By: Bruce Grant
Australia’s 21st prime minister, Edward Gough Whitlam, has been celebrated in his country since his death on October 20, aged 98, with an emotion that, in India, would place him somewhere between Jawaharlal Nehru and Mohandas Gandhi. Yet, he was prime minister for less than three years.
One reason for the unusual display of feeling is martyrdom. On November 11, 1975, the Whitlam government was dismissed by the governor general, John Kerr, in a high-handed use of vice regal “reserve powers”. Malcolm Fraser, the beneficiary of Kerr’s intervention, later made peace with Whitlam, but the role of the governor general in “the dismissal” still reverberates in Australia’s political culture.
But perhaps the more substantial reason is that Whitlam asked his country to be different — to relinquish its role as an outpost of the British Empire and Western Christendom and to offer itself as a modern, multicultural democracy in a region embracing the two great oceans, the Indian and the Pacific. Australians of all political persuasions know now that this was a profoundly important judgement, but when Whitlam took office in 1972, it was original and controversial. The conservatives had been in power under Robert Menzies since shortly after World War II and, while shrewd and pragmatic in coming to terms with what President Sukarno of Indonesia called “the new emerging forces” in his country and the region, clung to what they knew and admired, which was the British inheritance, now buttressed by the military alliance with the United States.
Whitlam’s vision of a different Australia began when he was leader of the opposition and was dramatised by an early visit to China, in recognition of the communist government. After becoming prime minister, he quickly established Australia’s new credentials by visiting Indonesia and India. When I came to India in 1973 as Australia’s high commissioner, it was obvious that the new Australia was welcome politically. The media also responded. I have on my wall at home a drawing by Abu Abraham showing Whitlam astride Australia paddling on a sea-marked “Discovery of Asia 1973” and accompanied by doves of peace.
Whitlam’s appointment of a non-professional diplomat to India, which had attracted high-ranking officials like James Plimsoll and Arthur Tange, was part of his big-picture view of Australia and Asia. His reasons for making a personal appointment were essentially two. He felt that India, a great democracy, had been neglected by previous Australian prime ministers because of its “neutrality” in the Cold War. Second, while he was confident that our relations with Indonesia and Japan were so central to our trade, defence and foreign policies concerns that they would not be upset by our new China policy, he could not be so sure of India. He hoped that a personal appointment would allay any misgivings and underline our intention to have a broad-based foreign policy.
One of the delights of the Whitlam government — and a possible explanation of why it was so shortlived — is that those involved in it were confident they could do anything. One of Gough’s charming attributes was that he expected intelligent people like himself to handle official formalities. Neither of us paid attention to whether I had any of the formal skills
or attributes of a diplomat.
Former Australian high commissioners had worn what was inexplicably described as “morning dress” to their accreditation ceremonies. What should the representative of the vibrant new Australia wear? I turned for advice not to my British or European or Asian colleagues, all of whom had fancy dress for such occasions, but to another amateur, my American colleague, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who, as a staunch upholder of democratic virtue, gave me a tip: a dark suit, with a homburg and a red, or at least pink, rose in your buttonhole will get you anywhere. The credentials ceremony in New Delhi was organised with military precision in the sandstone palace that had been the residence of the British viceroy and was now the centrepiece of official India. I borrowed Pat’s homburg, plucked a red rose from our garden, inspected honour guards and ascended palatial staircases lined with overbearing sentries armed with pikestaffs as if I had been doing it all my life.
Whitlam was neither radical nor rebellious by temperament. He was born into the upper reaches of the middle class, studied law and loved the classics, served in the Australian air force as a navigator in World War II. His passion was equality of opportunity. He was appalled at the loss of talent in Australia from gender bias, racial prejudice and economic disadvantage, and this gave him an ethical outlook that he applied to politics generally, including foreign policy. He was not a pacifist, but he was a parliamentarian rather than a statesman, believing that war was an unimaginative way of settling differences and that both self-interest and national interest were better served by collaborative thinking and joint enterprise.
His legacy on domestic issues has been lasting, especially in health, education and Aboriginal land rights. Public sentiment for an Australian republic remains but leadership, especially among young Australians, is lacking. The current prime minister, Tony Abbott, has reintroduced imperial honours, which Whitlam abolished. His legacy in foreign policy was best glimpsed when Gareth Evans was foreign minister during the Hawke and Keating governments and Australia flexed its muscles as a “robust middle power”.
One reason why there has been an outbreak of mixed sadness and pride in Australia at Whitlam’s death is that his vision of a productive and peaceful Indo-Pacific region remains a tantalising prospect. Our part of the world has become a global powerhouse and Australia has substantial relationships in its own right with the four major states, China, India, Japan and Indonesia. Moreover, our region is a model in miniature of the world. Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Christianity, Shintoism and Confucianism, not to mention communism, capitalism and democracy, are all present. If it is peaceful and productive, the world will more likely also be peaceful and productive.
Grant, a novelist and academic, was Australian high commissioner to India from 1973-76