Tom Burns, the Federal ALP President who accompanied Gough Whitlam on his historic trip to China in 1971, has died, aged 75.
The China visit was a precursor to the Whitlam government’s diplomatic recognition of the People’s Republic of China in 1972.
Burns’ interest in China was maintained throughout his political career. Following his retirement from parliament in 1996, he was appointed Chairman of the Queensland-China Council and participated in many government and business delegations to China. In 2003, he met with Chinese President Hu Jintao, in Cairns.
Burns was also instrumental in assisting Whitlam to reform the ALP prior to the 1972 elections. He was Queensland secretary of the ALP from 1965-72. The current Secretary, Milton Dick, today described Burns as a “workers’ hero”.
Burns was elected to the Queensland Legislative Assembly seat of Lytton in 1972. He became state leader of the party following its crushing defeat by Joh Bjelke-Petersen at the 1974 elections. Burns headed up a “cricket team” of 12 members.
Following Wayne Goss’s election in 1989 as the first Labor Premier of Queensland in 32 years, Burns served as Deputy Premier until 1996 and also held a variety of other portfolios, until retiring in 1996. He was awarded the Order of Australia in 2001 for his contribution to Australia-China relations over the past thirty years.
The Queensland Premier, Peter Beattie, today offered a State funeral to Burns’ wife, Angela, which has been accepted.
It was once said of President Richard Nixon that he might simply be remembered in history because “he went to China”. Whitlam’s initiative in forging Australia’s diplomatic and economic ties with China may well be seen in a similar light. Indeed, the 1971 visit, ridiculed at the time by the Liberal Prime Minister, William McMahon, coincided with the announcement of Nixon’s plans to visit Beijing and contributed to the It’s Time mood and the perception of the then coalition government as backward looking and out-of-touch.
The Queensland Premier, Peter Beattie, said today that Burns “is recognised nationally and internationally for his historic role in helping forge stronger links between China and Australia. He accompanied Gough Whitlam on Australia’s first official delegation to China. Over the years he continued to develop this relationship and is one of the very few Australian political figures to have met four generations of Chinese leaders. Tom’s knowledge and love of China, its leaders, geography and people meant that he was extremely valuable to Queensland in the Government’s bid to increase our exports to China.”