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'A more independent Australian stance':- some Whitlam Foreign policy notes

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Marty Harris

Following the death of former Prime Minister Whitlam on 21 October, obituaries and condolences have rightly focussed on his Government’s major achievements and policy shifts in the domestic and foreign arenas. In international affairs, discussion has centred on relations with China (and Asia more broadly), PNG independence, dealings with South African apartheid and controversy surrounding the ANZUS alliance.

It was a busy 1,071 days in both foreign and domestic policy. Mr Whitlam himself also served as Foreign Minister for the first eleven months, and there were foreign policy incidents that have mostly escaped attention in recent musings.

Mr Whitlam confirmed that international policy change was afoot in his very first press conference as Prime Minister on 5 December 1972:

About a year later, Mr Whitlam—no longer Foreign Minister—outlined the ‘new directions’ and ‘new definitions’ of Australian foreign policy in a lecture to the Australian Institute for International Affairs. His point about being ‘less militarily oriented’ was hammered home when the Prime Minister said:

If we consider Afghanistan part of the ‘Asian mainland’, Mr Whitlam may have spoken too soon. Later in the speech, however, the Prime Minister was prescient on regional institutional architecture:

Forty years later, Australia contributes to APEC, the APEC leaders meeting, the ASEAN Regional Forum, and the East Asia Summit, among other regional institutions. In the case of the first two institutions, Australia played a key role in their birth.

In 1974, the Whitlam Government established the Australian Development Assistance Agency (ADAA) and committed to increasing Australia’s official development assistance:

The ADAA would not last long—under the Fraser Government it was abolished and its functions were transferred to the Department of Foreign Affairs. Aid spending reached 0.5 per cent of GNP in 1974-75, a level not achieved since.

The Whitlam Government’s anti-apartheid stance is oft cited. Less well known is that in 1974, Australia’s representative at the UN Security Council voted for South Africa to be expelled from the United Nations. Australia voted in opposition to traditional allies the US and Britain, who, along with France, vetoed the resolution. Foreign Minister Don Willesee provided this justification for the vote:

The general direction of my thinking is towards a more independent Australian stance in international affairs, an Australia which will be less militarily oriented and not open to suggestions of racism; an Australia which will enjoy a growing standing as a distinctive, tolerant, co-operative and well regarded nation not only in the Asian and Pacific region, but in the world at large.

We consider that political, economic and social change in Asia will occur and is indeed desirable; we believe Australia should not intervene militarily even when the contest for power and for control over the change leads to violence. Australia shall never again send troops to fight in Asian mainland wars. Australia shall never again garrison troops abroad as part of a military commitment to involve this country in Asian wars.

There is still a gap in our opportunities for multilateral consultations. African states have their Organisation for African Unity. American countries assemble in the Organisation of American States. In Asia, in our own region, there is nothing comparable. Our long term aim is for regional arrangements which, although they would be less institutionalised and more informal than the OAU or the OAS, would give all the countries of the area, irrespective of their ideological differences, a forum in which to talk informally together and promote greater understanding and cooperation.

In monetary terms, the £10m of our economic aid in 1953-54 increased to over $260m in 1973-74. My Government, in recognition of the responsibilities that lie on all of the richer nations to assist the poor and undeveloped countries, has undertaken to achieve by the end of this decade the aid target of 0.7 per cent of gross national product.


Had the resolution succeeded, South Africa would have been the first country to be expelled from the United Nations.

On the Arab-Israeli conflict, the Whitlam Government would receive strong criticism for supposed policy shifts. The Whitlam Government professed an ‘even-handed’ position on Middle East issues, which meant that it did not criticise the Arab states at the outbreak of the October 1973 war, and most significantly, called for the establishment of a Palestinian state (p. 1039):

It might be worth finishing with a statement made by Mr Whitlam when he had returned to the Opposition benches. Following a ministerial statement by Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser on ‘Australia and the World Situation’, Mr Whitlam responded with his usual flair and combativeness:

The Prime Minister and I discussed at some length how the Australian vote should be cast ... we had to recognise that there could be no question that South Africa had, for the past 25 years, by its unbending policy of apartheid, consistently violated the principles of the United Nations Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Israel should be a sovereign independent state, but the Australian Government and the Australian Labor Party are also committed to 2 other propositions. One is that Israel should withdraw from territories which she occupied by force; the other is that the Palestinian people have rights as well. The Palestinian people have a right to a sovereign independent state. The Palestinian people have a right to a national home.

For all its veneer of realism and lofty principle, the statement of the Prime Minister … on foreign affairs was one of the most regrettable and reactionary speeches we have heard in this House.

Attribution: National Archives of Australia