Whitlam Oration

  • Speech, check against delivery
Blacktown, NSW

Fifty years ago, Gough Whitlam stood here and said these words:

More than any foreign aid program, more than any international obligation which we meet or forfeit, more than any part we may play in any treaty or agreement or alliance, Australia’s treatment of [First Nations] people will be the thing upon which the rest of the world will judge Australia and Australians – not just now, but in the greater perspective of history.

I acknowledge the Traditional Custodians of the land on which we gather, the Darug people, and pay my respect to elders past, present and emerging.

I thank Nicholas Howie for welcoming us to country.

I acknowledge Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander people in the audience and I reaffirm the Albanese Government’s commitment to implement the Uluru Statement from the Heart in full - Voice, Treaty and Truth.

I again commit to placing the perspectives of First Nations people – this land’s first diplomats – at the heart of Australia’s diplomacy.

And I affirm Gough’s statement. 

It explicates what I have often said myself, that foreign policy starts with who we are. It is how we project ourselves to the world.

And what we project to the world about who we are is an element of our national power.

Home to the oldest continuous culture on the planet, and to people from more than 300 different ancestries, we are a nation whose people share common ground with so many of the world’s peoples.

Wednesday will mark six months since I took on this role, and in that time I have travelled to 21 countries, each one of them having a direct connection to our country and our people, including Malaysia, my own birthplace.

When Australians look out to the world, we can see ourselves reflected in it.

Equally, the world can see itself reflected in Australia.

This is an asset - an element of our national power - that few countries can match.

Gough understood that how we articulate Australia can constrain or amplify that influence.

When he came to power - at a time when the global movement toward decolonisation was well advanced, and when the long geopolitical realignment toward Asia was beginning - the projection of Australia was doing us enormous damage.

Gough described racism as the “common denominator” of a whole range of Menzies era foreign policies.

An immigration policy based on race, the failure to oppose the sale of arms to the apartheid regime waging a brutal campaign against Black South Africans, the assumption that we could treat Vietnam, in his words, as “the battle-ground of our freedom”.

Along with the treatment of First Nations people, the “combination of such policies,” Gough said, “leans heavily indeed on the world’s goodwill and on Australia’s credibility.”

Gough Whitlam acted swiftly to signal Australia’s transformation.

Before even being sworn in, he gave new voting instructions on southern African issues to our diplomats at the UN General Assembly.

In short order, he withdrew our troops from Vietnam, ended national service and released draft resisters from jail.

He banned visits to Australia by sporting teams selected by race, and initiated measures to downgrade relations with the racist regime in what was then named Rhodesia.

Gough understood that Australia’s attitude to race broadly, and its treatment of First Nations people specifically, were critical to whether we could present what he described as a “clean face” to the region.

But its approach to the region is what set the Whitlam Government apart from the previous two decades of conservative governments.

Gough embedded the third layer of Australia’s foreign policy.

The first layer was of course set by Curtin.

During the Second World War, Curtin’s turn to America was the foundation of the Australia-US alliance.

Second, as the world reconceived itself in the wake of that war, Evatt helped fashion the international system that constrained power with rules.

Evatt believed that the international system should operate by agreed rules, and the pursuit of that principle made him a champion of smaller countries not having their fate determined by larger countries.

Then finally it was Gough who truly embraced Australia’s place in our region.

He knew that while much of our history is in Europe, our home and our future are in what we now call the Indo-Pacific. 

From the end of the Second World War, as our neighbours gradually broke free of European colonial control, the region was a focus of Australian foreign policy.

But Whitlam shifted our perspective from Asia as a place in which things happened, to a group of countries with which things happened.

And he understood that this change depended on Australia rejecting the racism of the White Australia policy, our colonial policy in Papua New Guinea, and the cruelty of support for the regimes in southern Africa.

Gough was a reformer and brought Australia into the modern age, beginning to prepare us for a globalised future.

Recognising the changes in the international political landscape, he made new efforts to engage with the global south.

In his three short years in office, he travelled widely, including in 1973 making the first prime ministerial visit to India in fourteen years, in an effort to revitalise ties that had been strained since Menzies.

And he transformed our relationships with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, and in particular with three key regional countries: Japan, China and Papua New Guinea.

He reshaped and modernised our international engagement, just as he reshaped Australia at home.

All of the Labor governments that have followed, Hawke, Keating, Rudd, Gillard and now Albanese, all carry forward that legacy, and all Australians continue to benefit from it.

I start today with Papua New Guinea, as Gough did.

He said:

If history were to obliterate the whole of my public career, save my contribution to the independence of a democratic PNG, I should rest content.

Whitlam visited six times before becoming prime minister. Before that, in the early sixties he worked with my home state’s Don Dunstan in establishing Labor’s policy settings.

He was determined to see PNG as an independent nation, and to see Australia no longer a coloniser.

His determination mattered. Australia was responsible under its United Nations trusteeship to prepare PNG for independence.

But progress had been so slow that Menzies’ foreign minister Paul Hasluck, and McMahon’s External Territories minister Ceb Barnes, believed PNG would not be ready for independence for several decades.

Imagine that. Imagine if PNG had remained an Australian colony into the 90s, or even beyond.

Thankfully, Gough was more enterprising than the Tories. Always.

Within a year of his election, self-government was proclaimed in PNG. In March 1975, Gough transferred the defence and foreign affairs powers. And less than two months before his own dismissal, PNG’s independence was finally fully realised.

Papua New Guineans have their own challenges today, but they are immensely proud of their independence.

Gough understood that it was wrong to deny them that, and that a partnership of equals was the only sustainable basis for an enduring relationship with our nearest neighbour.

This was not all down to Gough, of course. On the other side of the Torres Strait, a group of capable and ambitious Papua New Guineans were on the march, led by the young Michael Somare.

Somare and Whitlam first met on one of Gough’s visits in opposition, and the relationship blossomed into a truly historic partnership in the life of two nations.

Grand Chief Sir Michael Somare was to become the living symbol of the country’s fierce spirit of self-determination.

His death last year was the end of an era, and it was PNG’s current prime minister who led his nation in mourning – James Marape, whom Somare had mentored as a young politician and minister, and who now leads the PANGU party, first established by Somare and his young friends in a private home in 1967. 

Like the Grand Chief, James Marape remains a great friend of Australia.

Perhaps the greatest compliment on Whitlam’s efforts was offered by PNG’s first governor-general, John Guise, who observed that Papua New Guineans were lowering the flag of their colonisers, not tearing it down.

One of Australia’s most eminent diplomats, analysts and historians, Allan Gyngell, has described PNG’s independence as the “most important of the developments that transformed the Southwest Pacific.”

A new wave of decolonisation followed, with Solomon Islands and Tuvalu achieving independence in 1978, Kiribati the next year, and Vanuatu the year after that.

Aside from its own obvious merits, our role in encouraging and facilitating independence was a powerful sign to the Pacific family, of which Australia is once again an enthusiastic and dedicated member, about the kind of family relations we sought.

We want to be partners, not patriarchs. Rather than lurching from absent to overbearing, Albanese Labor seek to be better, more involved and more helpful members of the Pacific family.  

Re-establishing that dynamic has been among our Government’s highest priorities.

Over the past six months, I have visited as many Pacific Island countries as possible – Samoa, Tonga, New Zealand, Solomon Islands, Marshall Islands, Nauru, Cook Islands, Niue, French Polynesia, and Fiji twice.

By Christmas I intend to make one more visit to the Pacific, this time taking the Shadow Foreign Minister to help elevate Pacific engagement as something that transcends the political divide. The Minister for International Development and the Pacific, Pat Conroy, and his shadow minister will join the delegation.

In each of these countries, our message is the same: we want to be your reliable partner of choice; we are bringing new energy and resources, including an additional $900 million in development assistance, with more support still for infrastructure, broadcasting and security.

Our message is we are listening; we hear you, and we hear you when you say that climate change is a threat to your very existence.

We know that as family, we have a special responsibility to act.

We recognise that none of these relationships stand still, and are determined to nurture each one.

That includes PNG, where Prime Minister Albanese and Prime Minister Marape are building on Whitlam’s and Somare’s bequest.

Our countries have agreed to develop a new bilateral security treaty, encompassing our existing cooperation, giving authority and encouragement to new areas of working together, and setting out a modern vision for the security aspect of our relationship.

Papua New Guinea is of course our nearest neighbour. Toward the opposite reaches of our region, and deeply connected with most of it, is China.

As with Papua New Guinea, Gough started his engagement with China before becoming prime minister.

On 14 April 1971, Gough wrote to Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai, stating that the ALP would like to send a delegation “to discuss the terms on which your country is interested in having diplomatic and trade relations with Australia.”

Fewer than three months later, the two leaders were meeting in Beijing.

It was a time when the world’s relations with China were beginning to thaw.

Nevertheless, in Australia, it was a bold move.

Billy McMahon launched a scathing attack. He mocked it as “instant coffee diplomacy,” described Gough as a “pawn” for a communist power, and claimed that at a time when Australian soldiers were still engaged in Vietnam, Gough was “becoming a spokesman for those against whom we are fighting.”

We ought to reflect on the tone of McMahon’s attack. I want to focus on the use of the word pawn, and the allegation of treason.

Where have we heard that recently?

Who was it who accused our Deputy Leader of being a “Manchurian candidate”?

McMahon also said, and I quote:

China has been a political asset for the Liberal Party in the past and it is likely to remain one in the future.

I can assure you he didn’t mean the Liberal Party’s deftly nuanced handling of a complex relationship was a strength of the Liberal brand.

What he was actually saying was that he would weaponise the question of Australia’s relationship with China for electoral purposes, continuing the Liberal Party tradition of capitalising on xenophobia and on anxiety over communism.

Who recently has sought to make China a political asset for the Liberal Party?

Not just Morrison. Remember Peter Dutton. During this year’s election campaign, he accused Labor of “appeasement” and claimed that the CCP wanted a change of government.

It is a profound statement about Labor through history, that even in opposition - in Whitlam’s time and more recently - we are the party that has upheld the national interest.

And even when carrying the responsibility of governing, the Liberals have put party over country.

With Andrew Peacock subsequently taking the foreign affairs portfolio for the Liberals, he turned the party in a direction that was less partisan, and more focused on the national interest.

I now look to today’s Shadow Foreign Minister, Simon Birmingham, to do the same.

I look to him to explicitly reject the rending of national unity as a craven political tactic.

And to acknowledge that common purpose would be a powerful national asset.

Senator Birmingham is one of the more decent people in the parliament.

But decency must be matched by action to have effect. In this lies real leadership.

I urge him and Mr Dutton to look to history, which does not favour those who serve their own narrow interests.

McMahon was of course left behind by history. Rather quickly, as it happened.

Within days of Gough’s meeting Premier Zhou Enlai, it emerged that Henry Kissinger was also in China laying diplomatic groundwork, and soon President Nixon addressed the world saying he himself would visit China the next year.

Privately, McMahon complained to Nixon about being blindsided. But publicly, he tried to claim that he’d wanted normalised relations with China all along, and laughably accused Whitlam of being out of the loop with America. 

As ever, stuck in the past, the Liberals couldn’t understand that history is created today by shaping tomorrow.

Three days after the 1972 election, Gough instructed our ambassador in Paris to open negotiations with his Chinese counterpart.

A few weeks later, at our official residence in Paris, on 21 December, 9pm, the ambassadors of Australia and China signed a joint communique agreeing on mutual recognition and the establishment of diplomatic relations.

Gough sought new relations with China. Fifty years on, we seek to stabilise relations with China.

There are two elements in our present context.

The first element is the structural differences between Australia and China - different values and different interests.

As China has sought to assert itself in the world, those differences have become harder to manage.

The China of today is not the same as the China of the 1970s, or even the 2000s. Some may prefer to pretend otherwise, but President Xi himself has made that clear.

It is an insult to all Gough did to prepare us for the future if we act as though we live in a world that has long since passed.

The second contextual element is that the previous government, rather than try to navigate differences in the national interest, tried to exploit them for domestic political gain.

Our Government has our own approach. Our national interests have not changed. The priority of our national security remains paramount.

Stabilising our relationship is in the interests of both Australia and China. It will take time, because our differences are not trivial.

But we will not be trying to make media headlines out of the China relationship.

We won’t weaponise national security for political purposes. We will seek to navigate our differences wisely – something, in fact, we believe both our countries should do.

And I have now met twice with my Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, the first engagement at that level for some years.

In those meetings I expressed Australia’s views candidly on a range of bilateral trade, consular and human rights issues, as well as regional and international security. 

And I have said to him that Australia’s approach will be calm and consistent.

We seek to cooperate where we can and will disagree where we must. And we will engage in our national interests.

I have made it plain that we will speak out as necessary on the issues that matter to Australians, including human rights and upholding the international rules to which we have all agreed.

And I have been clear that we believe the removal of impediments to Australian exports and the full resumption of our bilateral trade would greatly benefit both Australia and China.

We want to maximise mutual benefit in our relationship, and we are open to working with China in other ways, including to address major transnational challenges like climate change. 

We will do away with recent petty divisiveness and work with the Parliament and across the community to foster greater understanding, social cohesion and inclusion of diaspora communities.

And, critically, Australia will continue to work with our partners to build a region that is peaceful, stable and prosperous, and in which sovereignty is respected.

We ultimately cannot be sure what Gough would do if he faced our present circumstances – the most vexing set of circumstances in the post-war period.

But it is worth bearing in mind, as Allan Gyngell has recorded, that in all Gough’s “thinking about foreign policy he emphasised the need to face up to the realities of the world.”

While he conveyed great moral purpose, he was also deeply pragmatic in putting Australia’s interests first.

As with the progressive governments that followed him, he understood the reality that we can’t only engage with those who share our values, whether on human rights or anything else.

And how he prioritised the Indonesia relationship, including in his handling of the very pressing question of what was then called East Timor, makes his pragmatism indelibly clear.

One of the realities of the time that Gough sought to face was the reality of needing to diversify our economy and our export markets.

This outreach to China helped expand strategic and economic options, just as it had for Nixon and Kissinger.

We should take pride in Gough’s courage and judgement, but we need not be overly sentimental about his motives.

And we need to look at his engagement in its full context.

This has been noted by no less than Stephen Fitzgerald, Gough’s adviser on the 1971 trip, and Australia’s first ambassador to Beijing, who observed that Gough did not approach “China in isolation but as part of a broad foreign policy idea, that Australia needed a relationship with Asia based on acceptance of it as our enduring international neighbourhood.”

China is part of Asia, but it is not all of Asia. And it is often lost that on the same trip as he visited China in 1971, he also visited Japan and Philippines.

And we should understand how this broader engagement still matters - and still benefits us - today.

Philippines was a founding member of the then recently formed Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

ASEAN is the body that holds the centre of the region, and Gough ensured that Australia was the first non-member to establish formal relations with ASEAN.

This engagement soon paved the way toward an annual ASEAN-Australia Foreign Ministers’ Meeting, which I had the privilege of participating in, in August – and has eventually led to a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership between ASEAN and Australia.

And ASEAN is central to managing today’s challenges in our region.

With our region ever more intensely the locus of geostrategic competition, we need to do all we can to shape a region that is stable, prosperous and respectful of sovereignty.

We know that if competition were to escalate into conflict in the Indo-Pacific, it would likely be catastrophic – for our people and our prosperity.

While countries in our region do not want to submit to a hegemonic power, they have also been clear that they do not seek to pick sides in a geostrategic contest.

Insisting they do only risks re-enlivening colonial resentments, to our detriment.

Instead, my focus is building alignment to help shape outcomes in ways that support our collective interest.

And our collective interest is that we will always be better off in a world where the rules are clear, mutually negotiated and consistently followed. 

This truism has been starkly illustrated by Russia’s illegal and immoral invasion of Ukraine.

It has caused unspeakable human suffering, including death, injury, destruction and sexual violence as a weapon of war.

There has been overwhelming international condemnation of Russia’s behaviour, but more pressure needs to be applied.

It is especially important for countries that play leading roles in international fora, and countries with influence on Russia, to exert their influence to end this war.

The world looks to China, a great power, a Permanent Member of the UN Security Council, with a “no limits partnership” with Russia. 

A point I have conveyed directly to my Chinese counterpart, as well at the United Nations General Assembly.

These circumstances remind us of a speech by another former Labor prime minister, Paul Keating, who in 2013 said in Beijing that:

As [China]… steps up to a larger leadership role it will at the same time need to be willing to accept and respect restraints on the way it uses its immense strength, because the acceptance of such restraints by great powers is the key to any successful and durable international order.

This statement encapsulates China’s modern responsibility to the world.

But actually all of us have a responsibility. We can’t just leave it to the big powers to decide our fates.

And we cannot be passive when big powers flout the rules.

We are more than just supporting players in a grand drama of global geopolitics, on a stage dominated by great powers.

It is up to all countries to ask ourselves how can we each use our national power, our influence, our networks, our capabilities, to avert catastrophic conflict?

How do we acquit our responsibilities to constrain tensions - to apply the brakes before the momentum for conflict in our region or beyond becomes unstoppable?

Each nation must make its own choices, and exercise its own agency.

For Australia, our diplomatic partnerships are central to our work to avert global conflict.

Australia’s engagement with Japan is a powerful example of that.

It is often forgotten that Gough also transformed our relationship with Japan.

At the time, Japan was already a big export market for Australia, but he saw the potential for partnership, not just transactions.

Between 1957 and 1971, Australia had repeatedly rejected Japan’s efforts for some kind of Treaty of Friendship, Commerce and Navigation, which Japan had with many other countries.

As prime minister, Gough pressed officials on the treaty, and described the response he got as “appalling.” He demanded a reassessment, and in 1973 declared that the “begrudging, negative, timid and unimaginative” attitude towards a treaty was over.

Work began on coordinating and negotiating a wide ranging treaty covering trade, investment, arbitration and business travel arrangements, enshrined in law.

Gough was dismissed before the treaty could be signed in 1976. 

It is no small thing that on the day we were sworn in, Anthony Albanese and I flew to Tokyo.

Our relationship with Japan is more comprehensive and more important than ever. Beyond our shared commercial interests we have vital, shared strategic interests.

Just last month in Perth, Prime Minister Albanese and Prime Minister of Japan, Kishida Fumio, signed a landmark agreement to renew our Joint Declaration on Security Cooperation.

Recognising the contemporary security context, it commits both countries to expanding and strengthening cooperation across defence, intelligence, energy transition, climate change, humanitarian assistance and disaster response, health security, maritime security and economic security.

Japan is in no doubt of what is at stake in our region.

In August, five Chinese ballistic missiles were reported to have fallen in Japan’s exclusive economic zone.

Such events underline the risks of escalation and miscalculation.

It was an episode that reiterated to me that today’s leaders need to do all we can to encourage equilibrium in our region - with no country dominating, and no country being dominated, where smaller countries don’t have their fates determined by larger countries.

This has to be today’s quest for Australian foreign policy in our region, the next iteration that weaves together the different threads of our Labor traditions. Whitlam’s regionalism, Evatt’s rules-based order.

Achieving and maintaining this is instrumental in our ability to modernise and hold true to the other Labor tradition: the alliance.

The United States is Australia’s vital security ally and our closest global partner.

We do ourselves and our American partners no favours if we are not exercising our own agency, and standing as a reliable partner of choice in the region.

Indeed, that is the principal value we add to the alliance.

And I believe it is valued, as the United States seeks to reengage and strengthen its network of allies and partners, recognising the changing nature of its indispensable power.

One of the most important ways it is renewing its global role is through its leadership on climate change – leadership we can welcome, and a priority our Government shares.

With its integration of the alliance, the region and the rules, the Labor foreign policy tradition is characterised by purpose, principle and pragmatism.

And Labor governments apply Australia’s own agency to the task of securing our sovereignty – anticipating the future and charting a course through it.

Gough told the United Nations General Assembly in 1974 that Australians:

Are a people without illusions; we Australians neither falsely exaggerate our strengths nor fearfully exaggerate our weaknesses. It is precisely because we make a rational assessment of our strengths and weaknesses that we recognise that we depend upon a better international order to preserve those things we most value about our national independence.

In the Whitlam Government’s time, unrestrained great power competition between the United States and the Soviet Union threatened the future of humanity.

It is why Gough was such a powerful advocate for the nuclear non-proliferation treaty – advocacy we pursue today.

Now, and for the foreseeable future, we face the theme of great power competition in different variations.

If Australia can be effective in our diplomacy, especially in multilateral and mini-lateral groupings, we will have more chance of upholding the international order, maintaining our independence, exercising our agency, and achieving the equilibrium that is the basis of sustainable peace and prosperity.

It has been a great honour to speak to you today, in this storied hall, about what Gough’s legacy means to Australian foreign policy, and to me, as a Labor foreign minister inheriting his legacy.

I am humbled that my mentor, John Faulkner, on behalf of the Whitlam Institute, has invited me to give this oration on this most hallowed anniversary for all of us in the labour movement.

I thank you, “men and women of Australia,” “my fellow citizens,” for being here, and for each of your contributions to our project of justice and progress for all our people. 

And I conclude as I began, with Gough’s own words on this day fifty years ago, fuelled then by urgency and prescience, and once again so current:

The great powers are rethinking and remoulding their relationships and their obligations. Australia cannot stand still at such a time. We cannot afford to limp along… If we made such a mistake, we would make Australia a backwater in our region and a back number in history. The Australian Labor Party‚ vindicated as we have been on all the great issues of the past‚ stands ready to take Australia forward to her rightful, proud, secure and independent place in the future of our region.

Thank you.

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