Beazley 2009: 239). Senator John Wheeldon also resigned from Shadow Cabinet. After I started work at the Labor Council of NSW, Lionel Bowen in 1978 told me that, based on this episode, he thought Whitlam had gone “mad”.
Consistency and innovation are intertwined in policy development. W.J. Hudson wrote that he was “struck much more by the continuities in Australia’s foreign policies in changing circumstances and irrespective of parties in government than by radical changes” (Hudson 1972: 119). He compared the zeal and activity of Labor under Whitlam to a comparably energetic period in the 1950s under Foreign Minister Casey. Interestingly, William Macmahon Ball, diplomat, political scientist, gadfly, saw the Vietnam era as the exceptional period, with broad consistency of policy otherwise. He argued the differences were “mainly differences of style and emphasis” (Ball 1974: 4). This is too sweeping and simplistic. Australian Labor tends to be much more independently minded than the Coalition in interpreting obligations and actions under the Australian-American alliance.
Whitlam, in contrast to the “continuity story” of Australian foreign policy, specialised in innovation. In a major statement to the parliament in May 1973 he argued:
Our work in the last five months has lain not in forcing new directions upon Australia’s foreign policy but in making new definitions of the role of foreign policy. Australia’s international relations, like those of any other country, must always be directed to maintaining the nation’s security and integrity. (Whitlam 1973c: 336)
He saw his work as complemented by:
…the pivotal role played by President Nixon in ushering in a new and saner phase in our relations with China; in clearing the way for more intensive commercial, scientific, technical and cultural exchanges between the United States of America and the Soviet Union, and thereby achieving a successful first round of the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks and ending foreign intervention in Vietnam. (Whitlam 1973c: 336)
Whitlam also claimed to see the world realistically: “A generous foreign policy rests upon a proper balance between power and obligations. … The aim … is to develop foreign policies which are realistic and generous, enlightened yet pragmatic. ‘Pragmatic’ means in part a true recognition of the world as it is” (Whitlam 1973d: 3-4).
Whitlam took distinct positions on the US alliance in a way that had a significant impact on US attitudes, and while he insisted on more control over US engagement on Australian soil, he also contributed to a view on whether Australia and the ALP could be relied upon. Despite suspicions from some American policy makers, he helped to settle the controversy within the ALP over what became more credibly known as the “joint facilities”. Whitlam also took distinct views on Vietnamese refugees and East Timor that diminished his standing on human rights and people’s right to self-determination. There is a striking contrast between Whitlam’s stance on East Timor independence, the Baltic states and the traditional centre-left, social democratic support for national self-determination.
Whitlam certainly had boundless power over Australia’s foreign policy. If he had better consulted with Willesee, with close figures in his ministry, even his Cabinet, some mistakes might have been avoided or mitigated. As Beazley once frustratingly murmured: “Gough, I have no fear of anything except your masterstrokes; they never work” (K.E. Beazley 2009: 224).
In politics and foreign policy, hubris can be the partner of the bold and creative. Whitlam made a difference to Australia’s future. First, he attractively advocated Australia’s place in the world in the context of a realist, yet principled, outlook. Second, he disputed and urged Australians to discard the dread and fear that Australia is trapped on the outside of an incomprehensible Asia. Third, he moved away from the quagmire of Vietnam and the military-dominant mindset of foreign policy. Fourth, he decisively shifted Australian sensitivities to better relations with Asian nations, particularly Indonesia.
“Whitlamism” was greater than the man. Whatever Whitlam’s triumphs, insights, daring, flaws, mistakes, naivety, myopia, he asked the portentous questions and inspired a democratic, idealistic realism. His promise was to answer as well as he could questions and priorities about the national interest, national security, identity, and national destiny. Critics of Whitlam rarely understood that his appeal lay in how he perceived the world and what he confidently proclaimed about what should and could be. In that pragmatic worldview, on the international stage particularly, there was nobility of purpose. In politics, foreign policy included, nobody gets everything they want. That is frustrating, especially when ideologues and opportunists swarm to absolutist positions.
The alternative is the approach contained in “Whitlamism” – seeking to do good while advancing the national interest. In doing so, results matter: “Important as it is to know the truth and to respond relevantly and steadfastly to it, the test of action is in the results” (Acheson 1970: 728). In this chapter, I have attempted to describe and analyse the fruits, successfully harvested, those unpicked, and those that fell on barren ground.
I am grateful to readers who critiqued an earlier draft, including Kim C. Beazley, Michaela Browning, Michael Costello, Catherine Harding, Tom Switzer, and Susan Windybank, as well as the editors’ anonymous reviewer. A longer version of this chapter will be published by Connor Court in 2023. The responsibility for all errors and omissions remains my own.
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