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Australia’s forgotten foreign minister: Don Willesee

Posted By on July 29, 2016 @ 12:30

Image courtesy of the National Archives of Australia

Recent assessments of Gough Whitlam’s legacy have treated foreign policy less prominently and more ambiguously than Whitlam himself did. Many have recognised that Whitlam brought a new vision to Australian foreign policy. His supporters have lauded his determination to place much less emphasis on Cold War ideologies and military alliances and much more on independent diplomacy in an era of détente, and to give much less prominence to bilateral ties with our great and powerful friends in London and especially Washington, and much more on multilateral cooperation with many parts of the world, especially our Asian neighbours. It was a vision that inspired many and had a lasting impact on the foreign policy debate within this country.

On the other hand critics, then and ever since, have said that his new directions were worthy, often overdue, but Whitlam was too keen to take bold initiatives without adequate preparation, too eager to go too far too fast on too many areas at the same time, too reluctant to consult other nations or to take advice on the implementation of his vision. It’s timely to re-examine this longstanding debate from a slightly different perspective, that of the relationship between the Prime Minister and the Foreign Minister.

No-one has ever doubted that Australian foreign policy from December 1972 to November 1975 was dominated by Gough Whitlam. He held the Foreign Affairs portfolio for the first year after election, then appointed Senator Don Willesee to the position. But even then Whitlam held such a tight hold on policy that even political insiders would be hard pressed to name Willesee, or thought of him only as the father of prominent journalist Mike Willesee.

The courage and skill Whitlam displayed in his 1971 mission to China, as Leader of the Opposition, strengthened his confidence in his own judgement and abilities in foreign affairs. In government, Whitlam was saddled with impossibly difficult ministerial structures, and few ministers with any serious interest in foreign policy. Consequently it wasn’t surprising, but still regrettable, that he to a large extent acted as his own foreign minister, in detail as well as broad policy. Whitlam’s failure to establish a sound and productive working relationship with Don Willesee was both a symptom and a partial cause of the ambiguities in assessments of Whitlam’s foreign policy.

Don Willesee was elected to the Senate in 1950. As a Catholic with socially conservative views, Willesee was close to the ‘groupers’, but when Labor split in 1955 he chose to stay within the ALP and to fight the Left from within. Although Willesee was a loyal ally in Whitlam’s moves against the Left, Whitlam evidently regarded Willesee as a grouper, who should have joined the DLP. Moreover, Whitlam was entirely focused on the House of Representatives and had little regard for the Senate.

In the long years on the opposition benches, Willesee gained a reputation as decent and dependable. As Minister assisting the Foreign Minister for the first year of the Whitlam government, he performed well. If he didn’t display Whitlam’s flair and self-confidence, he also refrained from some of his leader’s excesses. For example, Willesee’s tour of sub-Saharan Africa demonstrated that Australia was turning away from its association with white minority regimes; but much of the benefit was undone when Whitlam made an unnecessarily provocative statement that the regimes in Rhodesia and South Africa were ‘worse than Hitler’.

While Willesee was overseas as Foreign Minister, Whitlam, as Acting Minister, gave de jure recognition of Soviet Union’s sovereignty over the Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. That decision, coupled with the opening of diplomatic relations with North Vietnam, North Korea and East Germany as well as China, lay Whitlam open to the charge that he wasn’t merely altering the balance in the American alliance but was moving to the other side of the Cold War.

The two most important areas of tension between Whitlam and Willesee were both based on relations with the United States and with Southeast Asia. When Saigon fell in April 1975, Whitlam overruled Willesee’s willingness to admit significant numbers of South Vietnamese refugees. Clyde Cameron famously described Whitlam telling a distressed Willesee that he didn’t want an influx of ‘fucking Vietnamese Balts’—that is, a body of anti-communist refugees who would probably vote conservative. (I discussed this episode at greater length in my 2006 R.G. Neale Lecture [1].)

Later in 1975 Whitlam and Willesee held sharply different views over the fate of East Timor, as Indonesian concerns led to the Balibo incident in October and the Indonesian invasion of Timor in December. Whitlam favoured Indonesian control over East Timor, provided that could be achieved without violence and by some form of self-determination. Willesee felt that Australia should focus its efforts on persuading the Indonesians that an independent East Timor wouldn’t prove to be a Southeast Asian Cuba. With the wisdom of hindsight, Whitlam’s dismissal of Willesee, based on that issue, as a ‘forgettable and forgetful’ foreign minister tells us more about Whitlam than it does about Willesee.

Whitlam’s tight personal hold on foreign policy wasn’t always wise. His legacy was marred by his insistence that only he could control both the long-term direction and the short-term implementation. Senator Don Willesee was no visionary, but he had sound political instincts and a sense of decency that complemented Whitlam’s qualities. If they’d formed a more effective partnership, the foreign policy legacy of the Whitlam years might well have proved less ambiguous.

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[1] 2006 R.G. Neale Lecture: http://www.naa.gov.au/collection/publications/papers-and-podcasts/international-relations-and-foreign-affairs/Edwards-bio.aspx

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