21 October 2014
By Daniel Flitton
History judges Gough Whitlam got China and Vietnam right — and East Timor so tragically wrong.
Yet his enduring legacy, far beyond individual relationships, was to infuse a greater sense of independence into Australia's approach to the world.
Whitlam ended military conscription and formally withdrew Australia from the Vietnam War.
He switched Australia's vote at the United Nations to oppose the white minority regime in then Rhodesia, and hastily ushered Papua New Guinea to independence.
He dominated his government's foreign policy, remaining both prime minister and foreign minister for much of his term.
But it was diplomatic recognition of communist China that most embodied Whitlam's vision for Australia to decide its own fate.
"It was a risk because it was going against the policy of the United States, which was about to change too, but no one knew," said Stephen FitzGerald on Tuesday.
FitzGerald was just 34 when Whitlam made him Australia's first ambassador to China. The controversy of recognition seems hard to fathom now, especially with China as Australia's largest trade partner.
But at the time, Whitlam made his visit to Beijing in opposition, and conservative politicians frothed at his "instant coffee" diplomacy and the threat to the US alliance — only for Richard Nixon to go to China a few months later.
University of Sydney historian James Curran believes Whitlam ranks as the leader best prepared in foreign affairs to come to office in the post-war era.
"He clearly revelled in his role as international statesman and there can be no doubt he carried it off with considerable aplomb," Curran said.
But in a book to be released next year, Unholy Fury: Nixon and Whitlam at War, Curran has unearthed new evidence to show the Americans, incensed by Whitlam's policies, almost abandoned the treaty with Australia and even costed withdrawing US bases.
Veteran diplomat Richard Woolcott said Whitlam was determined for Australia to be independent within the framework of the alliance, but had to manage a Labor left faction declaring he should not meet the White House "maniac" bombing Vietnam.
Whitlam's extensive overseas trips, including long sojourns across more than a dozen nations, became the subject of ridicule back home.
Woolcott remembers Whitlam reading in the newspaper about newly independent Bangladesh, Guinea-Bissau and Grenada joining the UN, and quipping: "Having you seen this, comrade? They are creating these countries faster than I can visit them."
But as his government was overwhelmed by political and economic problems at home, Whitlam's mistake was not to recognise the determination of the people of East Timor to join the ranks of independent nations.
Indonesia's violent takeover of the former Portuguese colony, and the debate over whether Whitlam gave the "green light" to Indonesian dictator Suharto, left a stain on what was otherwise a time Australia's flag waved anew.
This article was originally published in Fairfax Media