Whitlam. A disaster

From China to Vietnam, the truth is Gough Whitlam was a disaster

Gough Whitlam during his second visit to China in 1973. He had gone there earlier in 1971 as opposition leader.
Gough Whitlam during his second visit to China in 1973. He had gone there earlier in 1971 as opposition leader.

Labor leader Anthony Albanese, in a landmark interview with The Australian, has pledged bipartisanship on China, human rights and national security, endorsed Washington’s view of strategic competition with Beijing, and ­observed that whoever is in government in Canberra will have enormous difficulty re-establishing constructive dialogue with the People’s Republic of China.


This is striking. It also rep­resents repudiation by modern Labor of Gough Whitlam’s approach to China.

Albanese could never say that. No one in the modern Labor Party can publicly question the false god of the Whitlam China legacy.

But in foreign policy, Whitlam was an unmitigated disaster, who nearly broke the US alliance. Almost all his judgments were wrong and he earned the long-lasting ­enmity of our closest Asian allies.

Australians didn’t like him much either. In 1975, they subjected Whitlam to the biggest electoral landslide loss in Australian history. Bizarrely, Whitlam hung on as leader. In 1977, Australians again voted against Whitlam by essentially the same margin.

Whitlam was wrong on China in important ways. His only positive contribution was to show the Hawke governments how not to govern. Hawke’s success came from being the opposite of Whitlam.

This month is the 50th anniversary of Whitlam’s visit to China as opposition leader and the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party.

Gough Whitlam, interpreter Li Zhong (in background), Chinese Deputy Premier Deng Xiaoping and Margaret Whitlam during the visit to China in 1973.
Gough Whitlam, interpreter Li Zhong (in background), Chinese Deputy Premier Deng Xiaoping and Margaret Whitlam during the visit to China in 1973.

Whitlam’s visit has been lionised, exaggerated and blown out of all proportion in historical myth making which is epic in its inaccuracy and breathtaking in its avoidance of facts.

Whitlam was an impressive individual of great charm and wit. He was also a disastrous prime minister, perhaps the worst we ever had.

He lost control of the budget, he increased federal expenditure at grotesque rates, he summoned up inflation and he made the country so unsuccessful that for the first time since World War II, more Australians left the country than foreign immigrants came in.

He also injected ideological ­poison into social and cultural debates. He started off as a right-winger but nearly lost a leadership challenge to the wildly left Jim Cairns, and after that moved ever further to the left.

Whitlam did do some good things in social policy, such as introducing universal health cover. But many of his social reforms – such as free university education – taxed working class people to give benefits to middle class people and were reversed by later Labor governments.

In foreign policy, Whitlam was supremely damaging.

The Labor Party of the 1950s and 60s was heavily infiltrated by the Communist Party. ASIO concluded a number of Whitlam’s ministers were background dual members of the Communist Party. Bob Carr has written eloquently about how this infiltration made Labor unfit for government for much of the 1950s and 60s.

When he came to office, Whitlam did not behave responsibly in national security. He refused to allow Labor staffers to be subjected to the normal national security checks. His attorney-general, ­Lionel Murphy, refused to allow ASIO to bug Russian diplomats’ phones.

In March 1973, just a few months after Whitlam’s election, Murphy organised an extraordinary raid by the Commonwealth Police on ASIO headquarters. All confidential files were impounded, ASIO staff were kept away from their desks and assembled in the building’s auditorium.

Murphy was looking for non-existent ASIO files on himself and on imaginary Croatian terrorism. During the 1974 election campaign, Whitlam said this raid was his greatest mistake.

Harvey Barnett, who went on to serve as ASIO director-general under Bob Hawke, and in whom Hawke had great confidence, later reflected that the raid “sent shockwaves around Australia and the Western world … Many thought the Westminster system was at risk … Usually the first action radical political regimes take in any sort of coup d’etat situation is to make a grab for the records of the security service … Australia’s overseas allies were aghast and concerned”.

Right from the start, the Whitlam government was beset by appalling indiscipline among cabinet ministers. Labor had opposed Australian participation in the Vietnam War. It is another bit of fictitious legend-making to claim Whitlam withdrew Australian troops from Vietnam. Almost all Aussie Diggers had left Vietnam by the time Whitlam came to power; only a tiny training team and a unit to guard the embassy were left. Whitlam withdrew the training team. That’s all.

The incendiary rhetoric of numerous Whitlam ministers was not merely to oppose Australian participation but to agitate in effect for a communist victory. This in a conflict where 500 Australian soldiers had died. Communist victory in Vietnam meant mass imprisonments in re-education camps, widespread persecution of religious and ethnic minorities, and more than 1.5 million refugees. Communist victory in Cambodia meant genocide.

Clyde Cameron, Whitlam’s minister for labour, called the US bombing of North Vietnam the most monstrous act in human history and the policy of maniacs. Another minister, Tom Uren, condemned the Americans’ “mentality of thuggery”, while Cairns called it “the most brutal, undiscriminating slaughter of defenceless men, women and children in living memory”. Whitlam had no control of his own government and this was the beginning of earning deep, and nearly disastrous, hostility in Washington.

Oddly, I became quite friendly with Whitlam for a few years when defending him against the charge that he encouraged the Indonesians to invade East Timor. I asked him once why he never discussed national security matters in cabinet, to which he replied: “Comrade, how could I discuss sensitive ­national security matters given the people I had in my cabinet?”

Whitlam named a couple of ­individuals specifically. I won’t ­repeat their names, but history is clear enough. Whitlam did not trust his own cabinet on national security.

Peter Edwards, in Australia and the Vietnam War, writes: “The Australian-American relationship was closer to a rupture than at any time since the signing of the ANZUS Treaty.” Subsequent historians have added striking detail. Whitlam went within an ace of destroying the US-Australia alliance, yet he is lionised in the Labor myth-making machine. It is as though Americans decided to make Herbert Hoover – a privately impressive individual, known for a time as “the great engineer” but who was a disastrous president completely overwhelmed by the Depression – as their ideal of presidential government.

The Americans waged the Vietnam War incompetently until the late 1960s but as they gave control of the combat effort to the South Vietnamese, these brave non-communists fought heroically and had every chance of national survival until the vagaries of Watergate meant that the Americans withdrew their promised air support. As a result, South Vietnam fell to the communists, not to a communist insurgency but to invasion by regular armoured divisions of the North Vietnamese army supplied by the Chinese.

Whitlam hated the South Vietnamese anti-communists and behaved with spectacular, almost monstrous, cruelty towards them. Thousands of Vietnamese had worked with Australian soldiers and diplomats. The Department of Foreign Affairs had no sympathy for them but even it drew up a list of 2000 who should be brought to Australia as Saigon fell. Whitlam refused, and barely 200 came.

Australian planes took off half empty as our allies and friends were left to a pitiable fate under the communists.

Anthony Albanese could never publicly question the false god of the Whitlam China legacy. Picture: NCA NewsWire / Martin Ollman
Anthony Albanese could never publicly question the false god of the Whitlam China legacy. Picture: NCA NewsWire / Martin Ollman

Whitlam said on the ABC that Australia did not want “another ­reactionary right-wing minority”. Foreign minister Don Willesee pleaded with him to take more. Whitlam replied: “I’m not having those f..king Vietnamese Balts coming into this country with their religious and political prejudices against us.”

Whitlam opposed the entry of Vietnamese refugees, saying they stirred no sympathy in him. He added: “There will be some resentment about the people coming to Australia at a time of unemployment, and also people from a very different way of life.”

In other words, Whitlam consciously stirred up ethnic and racial prejudice against Vietnamese ­because he thought they might be politically hostile to Labor.

Denis Warner, the greatest Australian journalist ever to work in Southeast Asia, wrote: “The shame of Australia’s performance in the final days of the Vietnam War, and immediately thereafter, will endure for a long, long time.”

I think there was another reason Whitlam so despised the South Vietnamese. He sometimes championed the underdog in Australia, but internationally he always favoured the strong over the weak, the mighty over the meek, the many over the few, the metropolitan over the distant. Thus he favoured China over Hong Kong, Taiwan or individual human rights. He favoured the Soviet Union over the Baltic States. He even extended de jure recognition of Soviet sovereignty over the Baltic States, breaking the hearts of Australians of Baltic extraction and showing characteristically poor historic judgment, as the Baltic States are all now independent of Moscow.

He favoured Indonesia over East Timor. He favoured the many Arabs over the few Israelis.

Whitlam flattered the powerful; the less powerful found him disagreeable. Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew in his memoirs records an ­arrogant and pretentious Whitlam, often ignorant of the way the region worked. Lee describes Whitlam as “a sham white Afro-Asian” and says it was a relief for Singapore when Whitlam left the prime ministership.

Some of Whitlam’s behaviour was truly grotesque. He personally commissioned Bill Hartley, a radical and disreputable figure who for years took payment from ­Colonel Gaddafi’s Libya, to seek electoral funds for Labor from the Iraqi Ba’ath party of Saddam Hussein. Whitlam got no money and tried to keep the operation secret. When it came out, he was condemned by the ALP national executive. Two of his former ministers, John Wheeldon and Kim Beazley snr, vowed never to serve on a frontbench led by Whitlam.

Equally bizarre was the loans affair, in which the Whitlam government authorised Tirath Khemlani as its agent. Hawke in his memoirs wrote that Whitlam was “conned by this unimpressive little shyster” who claimed he could raise billions of dollars for national infrastructure. Even after resources minister Rex Connor’s authority to use Khemlani was withdrawn, he kept on, with Whitlam’s tacit approval.

Hawke’s judgment? “The Australian (Whitlam) government ­became an international laughing stock.”

Whitlam’s 1971 visit to Beijing was good for him in domestic Australian politics. By pure luck he was there a week before Henry Kissinger was there as Richard Nixon’s envoy. Kissinger’s visit had nothing to do with Whitlam but it contributed to the utterly provincial legend of the Whitlam visit as a ­historic breakthrough.

Whitlam was a great talker, and a few days sounding off in Beijing in front of awe-struck Australian journalists was perfect for him. The former Harvard academic, Ross Terrill, who was with Whitlam at the time, suggests Whitlam at times didn’t know what the Chinese were talking about, thinking they meant Japan when they were referring to the Soviet Union. Terrill makes the more serious charge that because Whitlam was desperate to get the victory of reciprocal diplomatic relations, he negotiated an extremely bad outcome for Australia’s ability to pursue its legitimate interests with Taiwan, a poorer outcome, Terrill says, than more hard-headed countries got.

Whitlam sitting in the Qing Dynasty Throne Room at the Art Gallery of SA, for opening of “Imperial China – The Living Past” exhibition, to mark the 20th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic links between Beijing and Canberra in 1993.
Whitlam sitting in the Qing Dynasty Throne Room at the Art Gallery of SA, for opening of “Imperial China – The Living Past” exhibition, to mark the 20th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic links between Beijing and Canberra in 1993.

Extending diplomatic recognition to Beijing was rendered more complex by the CCP’s active support for communist insurgencies throughout Southeast Asia. It was partly solidarity with Southeast Asia which made Canberra hesitant.

Once the Americans decided to establish diplomatic relations with Beijing, it was absolutely inevitable that we would do the same. We were neither pioneers, nor laggards. We got absolutely no extra benefit out of Whitlam’s visit. The real pioneer in the China relationship was Bob Hawke, who saw its economic potential.

Whitlam’s visit instilled in the Labor Party a lot of bad ideas about China diplomacy – that it requires grand gestures, and historic vision; that China is an opaque enigma of mystery and riches to be magically unlocked by the right combination of incantation, gesture and obeisance.

In fact, China is just another very difficult country, best worked at steadily and quietly, and in this John Howard was the gold standard. Whitlam was a majestically talented and well motivated Australian. He was an utter disaster as prime minister.