The Whitlam Government, International Independence and Composing a Confident Australia

Number 2Whitlam wanted to redefine Australia’s international identity. ‘My great hope for my Government’, he said, ‘is that it will see the end of the old inhibitions, the self-defeating fears about Australia’s place in the world, and the beginning of a creative maturity’. So was he successful in achieving a more confident and independent Australia? To answer this question, let’s look at the Whitlam government’s international relations with the United States (US), China and Britain.

The U.S.

Number 5

Friendship between Australia and America does not require Australia to be subservient … under this Government, the Australian people will be encouraged to shed the old stultifying fears and animosities which have encumbered the national spirit for generations and dominated … the foreign policy of this nation.

This 1973 Whitlam quote demonstrates how he saw the nature of the Australia-US alliance, and how he thought it should change. In no way was this made more clear than when several of his cabinet ministers ferociously criticised American policy in Vietnam. The US ‘Christmas bombings’ in 1972 elicited accusations from Whitlam’s government of ‘thuggery’ and ‘mass murder’. The Minister for Trade, Jim Cairns, labelled the bombings ‘the most brutal, indiscriminate slaughter of women and children in living memory’. Whitlam himself wrote privately to President Nixon, threatening to assemble a public alliance of Asia-Pacific partners to condemn US policy. Whitlam’s response certainly did not endear his government to the Nixon administration, but it signalled a more critical and independent Australian posture within the context of the Australia-US alliance. Whitlam withdrew all Australian military aid to South Vietnam as well as the remaining military advisors, moved to full diplomatic relations with both China and East Germany, and told Australia’s United Nations delegation to vote in favour of a resolution that proposed neutrality in the Indian Ocean. The US government either opposed these edicts, or found them embarrassing.


number 6

Australia’s twin fears of communism and Asia were made manifest in the form of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). This was reflected in the anti-communist parliamentary rhetoric of the 1950s: communism was the ‘worst evil that the world has ever known’ and came from ‘hell itself for the purpose of destroying the world’. It was against this ingrained belief that Whitlam argued for recognition of China, and the building of foreign relations. Whitlam believed that recognising China and coming to terms with Australia’s geopolitical reality in Asia would help to make a more confident Australia, capable of overcoming what Whitlam had labelled its ‘self-defeating fears’. The Whitlam Government’s stance on China demonstrated both independence and maturity: independence from US policy which was not in favour of recognition, and the maturity of a country that was finally coming to terms with the region in which it found itself. The establishment of what has since become a lasting and fruitful relationship with the Chinese government shows that the Whitlam Government was successful in helping Australia to overcome its regional anxieties, and to become a more confident nation.


Gough Visits Heath

More than any other part of the old empire, Australia remains inhibited and limited by its nostalgia for past associations and pretensions which the British nation … [has] … long since abandoned.

On his first visit to Britain in 1973, Whitlam told British Prime Minister Edward Heath of his intention to dispose of the last ‘relics of colonialism’. In his 1984 book, The Whitlam Government, Whitlam opens his chapter on ‘International Affairs’ with a statement he made in Papua New Guinea (PNG) in 1971:

What the world sees about Australia is that we have an Aboriginal population with the highest infant mortality rate on earth; that we have eagerly supported the most unpopular war in modern times on the ground that Asia should be a battle ground of our freedom … that the whole world believes that our immigration policy is based on colour; and that we run one of the world’s last colonies.

To break Australia away from these perceptions, the Whitlam Government enacted a raft of both domestic and international policies: a broad spectrum of Aboriginal reform; legislation that outlawed discrimination based on race; the removal of Australian troops from South-East Asia; and the granting of independence to PNG. While seemingly disparate in nature, these reforms can all be interpreted as a move away from British identification, especially the traditions associated with colonialism that Whitlam particularly wanted to shed.

The Whitlam Government’s unilateral action in China and Vietnam, and its conviction in criticising US policy both privately and publicly made it clear that Australia was no longer assumed to be in lockstep with the US. Recognising Communist China developed Australia’s maturity, by helping Australia to become more confident and comfortable in its region and to dispense with previous fears and insecurities that Australia held about China, communism, and invasion from the Asian north. The Whitlam government also made significant progress towards removing the negative legacies of colonialism associated with Britain. Through reform in Aboriginal affairs, withdrawing Australian troops from Asian countries and bestowing full independence upon PNG, the Whitlam Government helped to develop a more mature and independent Australia.

Have a read for further info:

Bramston (Ed.) (2013) The Whitlam Legacy, Sydney:Federated Press
Curran, J. (2014) ‘The Dilemmas of Divergence: The Crisis in American-Australian Relations, 1972–1975’, Diplomatic History, 38:2, p377-408
Whitlam, G. (1984), The Whitlam Government, Ringwood Victoria:Viking
Whitlam, G. (1973) Address to the National Press Club Washington. Retrieved from on 3/9/14
Whitlam, G. (1973) Speech to the Australian Institute of Political Science, retrieved from

2 comments on “The Whitlam Government, International Independence and Composing a Confident Australia

  1. tristgau says:

    How incredibly pertinent this topic is for multiple reasons. I think the background to Whitlams interactions with China are incredibly important in the contemporary context. You have explained the implications of the interactions between Australia and China well, which highlights the significance of the event. This really contextualizes the ongoing development of Australian national identity and the impact that Whitlam had upon it. With the prospect of an upcoming free trade agreement between Australia and China, one has to wonder the impact that Whitlam’s recognition had upon the development of stable relations between the two states. I think as you have highlighted it is no small thing to go against the policies of a close ally in the United States, whilst also seeking to chart a nations own path in developing international ties. For me this post brings in to focus the trail blazing nature of Whitlam’s work on the international stage during what was an incredibly tense time. Was a pleasure to read, thank you.

  2. Lang Reid says:

    I find this topic fascinating. One of the things I admire most about Whitlam was his unfailing belief in Australia’s independent identity on the world stage. While he valued our relationship with old friends and allies, he unstintingly put Australia’s welfare first. It was very interesting to read how he responded to our old dependence and subservience to the U.S. and U.K. and to see how his progressive attitude to China reaped benefits for Australia even in the long term.
    Thanks for a very interesting read. I would love to read your complete essay.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s