Sheridan on 1972
Greg Sheridan’s panegyric to Alexander Downer includes the following aside,
Australian foreign policy history, and Australian history generally, is written overwhelmingly by people who are institutionally sympathetic to the Labor Party. In fact they are generally quite a fair bit to the Left of the Labor Party. And one of Labor’s great virtues is its creation and nurturing of its own legends. Thus, at the end of 1972, the Whitlam government extended official diplomatic recognition to China.
Several Western countries had done this already and by the end of 1973 the whole world, more or less, had recognised China. Thus Australian recognition was as near inevitable as anything could possibly be in history. No matter who was in power in Canberra in 1973, it would have happened. Yet the Labor school of history has elevated this to an act of mythical heroism and far-sighted statesmanship by Gough Whitlam.
Sheridan is either playing on his readers’ ignorance or displaying his own here. He asserts that the inevitability of recognising China was obvious to anyone at the time. In fact, when Whitlam (then Opposition leader) visited China in 1972, he was vigorously attacked by the conservative press (a group the Oz was to join a couple of years later) and the conservative parties. Then PM McMahon said of Whitlam “And, of course, Zhou Enlai played Mr Whitlam like a fisherman plays a trout.” It was typical of the McMahon era that it came out shortly afterward that Kissinger had been secretly visiting China at the same time, laying the groundwork for Nixon’s famous trip. Even so, the McMahon government didn’t recognise China, leaving this to Whitlam.
To set the record straight for Sheridan, Whitlam’s willingess to visit China in 1972 was indeed a piece of far-sighted statesmanship, and took some political courage. By the time Whitlam won office at the end of the year, it was indeed obvious that recognition was inevitable, but even so, there were plenty of people, then as now, who ignored the obvious.