Paul Hasluck: his life and legacy
15 Oct 2015|

Paul Hasluck: a life book coverOn the basis of experience and ability, Paul Hasluck should have been one of Australia’s greatest foreign ministers. Before he came to that post, he had been an notable journalist, writing influential articles on the state of Aboriginal society in a state not noted for its enlightened liberalism in this field; he had been a diplomat, working at the highest level in the foundation years of the United Nations; he had the skills and publications of an academic historian or political scientist; and he had long experience as a Cabinet minister in a portfolio with both domestic and external ramifications. Few politicians have come to the post so well equipped to formulate, implement and communicate a coherent foreign policy.

Yet Hasluck’s term as foreign minister is seldom regarded as a great success. He wrote substantial memoirs on almost every other part of his life and career, but not on his term as Minister for External Affairs (as Foreign Affairs was then known). Part of the problem lay in his conception of the minister’s role. In showing that he was not beholden to his former colleagues in diplomacy, journalism or academia, he seemed at times to go out of his way to antagonise them.

But the great cloud that hangs over his term, from 1964 to 1969, was Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War. The strongest critique of Hasluck’s role came with the publication of Asian Alternatives by Garry Woodard, a former diplomat and sometime President of the AIIA. Woodard argued that, if Hasluck had not replaced Sir Garfield Barwick as minister in April 1964, Australia might have avoided the commitment to Vietnam altogether. This contention is not unrelated to Hasluck’s strained relationship with many of the diplomats in External Affairs, in contrast with their more cordial relationship with Barwick.

Woodard’s counter-factual argument is not accepted in this fine biography of Hasluck by Geoffrey Bolton, who contends that there was more continuity than change in the policies of the two ministers towards Indonesia and Vietnam, the dominant issues of the day. According to Bolton, Hasluck continued Barwick’s nuanced policies towards Indonesia’s Confrontation of Malaysia, and displayed distinct reservations about the Vietnam commitment. The differences were matters of style and temperament more than of policy substance.

Anyone interested in Australian foreign policy, and the processes by which it is made, should read this account. Its great value is to place Hasluck’s term as foreign minister into a full-length biography, which explores his complex nature. Bolton opens with a description of Hasluck’s coat of arms as a Knight of the Order of the Garter. On the face of it, he is another Australian conservative who willingly accepted imperial honours. But Bolton, the doyen of Western Australian historians, reveals strong pointers to Hasluck’s deep allegiance to Australia, and especially to the bushland around Perth.

There was complexity too in his temperament.  The minister who could be rigidly formal in relations with his officials could also be delightfully congenial and relaxed company when abroad. He was an intellectual in politics, a phenomenon perhaps better suited to European polities than to Australia. His abilities often seemed to be better recognised in Europe, North America and parts of Asia than in Australia.

Bolton describes and analyses, with both depth and clarity, Hasluck’s long term as Minister for Territories, responsible for both the Northern Territory and Papua New Guinea, which often had ramifications for his subsequent role as foreign minister.

Hasluck never became either deputy leader or leader of the Liberal Party, although he stood for both positions during the turbulent years between 1966 and 1972. He stood, but he did not run: as Bolton shows, it had been a longstanding practice of Hasluck’s not to campaign for high office but simply to make himself available and to let others decide on his fate. It is a comment on his personality, as well as on the nature of Australian politics, that he was defeated by William McMahon and John Gorton in leadership contests, although the public only became aware of his reticence when Gorton beat him for the prime ministership after Harold Holt’s death.

It was therefore appropriate that the pinnacle of his career was a position he had not sought, that of Governor-General. His Queale Lecture is now regarded as the classic text on the vice-regal post, a point made by the present incumbent, Sir Peter Cosgrove, when he launched this book. Hasluck’s relationship with Gough Whitlam in that role was exemplary. He declined Whitlam’s offer to extend his term because of his wife’s health. Hasluck put forward a list of eight possible appointees, from whom Whitlam selected Sir John Kerr. Exactly what would have happened in 1975 if Hasluck had still been at Yarralumla is one of the great ‘what if’s’ of political history, but the crisis would almost certainly have been better handled. Hasluck’s own private analysis of Kerr’s actions in November 1975 is understated but clear and astute.

This book will not only stand as an outstanding Australian political biography but also as a substantial contribution to the literature on Australian politics, policy and policy-making.

Geoffrey Bolton, Paul Hasluck: a lifeUniversity of Western Australia, December 2014.

Postscript: Soon after this review was written, Emeritus Professor Geoffrey Bolton AO FAHA FASSA died on 4 September, aged 83. The biography of Paul Hasluck is therefore the capstone to an extraordinarily active and distinguished career of publication, teaching, and administration. As Professor of History at both old and new universities (UWA, Murdoch, Queensland and Edith Cowan) he was an inspiring teacher and mentor to generations of students. He contributed his energy and wisdom to a large number of cultural, historical and archival institutions, especially in Western Australia but also across the nation. Professor Bolton was the founding head of the Australian Studies Centre in London, Chancellor of Murdoch University, and the WA Australian of the Year.