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.

15 thoughts on “Sheridan on 1972

  1. After its shrilly ridiculous performance last year, ‘The Australian’ has no credibility as a journal of record whatsoever. None. It’s moved well beyond having a consistent ideological slant; it’s now a print version of Fox News that frequently resorts to unforgivable bias and outright fabrication to present its tediously one-dimensional view of events.

    Yet week after week, bloggers reinforce its standing as some sort of pre-eminent authority by linking to it and discussing its latest ramblings as if it deserved respect as a national opinion leader. I’m buggered if I can understand why.

    Do as I’ve done for years: ignore it. It will decline into inevitable irrelevance and your blood pressure will benefit.

  2. “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.”

    Gough’s problem was never the lack of political courage.

    It was rather the opposite, mixed with a healthy dose of arrogance.

  3. Pr Q says:

    Sheridan is either playing on his readers’ ignorance or displaying his own here.

    He’s not the only one. Sheridan’s retrospective faint praise of Gough’s foreign policy achievements is depressing but predictable. Unfortunately the denigration of Gough’s achievements is typical of the petty mindset of AUS’s press gallery lilliputs. Peter Hartcher’s recent hatchet job on Downer gives Sheridan a run for his money.

    Downer can be petty and puerile. He plays a mean-spirited, personal, scratchy game of partisan politics. He can be breathtakingly immature.

    He was always ready to be flippant and frivolous. He was something of an Inspector Clouseau of foreign ministers: pompous, slightly ridiculous, self-important, hard to take seriously, though ultimately getting through most of his assignments with some bare seat-of-the-pants competence.

    This spray of vitriol at Downer is a travesty of journalism. It makes Sheridan’s light backhander to Gough look like the wisdom of Solomon.

    Downer deserves a fair go. As I mentioned once on this blog earlier this month:

    Downer…was AUS’s most successful foreign minister since Gough Whitlam’s de facto crack at the job whilst Opposition leader.

    I just want to set the record straight before the history re-writers air brush the late LN/P foreign ministers achievements completely out of the record. AUS’s relations with the RoW, particularly our region, have never been better than under Downer. The shopping list of these achievements is quite long and impressive. (Apologies for self referential link):

    Downer administered (or ably assisted in):

    – freeing us from the Bougainville quagmire,
    – coalition building in the Timor intervention,
    – rationalising and liberalising our immigration program,
    – overseeing our historic re-alignment towards the PRC,
    – bringing in hundreds of thousands of Asian students,
    – strengthening the US alliance whilst getting us through two tricky US-led wars in Southern Asia,
    – fostering a massive increase in our Asian mineral trade and investment,
    – stamping out people smuggling trade,
    – preventing terrorist attacks on the homeland and
    – over and above all things –
    – setting our relationship with INDON onto a fair but firm basis

    Many of Downer’s big moves were greeted with howls of outrage from various sides of politics.

    Sheridan’s Jakarta lobby Centrists, including that execrable “loser” Woolcott, opposed the ADF’s liberation of ETIMOR. It worked.

    The pacifist Left opposed the ADF’s support for the US attack on Iraq, predicting that it would increase AUS’s risk of terrorist blowback. It didn’t.

    The nativist Right bewailed the import of hundred’s of thousands of high-IQ Asian students into AUS’s campuses who supposedly did not fit in. They did.

    As against that Downer does have a substantial black mark against him on the AWB scandal. Even though he was cleared by the Cole commission.

    Sheridan does have half a point. The media-academia complex are unable to give credit where its due to any minister who goes out on a political limb, either at the time or even in historical perspective. They are just a bunch of clapped out power-groupies grown bitter as the years take their toll.

  4. The pacifist Left opposed the ADF’s support for the US attack on Iraq, predicting that it would increase AUS’s risk of terrorist blowback. It didn’t.

    This was merely one of the objections against invading Iraq. The principal objection to the war is that a ‘shock and awe’ campaign, executed under the aegis of ‘humanitarian intervention’ would leave thousands of Iraqis dead or displaced. This actually came to pass. Downer and the other agitators for this atrocity stand condemned.

  5. The ADF’s main “combat� role in Iraq has been to act as a security force for a whole bunch of Japanese engineers engaged in civil re-construction in the largely Shia-dominated region around Basra.

    Maybe so, but you seem to have air-brushed from memory the fact that the ADF also played an important non-combat role legitimising the US invasion in the first place. Downer, among others, subordinated the ADF to the US regime’s spin campaign. Also, Australian troops were in Iraq before the invasion had officially begun, during the period of Bush’s pantomime negotiations with Saddam.
    Finally, I’m not sure how telling two lies cancels each out. Does that mean lying is acceptable in principle, in so far as it is done in even numbers?

  6. THR Says: July 6th, 2008 at 4:38 pm

    Maybe so, but you seem to have air-brushed from memory the fact that the ADF also played an important non-combat role legitimising the US invasion in the first place. Downer, among others, subordinated the ADF to the US regime’s spin campaign.

    “Legitimising” and “spin doctoring” – a pretty big back pedal from atrocity perpetrators! Even then I think your argument is lame, has no legs.

    The ADF did not legitimise the war, at least in the eyes of the global community. Our joining the Coalition of the Willing conveyed precious little legitimacy, going by both adverse UN resolutions and “global street” demonstrations.

    The ADF’s role in Iraq in support of the US invasion was done purely to pander to the US’s foreign policy establishment, GOP’s Red State base and post-911 sympathisers. From Bush’s pov it was done to show that constituency that traditional allies were on-side. From Howard’s pov it was done to show that constituency that the ADF was ready to support the AUS-USA defence alliance in time of need.

    We definitely owed the US big time after ETIMOR. Their heavy lift choppers and amphib assets played a vital role in successful completion of the INTERFET mission. A simple and fairly small political deposit in the strategic favour bank. No one got hurt, not much difference made, all pretty much symbolic.

    I have been hammering this point till blue in the face, for most of the decade. But ideologues Left and Right prefer to impose their own spin on events when scripting morality plays.

    THR says:

    I’m not sure how telling two lies cancels each out. Does that mean lying is acceptable in principle, in so far as it is done in even numbers?

    In Machiavellian geo-politics, yes. So long as the key players know what they are doing. In Downer’s case the record speaks for itself.

  7. Fascinating how Prof Q’s piece on Sheridan’s continuous stream of history rewriting has brought forth thousands of impassioned words, sprinkled like fairy bread with bizarre acronyms, in defence of the unlamented Downer. And at the end of it all, Jack has the chutzpah to say ‘In Downer’s case the record speaks for itself’. If so, Jack, you’re a paragon of redundancy.

    Perhaps in this flood of pleonasm you’d like to let that part of Downer’s record relating to Liberal party dirty tricks speak for itself. Remember Andrews Wilkie and Bolt?

    Downer was in truth a nasty, pumped up little bully – a kiss-up kick-down sort of guy to use a description of his ideological buddy Bolton. Under Downer’s stewardship (leadership is surely an oxymoron), Australia joined the Federated States of Micronesia and Grenada as the only votes invariably cast with the US and Israel on any subject, making us the kind of laughing stock Ukraine and the other ‘Soviet Socialist Republics’ with separate votes at the UN used to be. His speeches on any subject were the day’s Powerpoint bullet points generated by the White House media unit. And now he’s cut and run from the ignominy of life on the Opposition back bench. Poor petal.

  8. And then there was the AWB affair, which started whilst the Wheat Board was still a Commonwealth Government instrumentality and whilst Downer was Foreign Minister.

    But, of course, he didn’t know anything about that, now did he?

  9. “Downer, among others, subordinated the ADF to the US regime’s spin campaign.”

    Critics of Iraq tend to focus on the US all the time, conveniently airbrushing Blair and the broader COW States that were convinced removing Saddam was sound unfinished business. So was our current PM at the time you’ll recall, re Saddam and those WMD. In that respect it could be argued none of them were being particularly adventurous due to their safety in numbers. From a strictly Aust point of view, ET was probably the most risky with the lesser order Graveyard of Empires hardly rating below Iraq similarly for risk. Pulling out of Iraq to stay the course in Afghanistan recently, is certainly adventurous for Rudd now under the circumstances. The Howard Govt more generally was cleared of complicity in the AWB kickbacks, but having said that, the very thought that trading with command economies and their tyrannous regimes, doesn’t benefit the ruling elites directly and obviously is clearly infantile. Tut-tutting at paying inflated transport costs to the regime’s transport arm under the circumstances is merely an argument over who is the least pregnant.

    An interesting trip down memory lane but judging by the Rudd Govt’s stance on Chinese SWF’s buying into Oz resources now, obviously Whitlam’s overtures to Maoists was all a bit premature, especially coming from a bloke who also had a soft spot for freedom loving chaps like Arafat and Mugabe. I note neither Malcolm nor Gough have a lot to say about their old mate Mugabe nowadays. Funny how they used to be right out in front with him once. It remains to be seen how Gough’s old mates in South Africa fare after Mandela departs too. I think we can all guess by how they’re treating Mugabe’s emissaries.

  10. The pacifist Left opposed the ADF’s support for the US attack on Iraq, predicting that it would increase AUS’s risk of terrorist blowback. It didn’t.

    I’m fascinated how Jack knows this. It seems to me that it did raise our risk, but I am open to being convinced otherwise. If you try to convince me otherwise, though, don’t make the mistake of thinking that an attack hasn’t occurred (so far) shows that our risk didn’t go up.

  11. “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.”

    An interesting correlation.

    Not sure if he’s just trying to whinge or if it is indeed true, in which case lets assume those on the Left are interested in history, or that an interest in history leads one inevitably to view things from the Left.

    Then we might also asume a correlation between those on the Right and a general dissinterst in, or denial of, history, or that having no sense of persective at all one tends to veiw things from the Right.

  12. yes, that relentless left wing media bias


    On 4 January 1973, Nixon got a memo from his Communications Director, Herbert G. Klein to say that Sir Frank Packer, father of Kerry and then managing director and major share-holder of Australian Consolidated Press, had sent his New York representative “to express to you (Nixon) his (Packer’s) personal support and that of his magazines and his television network.�
    Packer’s message was that he understood Nixon’s motivation in bombing Hanoi, that he was “disturbed� by Whitlam’s comments and that the majority of Australian’s did not share Whitlam’s views. Of greatest concern is Klein’s claim that Packer’s representative “…offered you (Nixon) any use you may like of his magazines and network.� (Memo from Herbert G. Klein, 4 january 1973, CO10 Australia, WHC Files, Nixon Presidential Archive)

    Once supply was blocked Rupert Murdoch’s media interests offered vigorous support for Whitlam’s overthrow. Front-page articles from The Australian show the role it played in promoting the Liberal’s strategy: 18 October “Governor-General will act soon, says Fraser”, 20 October “Fraser says Kerr must sack Whitlam”, 24 October “Fraser accuses PM and says he must go” and October 27 “Whitlam acts like dictator – Fraser”. At the time John Menadue was Permanent Secretary of the Prime Minister’s Department and he has revealed that Murdoch knew the details of Fraser’s plan for the dismissal down to Menadue’s fate: he was to become Ambassador to Japan (SMH, 4 Nov 1995, p. 1). Murdoch claims he has no memory of these discussions with Menadue (Kelly, 1995, p. 244).

  13. jack

    Given “children Overboard”, the Tampa, AWB and Iraq you going to have a hard time saving Downer from harsh treatment in the pages of history. My own view, without Pauline Hanson it would have all turned out better, but she was and it didn’t.

  14. Although it was certainly the right decision at the right time, I think you are giving too much credit to Gough’s visionaryness. The US was signaling a shift in its attitude to China from the mid-60s, and conducted ambassadorial-level meetings in Warsaw in 1970. McMahon might have been playing to domestic opinion, but he was out of step with international opinion in 1972.

    You could also argue with hindsight that McMahon’s assessment of Zhou was pretty accurate, although Zhou played everyone, not just Whitlam.

    And of course, the Whitlam government also recognized North Korea and, most egregiously, recognized Indonesian sovereignty over East Timor, a decision that beset Australia-Indonesia relations for the next 25 years.

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