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Fifty years of the Department of Foreign Affairs

Posted By on November 23, 2020 @ 06:00

Fifty years ago this month, Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs was born, casting aside its old moniker, External Affairs.

The name changed as Australia changed. The switch from External Affairs to Foreign Affairs was a small expression of big shifts. Embracing new ideas about itself, Australia thought anew about its place in the world.

In 1970, migration policy was being remade, giving a different answer to a fundamental question: Who can be an Australian? The Holt Coalition government quietly began to inter the White Australia policy in 1966; full burial with loud fanfare was delivered by the Whitlam Labor government after 1972.

The External to Foreign switch responded to another primary question: Where in the world does Australia belong? From federation, a sense of vulnerability—the dread that Australia couldn’t cope alone—was a constant ache. The nation with its own continent embraced its geography with a tinge of fear.

External Affairs was originally modelled on the British Foreign Office, and the name was an artefact of an era when Australia thought of itself as British. Becoming Foreign Affairs was a small proclamation of independence, reflecting the vigorous growth and achievements of External Affairs from 1935 to 1970.

As Australia remade the face of its people in 1970, it was changing the diplomatic face it turned to Asia. Over the 50 years since then, Asia has morphed from a looming threat to the vibrant neighbourhood where Australia has a natural place. That’s quite a journey for any government department.

A fresh label described broader purposes: on 6 November 1970, Prime Minister John Gorton announced that executive council approval had been given to change the name of the Department of External Affairs to the Department of Foreign Affairs.

So was completed the checkered life of External Affairs. As the constitution gives the Commonwealth power over external affairs, the first executive council minute of January 1901 established the department by that name (although Alfred Deakin thought it was ‘an ugly title’).

Australia’s first prime minister, Edmund Barton, was also minister for external affairs, an early expression of a central truth of that checkered history: the gravitational impact of prime ministers.

After losing functions to the PM’s department, External Affairs was killed off (merged into PM’s) in 1916. The separate External Affairs department wasn’t resurrected until 1935. For the first third of the 20th century, Australia had no diplomatic service; internationally, the Brits spoke for us. Australia had overseas trade representatives before it had its own ambassadors. The first Oz diplomatic missions—in the US, Japan and China—were established in 1939.

Up until World War II, Australian diplomacy was conducted through Britain, and was controlled by the PM’s department. Not until 1971 did Foreign Affairs manage to extract from PM’s the British relationship and control of Australia House in London.

The creation of External Affairs in 1935 and Foreign Affairs in 1970 share rhyming elements.

When Britain was handing over executive and diplomatic independence in the 1920s and ’30s, Canada and South Africa pushed while Australia resisted all the way. Ultimately, in Canberra’s eyes, External Affairs had to be resurrected because Britain abdicated. The Brits forced us to start doing our own foreign policy, a reality given the most emphatic point by the arrival of the war.

In the birth of Foreign Affairs, the Brits still figure; many in the Oz polity felt bereft and betrayed by the British turn to Europe in the 1960s and the military withdrawal from east of Suez. Canberra only deleted the title ‘British passport’ from the cover of Australian passports in 1967, while retaining the symbol of the crown.

In 1970, as in 1935, Australia’s diplomats grappled with two linked questions: What will Asia become? How will the US respond? A dawning realisation in 1970 was that the US was about to lose a war in Southeast Asia: Canberra feverishly sifted omens and runes to gauge ebbing US power, just as it does today.

The switch to Foreign Affairs was high policy with plenty of low politics. The historian Geoffrey Bolton grants that the name change perhaps reflects ‘a greater sense of national autonomy’, but also the pressure being applied on foreign policy by opposition leader Gough Whitlam.

In 1970, Gorton was discarding traditions as he tried to puff fresh life into a government both haggard and haunted by 21 years in office. By the following March, Gorton was deposed in one of Canberra’s most amazing party room coups: with the caucus vote on the confidence motion tied at 33 all, Gorton used his casting vote to kill his own leadership (‘I must be the first prime minister who has voted himself out of office.’)

Give most personal credit for the name switcheroo to Keith Waller, the diplomat who became secretary of External Affairs in April 1970, coming back from nearly six years as ambassador to Washington.

Waller joined the public service in 1936 and quickly became private secretary to External Affairs Minister Billy Hughes; two years working for Billy (mercurial, mendacious and magnificent) gave the young diplomat an education in the black arts of politics.

Waller was a thrusting innovator, a contrast in personality and style from his predecessor, James Plimsoll, secretary of External Affairs from 1965 to 1970. Plimsoll was a superb diplomat but a poor manager: a believer in letting problems moulder, shoving troubling papers into the bottom drawer to file and forget. My comparison of Plimsoll and Waller as two founding mandarins, present at the creation of Oz foreign policy, is here.

Waller, a consummate bureaucrat, returned to Canberra ready for all manner of turf wars. Finding that the secretary’s office still had the same furniture and antiquated switchboard it had used when he joined the department, one of his first changes was to refit his office.

After changing the furniture, he banished External Affairs, a name change responding to the many ways the game was changing.

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[1] withdrawal from east of Suez: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/10357719708445209?journalCode=caji20

[2] ‘British passport’: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Australian_passport

[3] symbol of the crown: https://www.passport-collector.com/evolution-australian-passport/

[4] name change: http://www.internationalaffairs.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/Ministers-for-Foreign-Affairs-1960-1972-compressed.pdf

[5] here: https://insidestory.org.au/australian-diplomacys-creation-story/