My weekly Guardian column:
After yesterday’s state memorial service, the beatification of former Prime Minister Gough Whitlam is complete. His domestic policies were rightly praised for dragging the country into a more enlightened age (although the project is far from complete) but since his death in October there’s been curiously little written about his foreign affairs legacy.
A few exceptions exist: The Australian’s Greg Sheridan’s praised Whitlam for backing the Indonesian invasion of Timor Leste, and John Pilgersaluted his rare challenge to global American dominance.
On foreign policy, Whitlam supported some troubling causes. He cosied up to Indonesian dictator General Suharto, and gave his assent to Jakarta’s plans to occupy what was then Portuguese Timor. During a conversation he had with Suharto in Townsville in April 1975, the former prime minister expressed concern about the Australian left.
“[They] tended to be paternalistic, patronising and wholly convinced of their purity and of the soundness of their own views,” Whitlam told Suharto.
“From this basis they assumed the right to criticise the domestic politics of other countries and to find fault with certain aspects of the social or political structure of other countries, including corruption or the fact that there were too many Generals in government departments.”
This was less than 10 years after the horrific, Western-backed massacres unleashed by Suharto against his own people, which led to one of the worst genocides of the 20th century.
The World Bank later called Suharto a model pupil for his repressive economic and political positions. Every Australian prime minister to the present day, from both the Labor and Liberal parties, agreed. On Suharto’s death in 2008, former prime minister Paul Keating praised the dictator as bringing “peace and order” to his country.
It took until the late 1990s for a rare voice of elite dissent to emerge. Labor’s foreign affairs spokesman Laurie Brereton argued that his party should change its stance on Timor and support self-determination. It’s a view that angered Whitlam. A revealing cartoon from 1999 reflected the mood.
Less well-known is how Whitlam’s stance on Timor influenced Jakarta’s domestic policy. According to a letter sent to Timor’s Jose Ramos Horta on 17 June 1974, Indonesian foreign minister Adam Malik expressed support for an independent Timor. “The independence of every country is the right of every nation, with no exception for the people of Timor”, Malik stated.
This may have been an untruth, designed to fool Timorese independence leaders. A cable sent to Canberra on 14 October 1974 showed that Whitlam’s views influenced Jakarta’s decision to invade:
“Until Mr Whitlam’s visit to Djakarta they [Indonesia] had been undecided about Timor. However the Prime Minister’s support for the idea of incorporation into Indonesia had helped them to crystallise their own thinking and they were now firmly convinced of the wisdom of this course.”
When Indonesian troops rolled into Timor in December 1975 and occupied the nation until October 1999, decades of violence and hundreds of thousands of deaths followed. Diplomatic, political and military support came from Australia, America and Britain.
The murder of the Balibo Five, Australian journalists who were killed by Indonesian security forces in October 1975, remains an open sore from that time; both countries are loathe to investigate the deaths more thoroughly. Even the Jakarta Post recently acknowledged the lack of accountability over Indonesian atrocities in Timor.
Like every political leader, Whitlam could be principled, humane and provocative. On the Israel/Palestine conflict, unlike every prime minister since, he sent the Zionist establishment and Israeli government into conniptions. Like Bob Carr, the Gillard government’s foreign minister, Whitlam was also sceptical of Israel’s colonial ambitions.
Where Bob Hawke was once described as a “pro-Israel fanatic” by US ambassador James Hargrove, the Australian Financial Review’s Tony Walker lamented on Whitlam’s death that “Australian governments have a tendency to tailor Middle East policy to suit domestic political considerations and forego first principles.”
With the notable exception of Labor MP Melissa Parke – who recently… saluted the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel – it’s almost unimaginable for an Australian politician, let alone a prime minister, to speak like Whitlam did during his time in government:
“There can be no peace until Israeli forces have been withdrawn from occupied territories, to secure and recognised boundaries, and a just settlement of the refugee problem is achievable. That is an even-handed policy.”
Myth-making is common when a legendary figure dies and Whitlam is no different. His support for the independence of Papua New Guinea in 1975, a long overdue recognition that Canberra should no longer control Port Moresby’s affairs, has attracted revisionism from across the political spectrum.
Some critics believe Whitlam used independence for PNG as “a lever to advance his ambitions in the Labor party”, and that PNG – now a “failed state” – would have been better to wait, perhaps indefinitely, for statehood. Missing from the picture are the real causes of the country’s woes: corruption and the resource curse, prompted by Western leaders and corporations too keen to exploit precious minerals and people.
In a similar way, progressives laud Whitlam for challenging Washington’s meddling in Australia, the Pine Gap intelligence base and the disastrous US invasion of Vietnam. Newly released documents portray a more nuanced picture. Whitlam had resolved to shift the balance in favour of Australian sovereignty. The US consequently became anxious over the future of its military installations.
The Nixon administration seriously considered ditching the formal strategic alliance with Canberra, and proposed to move key intelligence posts to other nations. It was only after Whitlam publicly defended the installations – against the wishes of many in his party – that he again became palatable to Washington.
Every great leader, of which too few exist today, is a bundle of vision, wit, force and contradiction. Whitlam was no different. Domestically his agenda was saintly and vital, giving Australia a modern face and temperament. Overseas, however, he both excelled and sinned. Any assessment of a great leader must acknowledge who benefits, and who suffers – both locally and internationally.