Press "Enter" to skip to content

The Relevance Of The Whitlam Government Today

This is the text of the keynote speech given by Gough Whitlam at a conference held by the National Key Centre for Australian Studies and the Parliamentary Studies Unit, School of Political and Social Inquiry, Faculty of Arts, Monash University.

The speech was delivered at Old Parliament House, 30 years to the day since Whitlam was elected.

A PDF copy of the speech is shown below, as is a text version.

Keynote Address by the Hon E.G. Whitlam AC QC

Thirty Years Later: the Whitlam Government as Modernist Politics

Old Parliament House, Canberra

Throughout my public life, I have tried to apply an overarching principle and a unifying theme to all my work. It can be stated in two words: contemporary relevance. It was the fundamental test I applied, in particular, to the development of Labor policy in the years before 2 December 1972. There is a case to be argued that my Government faltered whenever we lost sight of the principle or allowed the rush of events to subsume it. However that may be, contemporary relevance is certainly the thread of my remarks today, albeit in the way described by Winston Churchill in the preface to his World Crisis: “a contribution to history strung upon a fairly strong thread of personal reminiscence.”

We meet under the auspices of the Faculty of Arts in Monash University and, more specifically, the National Key Centre for Australian Studies and the Parliamentary Studies Unit of the School of Political and Social Inquiry. The Conference title is Thirty Years Later – the Whitlam Government as Modernist Politics. The auspices, the title and the distinguished speakers listed to follow me over the next two days guarantee that this will be no exercise in mere nostalgia, however powerful the associations of this anniversary and this building may be for us all.

Yet even if we were to confine the Conference to the study of history, there is a special circumstance which endows it with particular contemporary relevance. If the Conference marks the 30th anniversary of the election of the Whitlam Government, it equally marks the beginning of the operation of the 30-year-rule for the Whitlam Cabinets. The documents to be released by the National Archives on 1 January 2003 deal largely, of course, with the last year of the McMahon Government. They will, however, cover the first Whitlam Ministry (5 to 19 December) and the second for the period 19 to 31 December. At my first press conference as Prime Minister, I reminded the media that the Whitlam-Barnard Ministry was the smallest administration having responsibility for Australian affairs since the Duke of Wellington and Lord Lyndhurst formed an interim government in November 1834. I failed to note a more ominous parallel: King William IV had installed Wellington to supplant Lord Melbourne’s Ministry; it was the last Crown dismissal of a government with a firm majority in the House of Commons. It was to be, I suppose, a kind of reverse symmetry.

In the first Whitlam Ministry, Lance Barnard held 14 portfolios. I contented myself with a more modest 13. We made many decisions. First, we ordered the release of the young men who had been jailed for refusing national service for Vietnam. Next, we set in motion the recognition of the People’s Republic of China as the government of One China. Then we re-opened the equal pay case. We held no formal Cabinet meetings; but we were fortunate that the Secretary of Prime Minister’s and Cabinet, Sir John Bunting, not only had a sense of history but realised that he was taking part in history. On 19 December, the day the full ministry was sworn by the Governor-General, Sir Paul Hasluck, he instructed the First Assistant Secretary, Bob Linford, to create a file. Sir John wrote:

For record purposes, including for future historians, I would like you to have it properly recorded in our running papers that the McMahon Government went to election on 2 December, that the First Whitlam Ministry was formed on 5 December, that it consisted of two Ministers only, that it was designed to be an interim Ministry, that it held no Cabinet meetings but that it nevertheless made and promulgated certain decisions.

The substantial Cabinet records will come on stream on each subsequent New Year’s Day to 2006. I cannot exaggerate the importance of these records. It is not a matter of vindication but of verification. If there is any such thing as the “inside story” of the Whitlam Government, it is to be found in these records rather than in the embargoed effusions of oral history in the Australian National Library. With their publication, the public documentation will be complete; and here I underscore the central place I give to documentation in the writing, study and interpretation of history, recent history most of all. The most flagrant distortions often arise from that chronological compression and the re-ordering of recollection with which even the best memory can be afflicted. The document is the most effective antidote. The document is the primary source for political historiography. The thoroughly documented narrative remains the highest form of the art. Clearly I belong to the pre-modernist school.

The Whitlam Government, the policies we presented before and pursued after 2 December 1972 did not, of course, spring, like Athena, fully-armed from Zeus’s brow. Or even mine. Nothing in politics grows in a vacuum and the older I grow the more I realise I am but a child of my age. Accordingly, before the legacy at home and abroad is assessed in this distinguished gathering, it might be useful to recall some preliminary events which influenced my attitudes and decisions, many of them with more than a passing contemporary relevance.

Two days after my 18th birthday, Adolf Hitler perpetrated the Night of the Long Knives. On 1 August 1934 he assumed full power as German Führer and Chancellor with the express purpose of overturning the Treaty of Versailles. On 9 October King Alexander I of Yugoslavia and the French Foreign Minister and Academician Louis Barthou were assassinated by Croatian terrorists in Marseilles. I feared a repetition of the events which followed the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand by a Bosnian Serb at Sarajevo on 28 June 1914, the climactic event in half a century of terrorism in Europe. I had reached the military age but not the voting age. My government’s first electoral legislation in 1973 gave Australians the vote at 18.

It is a sobering thought that as many years have passed since my government’s election as from Sarajevo to Normandy. In the 1930s, the League of Nations, due to the absence of the United States and the weak performance of Britain and France, failed to counter Italy’s occupation of Ethiopia, Japan’s invasion of China, the supply of foreign arms and combatants in the Spanish Civil War and Italy’s invasion of Albania on Good Friday 1939. Before I inaugurated Documents on Australian Foreign Policy 1937-49, Australians did not know that at the 1937 Imperial Conference, when Australia offered to take over Britain’s responsibilities in the Anglo-French New Hebrides condominium, the British Foreign Secretary, Anthony Eden, asked the Conference not to discuss the islands since they would be one of the few colonies which Britain and France could offer Hitler’s Germany to compensate for the colonies lost during World War I. The Australian delegates, Prime Minister Lyons, Treasurer Casey, Defence Minister Parkhill and High Commissioner Bruce, obliged.

I was a navigator-bombaimer in RAAF No.13 Squadron from August 1943 to February 1945. During World War II the RAAF, like the RAN, operated under British law, not Australian law, and under British flags, not Australian flags. In April 1944 I guided Dutch Kittyhawks to the airfield at Merauke, the south-eastern port to which the Dutch administrators relegated their dissident subjects. The indigenous inhabitants were more neglected than the Aborigines near the airfields with which I had become familiar in northern Australia. In August 1944, just before MacArthur moved his headquarters from Brisbane to Hollandia, we conducted operations from Merauke against the Tanimbar and Aroe Islands. By January 1945 we were operating as far as Soembawa from Truscott, the longest airstrip in Australia. From March to July 1945 our crew was stationed in the Philippines, first in Leyte and then in Manila. Since ours was the only Empire aircraft in the Philippines we had to transport all the Australian, British, New Zealand and Canadian top brass, including a future Governor of Western Australia and Tasmania, to and from MacArthur’s headquarters, usually through Morotai, the Dutch airfield nearest to the Philippines. Once I returned through Milne Bay, Manus, Biak and Palau. Thus I learned much of the geography and topography of the Dutch, Australian and American empires to the north of Australia. Colonialism was doomed in the Indian and Pacific Oceans as a result of the Pacific War. The United Nations admitted the Philippines and India as original members in 1945. Indonesia was admitted in 1950.

During the 1930s I was depressed at the ineffectiveness of governments in Australia compared with the creativeness of the Roosevelt administration in USA. My preoccupation with domestic reform was sparked by the fate of the proposals for constitutional reform in 1942-44. For many in my generation the 1942-44 proposals rivalled the Beveridge reports in Britain in raising hopes of a better society than we had known in the 1930s.

The first Constitutional Convention since the 1890s was convened in Canberra on 24 November 1942. My father, the Commonwealth Crown Solicitor, sent me Attorney-General Evatt’s 188-page booklet Postwar reconstruction: a case for greater Commonwealth powers (1942, Government Printer, Canberra) and the equally substantial Explanatory Notes by Sir Robert Garran, Sir George Knowles and Professor Kenneth Bailey (1942, Government Printer, Hobart). A subcommittee of the Convention, consisting of the six Premiers, Evatt and Billy Hughes, leader of the U.A.P., agreed to a bill which each State Parliament would pass before the end of January 1943 to refer 14 powers to the Commonwealth Parliament for five years under section 51 (xxxvii) of the Constitution. All the State delegates at the Convention agreed to sponsor the bill through their Parliaments. The bill was promptly passed by the New South Wales and Queensland Parliaments. In Tasmania the House of Assembly passed the bill in April 1943 but by mid-1943 the Legislative Council was still opposing it. There were only one third as many electors for the Legislative Council as there were for the House of Assembly; the Council was composed of 18 members elected for fixed six-year terms by persons with property qualifications.

At the Federal elections on 21 August 1943 the Curtin Government was elected with a majority in both houses. R.G. Menzies was then elected leader of the UAP and urged the remaining States to reject the Convention’s bill. A bill for the Fourteen Powers referendum was introduced on 11 February 1944 and was passed by both Houses. Among the powers sought were companies, national health and ‘the people of the aboriginal race’. In the early hours of 7 July, just before adjourning for its winter recess, the Legislative Council of Tasmania passed a motion denouncing the referendum.

I led the yes campaign in my RAAF squadron, which was then stationed at Cooktown mission inland from Cooktown. Since it was a Lutheran mission, the Aboriginal community had been moved on security grounds in May 1942 to Woorabinda, inland from Rockhampton; 100 people died in miserable, cold and unfamiliar conditions. On 19 August 1944 the referendum was approved by only two States, South Australia and Western Australia, and by members of the Forces, especially in our squadron. The campaign had an immediate and lasting effect on my attitudes and career. I was alienated by Menzies’s opportunistic and cynical conduct. I was committed to expand Commonwealth responsibilities and to curb the pretensions of upper Houses of Parliament. I joined the ALP when I left the RAAF. When I joined the Federal Parliamentary Labor Party in February 1953 Senator Justin O’Byrne and I were the only members who had served overseas in World War II. Three members had served in the Boer War.

I have not spoken of the formative influences of family and education. You may permit me, however, to give a quotation from the Inaugural Garran Oration, delivered in this city in 1959 by my father, who had helped to draft and develop the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. He spoke about the international role of Australia as a committed member of the United Nations:

The task before Australia is honourable and its efficient discharge would make for a dynamic peace; to it, all the resources, skills and energy that Australia can command deserve to be committed. The honourable task, however, could become majestic and infinitely inspiring, and the peace could become creative, deep and rich and enduring, if there be added what I have termed Excellence. Excellence in all its fullness.

I was proud to quote my father’s words 14 years later when I delivered the Garran Oration as Prime Minister. I assert their enduring and contemporary relevance 43 years later.

The Australian Labor Party

Against this background, I turn to the four great institutions which provided a framework for advocacy and action: the Australian Labor Party, the Australian Parliament, the Australian Constitution and Australia’s membership of the United Nations.

I took an uncomplicated attitude to the ALP Federal Platform. Where I disagreed with it, I sought to change it; where I agreed with it, I sought to implement it. Since the Commonwealth Conferences at Adelaide in 1967, Melbourne in 1969 and Launceston in 1971 had largely incorporated my proposals on party organisation, education, health and hospitals, cities, transport, Federal-State finances and functions, environmental protection and electoral reform, I was in the happy position by 1972 of having much to agree with and much to implement. Certainly we had advanced well beyond the frustrations of the 1950s, which I described in the Curtin Memorial Lecture at the ANU on 29 October 1975. Considering the events taking place in and around this Parliament House at the time, it was scarcely a case of recollection in tranquillity; I said, however:

I was concerned (in 1957) by the way in which the Labor Party’s failure to move on, to look ahead, to attempt to find new ways towards reform was short changing the Australian people and short changing the Party itself … The Party became obsessed with the idea that rather than being about renewal for the future, its purpose was to return to a more comfortable past – not renovation but mere restoration. As a result, both the achievements of the past and the hopes for the future receded equally. The Party stagnated and the Platform was stultified.

I was intent in the barren post-split years to draw the ALP away from its negative obsession with Section 92 as a prohibition against nationalisation towards recognition of the potential of Section 96. It provides that the Federal Parliament may grant financial assistance to any State on such terms and conditions as the Parliament sees fit. I viewed, and still view, Section 96 not only as the charter for public enterprise but as the great instrument for promoting equality of services and regions.

Let me say something about equality and the ALP. In the 1972 campaign, the Sydney Morning Herald took me severely to task for saying in the Policy Speech:

“We want to give a new life and a new meaning in this new nation to the touchstone of modern democracy – to liberty, equality, fraternity.”

In its best Lady Bracknell manner, the Herald chided me for threatening the worst excesses of the French Revolution. In fact, I had sought for a decade and more to re-define equality in practical, relevant terms applicable to the contemporary Australian society and economy. I maintained that, in modern communities, even the wealthiest family could not provide its members with the best education, the best medical treatment, the best environment unaided by the community. Increasingly, the services and opportunities which determine the real standard of life of a family, or an individual, could only be provided by the community and only to the extent which the community was willing to provide them. In the Australian context, this meant that the national government must finance them, or they would not be financed adequately or at all. I specified that the goal of this concept of equality was not equality of incomes, but greater equality of the services which the community provides. I acknowledged that private affluence was positively required to prevent public squalor.

Furthermore, the inequalities which the Program sought to arrest or diminish were regional as much as individual or familial. One could not represent an electorate like Werriwa – I was elected its member 50 years ago last Saturday – without being acutely aware that a family’s standard of living was determined by where it lived as much as by its income. That is why the Program created a Ministry of Urban Affairs to analyse, research and co-ordinate plans for each city and region and to advise the government on grants for certain purposes. Tom Uren’s Department for Urban and Regional Development was among the most dynamic and successful of all our ministries. It is symptomatic of the disgraceful withdrawal of national responsibility from urban affairs that the Australian National University has closed down its School of Urban Studies. We have reverted to the attitude expressed by John Gorton; when I argued that sewerage was a national issue, he accused me of talking, not like an aspirant for the Prime Ministership, but like a shire president. I took that as a compliment, the more so because he had actually been a shire president. By contrast, harsh fate had thwarted my chance of becoming President of the Sutherland Shire. I prefer, however, Neville Wran’s compliment: “It was said of Caesar Augustus that he found Rome brick and left it marble. It will be said of Gough Whitlam that he found the outer suburbs of Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane unsewered, and left them fully flushed.”

The Australian Parliament

I always upheld the idea that Parliament itself should be the great instrument for equality. In January 1955 I attended the 21st Summer School of the Australian Institute of Political Science in Canberra. I contested the arch-conservative view put forward by Professor F.A. Bland, formerly professor of Public Administration at Sydney University, and at that time MHR for Warringah, 100 per cent sewered on the North Shore. He was the father of Sir Henry Bland, one of the group known as the Seven Dwarves who ran the Canberra bureaucracy in Menzies’ time. I should say, however, that one of the shortest among them was ‘Nugget’ Coombs, the greatest public servant of my time. Dr Bland put forward a view of party politics which effectively denied the legitimacy and the loyalty of any Labor Government, anticipating by 20 years the attitude which led to the events of November 1975. In particular he held up States Rights as the bulwark of liberty. I replied:

The buck-passing which Professor Bland rightly condemned in bureaucrats and politicians is intensified under a Federal system, where the several governments can all find plausible excuses for evading or transferring responsibility.

I continued:

Parliament has been our great liberating force … There is no freedom without equality. To redistribute and equalise liberty has been one of the principal functions of Parliament. Parliament alone can give equality of opportunity and thereby increase liberty for all. If we are to have economic equality of opportunity, which is the next stage in the advance of liberty, we must have effective parliamentary government and, accordingly, dispense with fetters on Parliament rather than contrive them.

These were very much statements of first principles for social democracy under the parliamentary system. Yet, in a nation where the top 20 per cent of Australian households now earn 40 per cent of the nation’s income, where the bottom 20 per cent earn eight per cent, in a nation where the top 20 per cent own 65 per cent of the nation’s wealth and the bottom 20 per cent own nothing, who can deny the contemporary relevance of these statements of nearly 50 years ago?

More specifically, can we doubt their relevance after more than a decade of the debasement of the needs principle for schools, free universities abandoned by a Labor Government, the crisis in our hospitals caused by the dilution of the universality enshrined in Medibank and Medicare and the buckpassing of responsibility and costs between State and Federal governments? If the party of social democracy gives up on public equality as its basic test and guide, we are bound to lose our way.

Electoral Reform

In 1955, I was distressed by the Australia-wide corruption of the principle of one-vote one-value. I took it as axiomatic that Parliament must be flawed as an instrument for equality if it was itself based on inequality. As I said at the 1955 Summer School:

In Australia, parliamentary government is not adapted to give expression to the will of the majority in any of our seven parliaments or to safeguard the views of more than a very few minorities, and those entrenched ones, in those seven parliaments … As long as we have seven parliaments instead of one, we should at least have the safeguard in our Constitution that electorates shall be of equal population.

Thus, I began my longest campaign, the campaign for equal representation. I give the story briefly to illustrate the inter-connection, indeed the indivisibility, of my four sub-themes today – the ALP, the Parliament, the Constitution and the United Nations.

In 1958 the Constitutional Review Committee unanimously recommended a constitutional guarantee of a maximum variation of ten per cent above or below the State quota and a maximum lapse of ten years between electoral distributions. In 1964 in Wesbery v Sanders the US Supreme Court held that, as nearly as practicable, one man’s vote in a Congressional election is to be worth as much as another’s. In December 1966 the UN General Assembly adopted the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), of which Article 25 provides:

Every citizen shall have the right and the opportunity … (b) to vote and to be elected at genuine periodic elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage …

Article 50 provides:

The provision of the present Covenant shall extend to all parts of federal States without any limitations or exceptions.

On 3 September 1968 Barnard, Murphy, Cohen and I met in Hobart with the surviving Labor Premier, Reece, and the Leaders of the mainland State Parliamentary Labor Parties and agreed to work for votes at 18 and one vote one value in the House of Representatives and all State Houses of Parliament. On 10 July 1974 the joint sitting passed the Commonwealth Electoral Bill (No.2) 1973, which provided:

in distributing a State into Divisions, in no case shall the quota be departed from to a greater extent than one-tenth more or one-tenth less.

Thus my Government fulfilled the ALP policy of one-vote one-value in House of Representatives elections. In 1986 the Hawke Government succumbed to pressure from Premier Burke of Western Australia and abandoned the ALP policy of one-vote one-value in State and Territory elections. The grossest State malapportionment is in Western Australia, where the Legislative Council Electoral Regions and the Legislative Assembly Electoral Districts are distributed in metropolitan and country areas. On 30 September 2002 the range of enrolments in the metropolitan area was between 42006 and 22903 and in the country area between 18664 and 9168. Clearly the Federal Parliament should enact the ICCPR or at least its equal suffrage article. The campaign for equal suffrage continues.

I could hardly speak about Parliament without alluding to its role as Australia’s best forum for the documentation and dissemination of information. For an Opposition developing and promoting new policies, it is indispensable.

The It’s Time Policy Speech may have become, as Kim Beazley senior put it, the New Testament as distinct from the Old Testament of the Party Platform. Its inspiration, however, was mundane. It distilled a decade of documentation. Without, for a moment, discounting the contribution of conferences, committees, colleagues and co-workers in and outside Parliament, the specific policies on health, education, cities, transport and social assistance derived great force from the accurate information and detailed data on which they were based. The chief source of that information was unimpeachable; it was the government itself, through Questions on Notice. Properly used, diligently pursued, Questions on Notice are the way an Opposition can use the resources of government to promote its own agenda. Its current neglect is inexplicable and inexcusable. A grievous price is being paid.

I give a contemporary and relevant example. At least from the time the ALP National Conference held in Hobart from 31 July to 3 August 2000 adopted its humane, sensible and eminently defensible resolution on refugees, it was predictable that the boat people would become an election issue. The resolution stated:

Labor will ensure that Australia’s international obligations towards asylum seekers and refugees are met, and Labor will positively promote the rights of refugees and asylum seekers. Refugees, including those who arrive as asylum seekers, and persons admitted under humanitarian programs, some of whom have suffered torture and trauma before arriving in Australia, will receive appropriate support, including counselling for trauma.

Mesmerised by the so-called ‘small target’ strategy, the Parliamentary Party did nothing to explain the issue to the public. It was ready-made for the scrutiny of Questions on Notice: questions which would have forced the Government to set out Australia’s obligations under the 1951 Convention and 1967 Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees; the obligation and the performance of the other parties to the conventions and other members of the United Nations; the numbers and treatment of refugees in the detention camps; the terms and conditions under which the centres are managed; ministerial responsibility for their conduct; the public right to access; the comparative numbers of those arriving by sea and air; arrangements with the other governments of the region; the capacity of the RAN and the RAAF to patrol the Australian approaches; the status of the laws relating to the detention and repatriation of refugees. If the government’s own information had been exposed in this meticulous, authoritative manner, the campaign of misinformation over Tampa could never have occurred; if anything, the Coalition Government, not the Labor Opposition, would have been wrong-footed by Tampa.

The Australian Constitution

Earlier, I recalled that the failure of the Curtin-Evatt referendum in 1944 kindled my interest in reform of the Constitution. That interest strengthened and matured during my years of service from 1956 to 1959 on the Joint Committee on Constitutional Reform.

The Joint Committee held its first meeting on my 40th birthday. The Committee consisted of two Liberal senators, one of them as chairman, and two ALP senators and two Liberal, two Country Party and four ALP MHRs. I was much the junior member in both age and length of service. The Committee was particularly caustic on the failure of the Commonwealth and States to ratify many ILO maritime conventions and the 1954 International Convention on the Prevention of Pollution of the Sea by Oil.

The Committee spent 100 full days in taking evidence from Premiers and others in every State and from the heads of Federal departments and statutory bodies as well as lawyers, economists and special interest groups. The witnesses and documents before the Committee and the deliberations of its members gave me the best possible education in the whole range of government responsibility, Federal and State, throughout Australia. The Committee reinforced my belief in the feasibility of enacting international conventions under the external affairs paragraph of section 51 of the Constitution and granting financial assistance to any State on such terms and conditions as the Federal Parliament thinks fit under section 96 of the Constitution.

My support for constitutional amendments to give the Australian Parliament greater powers and my exploration of the limits of its existing powers have led some to depict my government in purely centralist terms. This is a caricature. The whole thrust of the Program was to provide a proper relationship between the tasks discharged by each of the three tiers of our Federal system and a proper balance between their finances and functions. The most novel element was the inclusion of local government as a counter to the entrenched centralism of State governments. Where we saw the need for short-term, emergency action in the public sector – for example, in the underfinanced and historically neglected areas of urban transport and sewerage – we allocated the necessary funds.

Where we saw the need for a continuing government responsibility, we set up permanent commissions to determine priorities and allocate resources – the Schools Commission for example. My Press Release No 13 stated: ‘The interim committee for the Australian Schools Commission will hold its first meeting in Canberra next Thursday, 21 December. The Prime Minister decided to call the meeting after talks with Mr Kim Beazley today.’ Incidentally, I was able to designate the responsible Minister more than a week before Caucus elected him because I had allocated portfolios in the Shadow parliamentary Executive immediately I became Party Leader in February 1967, the first time this had been done.

Where we found great regional inequalities in matters within the responsibility of local government, we used the Grants Commission to promote equality of services between regions by means of direct grants to local authorities, just as it had previously promoted equality between the States. The contemporary and relevant need is to develop a similarly comprehensive approach to Federal-Regional matters. Otherwise, historic opportunities offered by the Labor Party’s electoral success in the States and Territories will continue to be lost.

Here, I must emphasise that long and careful preparation was the key, not only to the development of policy in the Opposition years, but to its implementation by legislation in the Government years. If there were any validity to the stereotype of a government recklessly plunging ahead, ‘doing too much too soon,’ how is it possible to explain the exceptional success of our laws in the High Court? With my Attorneys-General, Lionel Murphy and then Kep Enderby, conscious as we were of the overturning of much of the Curtin and Chifley acts and actions, I was determined to anticipate challenges in the High Court. No government had so many of its acts and actions challenged during and after our term. No other government has had so many of its acts and actions upheld. Only the Petroleum and Mineral Authority Act 1973 was struck down, and then for procedural reasons rather than lack of constitutional power. Our legislation did, indeed, explore and extend the boundaries of national power. In the context of policy for the next Labor Government, I mention only two acts, the Australian Assistance Plan which made direct grants of funds under Section 81, and the Racial Discrimination Act 1975, based on the external affairs power. In both cases, subsequent High Court rulings opened splendid opportunities for a reform Labor government seeking to advance Australian standards at home and Australian standing in the world, always striving, in the words of Professor Fin Crisp in his splendid tribute to Sir Isaac Isaacs, ‘to widen and improve the Constitution as it affects the capacity of the National Parliament to advance Australia in a changing and difficult world’.

The United Nations

I made my first speech to the House of Representatives on international affairs on 15 September 1953. The debate took place mid-way between the cease-fire in Korea and the Geneva Conference which ended the French phase of the Thirty Years’ War of intervention in Indo-China. I discussed the regional territories which were still subject to colonial control by the Netherlands, Portugal, France, Britain and Australia. The Minister for External Territories, Paul Hasluck, constantly interjected on my references to Indo-China but not on my references to Papua New Guinea. I give an excerpt which encapsulates an entire era. I said:

Mr Whitlam: It is to be regretted that the French, who virtually bestowed liberty on the United States of America and Italy, should have for so long denied liberty to Indo-China.

Mr Hasluck: The French are defending liberty in Indo-China.

Mr Whitlam: Less than 100 years have passed since the French first took self-government from Indo-China under Napoleon III. It is just 100 years since they took self-government from New Caledonia. I suggest that it would be absurd if France, for instance, were included in a pact such as this [i.e. ANZUS].

Mr Hasluck: The honourable member is not suggesting that the red forces in Indo-China are fighting to establish liberty there?

Mr Speaker: Order!

Mr Whitlam: I do not mind the interjection of the Minister for External Territories. There is a valid answer to his interjection. The French forces in Indo-China may be contending against what we classify all-embracingly as red forces, but France has done more to foster discontent in Indo-China by withholding self-government from that country too long than have countries such as the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and China by fomenting unrest there. The quarrel in Indo-China is entirely a quarrel between France and its subjects.

Mr Hasluck: It is part of a world struggle.

Mr Whitlam: But it has not been taken before the United Nations. I should have thought the Minister would applaud the suggestion that the ANZUS pact is properly limited to those countries that govern themselves or which govern territories under trust to the United Nations.

Mr Hasluck: I disagree not with the honourable member’s conclusion but with his argument.

That, of course, was the whole trouble with the Coalition’s approach to international affairs before 1972. On all the great issues, Suez, the war in Vietnam, recognition of One China, decolonisation, independence for PNG, Confrontation, the Middle East, Southern Africa and apartheid, trade and diplomacy with Eastern Europe, nuclear non-proliferation, they disagreed with, denounced and derided the ALP’s arguments; in every case, sooner or later, they embraced our conclusions.

It is generally recognised that in international affairs the Menzies Government made disastrous errors on Suez and Viet Nam. Australia was exposed as conspiring with the UK, France and Israel without consulting with the US in the first case and conspiring with the US without consulting with the UK in the second case.

It is insufficiently recognised that in 1961 the US and UK sought the assistance of Menzies on Portuguese Timor and that he let them down. On 14 December 1960 the UN General Assembly made a Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples. The Declaration was not supported by Australia or the North Atlantic imperial powers. Portugal refused to make the required annual report on East Timor to the UN Special Committee on Colonialism on the ground that it was an overseas province of metropolitan Portugal. The US and UK could not approach Salazar to make the report since they themselves, being reliant on NATO bases in the Portuguese Azores, were not in a position to influence him. On 5 February 1963 the Menzies Cabinet ‘accepted the view that in the current state of world opinion no practicable alternative to eventual Indonesian sovereignty over Portuguese Timor presented itself.’ The decision was based on a report made by James Dunn, the Australian consul in Dili (January 1962 – August 1964), despatched to our posts in Washington, London, Jakarta and New York on 5 February 1963 and declassified by Minister Downer in June 2002:

    1. The Portuguese in Timor have little real support from the indigenous population who, if given the opportunity, will probably favour a change in the status of their territory. In these circumstances there would be some pressure towards the setting up of an independent state but the majority would probably favour Indonesian rule as the alternative to the continuation of Portuguese rule.


  1. (a) Portuguese Timor is a poor and extremely underdeveloped territory. It has no secondary industries, poor mineral resources and low-level subsistence production in agriculture. Very little has been done by the Portuguese to remedy these weaknesses and there is no evidence of any genuine effort to overcome them in the foreseeable future.

(b) As an independent state it is difficult to see how Portuguese Timor could exist as a viable economic state without substantial financial and technical assistance from outside.

(c) Continued Portuguese rule will mean further stagnation of the economy with increasing dissatistaction on the part of the indigenous population and probably some attempts at insurrection. There is already some evidence of the existence of a movement with the aim of ousting the Portuguese, with aid of Indonesia.



  • In the event of an Indonesian attack few of the Timorese would remain loyal to the Portuguese. The Portuguese forces, with no air or sea support, would be overwhelmed or driven into the interior of the island within a matter of hours. Without the support of the native population it is unlikely that they could resist long in guerilla warfare.




  • If Indonesia were to send in agitators they would undoubtedly win support and, with appropriate supplies of arms etc., could start a campaign of insurgency throughout the province.




  • The Timorese themselves are unlikely to succeed in any attempt to overthrow the colonial regime if only through lack of leadership. However, with Indonesian aid and inspiration the Portuguese position might soon become untenable.



On 9 July 1963, without knowledge of the Dunn report or the Menzies decision, I spoke about Portuguese Timor in the Australian Institute of International Affairs Roy Milne Memorial Lecture at Armidale:

Eastern Timor must appear as an anachronism to every country in the world except Portugal. We shall get nowhere by saying that outside pressure on Portugal is just another indication of the expansionist policy of one of our neighbours. We would not have a worthy supporter in the world if we backed the Portuguese. They must be told in no uncertain terms that the standard of living must be rapidly raised and the right of self-determination fully granted. Our allies hesitate to speak because they are also Portugal’s allies in N.A.T.O.; we are not so embarrassed.

There have been reports of uprisings and killings in Eastern Timor, but it is such a closed country that reliable information is extremely difficult to obtain. Through the U.N. we must act quickly to meet this problem on our doorstep. We learned the lessons of West New Guinea the hard way. We must not become bogged down in another futile argument over sovereignty.

The Menzies Government’s decision on Portuguese Timor was not made public. It was known to the departmental secretaries whom I inherited, Sir John Bunting (Prime Minister’s Department), Sir Arthur Tange (Defence and formerly External Affairs Department) and Sir Frederick Wheeler (Treasury). In the 1971 UN General Assembly Australia had still joined France, Portugal, the UK and the US in opposing resolutions on the right of peoples to self-determination and the speedy granting of independence to colonial countries. On 12 December 1972 France, Portugal, the UK and the US still voted against the resolutions but Australia for the first time voted for them. The hopes for an orderly process of decolonisation which I expressed in my address to the UN General Assembly on 30 September 1974 were dashed by Portugal’s precipitate abandonment of Timor to civil war. In the post-Vietnam situation, there was no possibility of UN intervention or US interest in 1975.

Nevertheless, from the beginning, we signalled to the world that under its new Government, Australia would place the United Nations at the forefront of its international efforts. It reflected my deepest conviction that the UN and its specialised agencies alone were capable of constructing a workable and sustainable world framework of law, order and justice through international instruments, variously called treaties, conventions, agreements, covenants and protocols. That conviction has never been stronger than at this hour. In the context of Australian politics, I was determined to change the attitude so sedulously and successfully exploited by the Coalition, which found in the United Nations a cause for derision and made the alliance with the United States a source of division. That determination has never been stronger than at this hour.

In December 1972, we called the Coalition bluff that had worked for 23 years. The strongest card is the actual wording and purport of the ANZUS Treaty itself. In the 1972 Policy Speech, in a key passage which followed immediately upon undertakings to ratify the Treaty on Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons and to give no visas to or through Australia to racially selected sporting teams, I said:

Australia’s basic relationship in the Pacific and the Indian Oceans rests upon two great associations, ANZUS and the Commonwealth of Nations … The Australian Labor Party will foster close and continuing co-operation with the people of the United States and our Commonwealth partners to make these associations instrument for justice and peace and for the political, social and economic advancement of our region.

Far from being a gloss on the ANZUS Treaty, the statement is faithful not only to its spirit but to the letter. Only those who have never read the ANZUS Treaty could think otherwise. Significantly, Sir Robert Menzies, who had read it, was careful never to invoke ANZUS to justify our participation in the American war of intervention in Vietnam.

Let me quote the first paragraph and the first article of the ANZUS Treaty, this basic document:

The Parties to this Treaty, reaffirming their faith in the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations and their desire to live in peace with all peoples and all Governments, and desiring to strengthen the fabric of peace in the Pacific Area.

And Article One states:

The Parties undertake, as set forth in the Charter of the United Nations, to settle any international disputes in which they may be involved by peaceful means in such a manner that international peace and security and justice are not endangered and to refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force in any manner inconsistent with the purposes of the United Nations.

The relevant and contemporary question is not about abandoning ANZUS but abiding by it. The choice between support for the United Nations or support for the United States is as false today, and for the same reasons I urged, as it was 30 years ago and 50 years ago.


In 1973, Robert Drewe wrote an article for The Australian on the Whitlam Government’s first 100 days. He described himself as a ’30-year-old child of Robert Gordon Menzies out of World War II’ and he was just on the threshold of his brilliant literary career. Bob Drewe wrote:

You’re aware of a certain rare feeling of national self-respect these days. It’s not as if we’re suddenly a big-shot country … but the fact is that Labor restored some dignity to the conduct of our national affairs at a time when we had all come more or less to expect nothing but ill from political action. Without precedent in the history of British-style governments, it set out to make up for lost time by immediately implementing its campaign promises. Australians blinked as within weeks we recognized China, ended conscription, abolished race as a criterion of our immigration policy, began reform of the health service, supported equal pay for women, abolished British honours, increased arts subsidies, put contraceptives on the medical benefits list, took the tax off Australian wine, moved to stop the slaughter of kangaroos and crocodiles and searched for a new national anthem. Along the way, the Government attempted to make our relationship with America … a bit less one-sided. The End of The Ice Age, is how Russel Ward describes the new era in a current Meanjin article.

In his essay, Robert Drewe put the view that to the extent the new spirit reflected the personality of the Prime Minister, it was ‘by using (and being seen to use) the idea of the Australian Government, as he prefers to call it, as a direct and intelligent instrument for the general good.’ I believe that idea is as relevant today as it was 30 years ago. Furthermore, I am convinced that relevant and contemporary policies, developed on the basis of that idea, creatively mobilising the resources of the Labor Party, the Parliament, the Constitution and the United Nations, will speed the day when the men and women of Australia will proclaim once again: It’s Time.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Malcolm Farnsworth
© 1995-2024