The Whitlam government’s reform of Australian Foreign Policy towards the white minority regimes in Southern Africa.
Apartheid era South Africa and Ian Smith’s Rhodesia rightfully lie in the dustbin of history. Their impact, however, lives on. Tonight, England takes on the Springboks at Twickenham. An article by the BBC, published yesterday, reminds us of the continuing problem in South Africa of under-representation of native Africans in the Springbok side and the continuing dominance of South African rugby by the Afrikaner population. For many black South Africans the Springboks still represent a potent symbol of Afrikaner dominance and of Apartheid era exclusion of native Africans from South Africa’s national sporting teams. Many black South Africans support the New Zealand All Blacks rather than their own national side.
You may be asking “What has this got to do with Gough Whitlam and Australian foreign policy in the 1970’s?” In 1972, within a few days of his election, Whitlam banned racially selected sporting teams from touring Australia. By doing so, he closed the last outlet for Apartheid era South African sporting teams to compete abroad. This move primarily affected the Springboks and the South African cricket team, however it was part of a broad range of policy reforms that the Whitlam Government instituted in relation to the white minority regimes in Southern Africa.
The Whitlam Reforms
My latest publication “Playing cricket and rugby does not make people democrats” details these changes and analyses why the Whitlam Government adopted a stronger stance against the minority regimes in South Africa and Rhodesia.
As with most of the Whitlam Government’s reforms, the changes were rapid and extensive. Whitlam immediately reversed Australia’s voting stance at the United Nations General Assembly in relation to Southern Africa.
Under previous Coalition governments, Australia consistently voted against or abstained on a number of resolutions condemning the Southern African regimes and urging for strong international action to be taken against them. This was justified by the Menzian policy of non interference in the domestic affairs of other countries. On two key Resolutions in this area, Whitlam changed Australia’s voting from no and abstention to yes in support of condemnation of Rhodesia and South Africa and urging strong action to be taken against them, including sanctions.
This was followed by the closing of the Rhodesian Information Centre in Sydney, the ending of the Coalition policy of issuing Australian passports to Rhodesian officials to enable them to travel overseas and of course the banning of racially selected sporting teams such as the Springboks.
My research has uncovered four key factors that influenced this about-turn in Australian foreign policy by the Whitlam Government.
Australia’s Reputation in Asia:
The Labor Party had long been concerned that Coalition policy toward Southern Africa gave Asian countries the impression that Australia was a racist country and that it damaged its reputation in Asia. This was not far from the truth. In 1961, the Singaporean Press described Australian policy in this area as “White Australia supporting White Africa.” The Whitlam government distanced itself from these policies in order to improve Australia’s standing in Asia.
Australia’s Foreign Policy in Asia
Improving Australia’s reputation in Asia was an important tenet of Australian foreign policy generally under the Whitlam government. Whitlam also distanced Australia from policies that depicted Asia as the front-line against Communist China or Indonesia, which had understandably affected Australia’s reputation in Asia. To that end, he withdrew the remaining Australian military forces in Vietnam, downgraded Australia’s membership of SEATO and the five power defence pact and recognized the People’s Republic of China as the legitimate ruler of the Chinese mainland.
The Whitlam government was determined to eliminate racial discrimination both internationally and domestically and its policies towards Southern Africa should be seen in this light. Domestically, the Whitlam government announced the death of the ‘White Australia’ immigration policy, committed itself to improving the status of Australia’s Aboriginals and enacted the Racial Discrimination Act. In conjunction with Australia’s foreign policy towards Southern Africa and self-rule for Papua New Guinea, it is clear that these policies all form part of the Whitlam government’s broad anti-racialist platform.
Labor Party Tradition
Most of the secondary sources have also identified that the three factors above drove the Whitlam government’s policies towards Southern Africa. They have, however, paid scant attention to the fact that these three factors had influenced the Labor Party’s policy in this area since at least 1949 as, outlined in my research. It is my belief that had a Labor Government been elected at any time between 1950 and 1972, under Doc Evatt, Arthur Calwell or Gough Whitlam, they would have pursued identical policies for identical reasons. Unfortunately, this was not to be and Australia would have to wait until it was time, Gough Whitlam’s time.
By Mikhail Ushakoff