Will someone tell me why Gough Whitlam retains his status as a Labor icon?

This is a question I’ve asked myself for a long while – with particular regard to Whitlam’s outrageous behaviour on a matter that turned out to have importance which vastly overshadowed any domestic events during his Prime Ministership.

Here’s Former Australian Timor diplomat James Dunn in Crikey today.

There may be a good chance that the outcome of the NSW coronial inquiry into the killing of Brian Peters at Balibo in 1975 will offer a measure of closure for the relatives of the victims. It is, however, unlikely to bring justice.

In contrast to several confusing earlier inquiries, what the coronial inquiry has done is to expose the role of Australian governments in this sorry affair, as well as the course of events in Balibo on that fatal day. The Whitlam government, and presumably the Fraser government, not only concealed that fact that they were advised of the newsmenâs summary execution within 24 hours of the event; they went on to conceal Indonesiaâs responsibility for what was an atrocity â in the case of Prime Minister Whitlam, even blaming the newsmen for having gone to the border â suggesting a relationship that was more about honour amongst thieves than good neighbourliness.

The inquiry also highlights the misuse of intelligence, in this case in order to conceal the fact that we were reading the low level code messages of our neighbour. The intelligence obtained by Defence Signals Directorate, where many years ago I myself was an analyst, is often referred to as ‘âsensitive source material” and is very valuable.

We used to describe it as ”straight from the horseâs mouth”, in contrast to the more dubious material acquired from other clandestine sources. What distressed the DSD analysts in the Balibo case was the fact that the murder of fellow Australian residents (actually two were British and another a New Zealander) was concealed in such a way as to question the integrity of their role in an agency of this nature.

There was no good reason for such a move. Indonesian communication officers knew that their low level coded traffic was being intercepted and read, and accordingly would have concluded back in 1975 that the Australian government knew the fate of the newsmen.

Indeed, the TNI halted its invasion operation for a short time, the Suharto government anticipating that it would get a blast from Australia. There was no blast â the only criticisms from the Whitlam government were of the journalists for having foolishly ventured into a dangerous area.

Astonished, but delighted at the weak response, the TNI resumed its invasion which culminated in the assault on Dili on 7 December, where another Australian journalist, Roger East, was summarily executed to an equally diffident response from Canberra. And in the next five years as many as 180,000 East Timorese were to perish.

As we saw in 1999, this deference to the Suharto regime did nothing to help the relationship. In fact it raised expectations of the kind of accommodation of humanitarian abuses unacceptable to most Australians. With the progress of democratic reform in Indonesia, we now know that most Indonesians themselves find such behaviour unacceptable.

It’s hard to think of any other Australian Prime Minister who arguably might have saved the lives of 180,000 people but did not (though I guess Whitlam might not reasonably have been able to anticipate bloodshed on the scale that ultimately occured).

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MIKETRON
14 years ago

They always hark back to Gough as their most illustrious leader! Wasn’t he kicked out? Even if you hate him, it seems like Keating had the better economic record and local commercial relationships (which is all we care about any more). You’d think they’d pick someone like him… Maybe they will just have to wait a few years until the memories “make him fonder” in our hearts. I think they should just pick another television celebrity – what about the (now retired) yellow wiggle?

Paul Frijters
Paul Frijters
14 years ago

gutsy blog, Nick.
There must be more to this than a simple refusal to protest at Australian deaths. I’m only musing here but I wonder what Whitlam thought would happen in 1975 if he had come out saying their big neighbour had willingly executed 5 Australians? Whitlam perhaps thought the home reaction would have been so strong that his government would have been forced into something he thought was against Australia’s interests. Perhaps he checked with his foreign allies to see if they would stand by him if he went against Indonesia and was told he’d stand alone. I would not be surprised if there’s more here than meets the eye, but am not hopeful we’ll get to hear it if there is.

skepticlawyer
14 years ago

Great post, Nick. This is one where I really do hope all the skeletons come waltzing out of the cupboard.

Ken Parish
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Ken Parish(@ken-parish)
14 years ago

One arguably quite critical thing to understand about Whitlam in 1975 was that he was a right wing Labor political leader who was increasingly being assailed both in Australia and by the Americans as far more left wing radical than he really was. That was partly due to the activities of REAL lefties like Jim Cairns and Bill Hartley, but also to the fact that Whitlam himself was a spectacularly inept government CEO who utterly failed to discipline his team.

Whitlam would undoubtedly have been deeply worried by the prospect of a partially Marxist-leaning Fretilin establishing a government on Australia’s doorstep, and would have seen it as something to be avoided at almost all costs. In that context, giving a tacit wink and nod to an Indonesian takeover in East Timor by the staunchly anti-communist Suharto (who wasn’t quite as obviously utterly corrupt in those days) might have seemed like a good idea. The following extract from a 2003 article by my CDU colleague Dennis Shoesmith may give you an idea of some of the perceptions and concerns that would have been exercising Whitlam’s mind in late 1975 (along with the supply crisis). It’s potentially misleading to judge an historical figure without making a reasonable effort to evaluate the context within which he was operating. I still think Whitlam should have realised that giving tacit approval to a violent Indonesian takeover was a bad idea, but it wouldn’t have been self-evidently obvious to a moderate right wing Labor politician like Whitlam back in 1975, especially with all the other debacles (some self-inflicted) he was simultaneously dealing with:

Alkatiri

whyisitso
whyisitso
14 years ago

“For our PMs at least

Guise
Guise
14 years ago

I, too, hope Gough fronts up to the Glebe Coroner’s Court and reveals all. But as to why he’s still a Labor icon … if you met him, you’d understand.

David Jackmanson
14 years ago

Will someone tell me why Gough Whitlam retains his status as a Labor icon?

1) The Dismissal, obviously. It creates a stagnant yet comforting sense of victimhood.

2) Many supporters of the ALP need a daddy-figure to snuggle up to.

3) He was tall, articulate and reasonably attractive.

4) He serves the same function in our day as Chifley did in Whitlam’s – a Right-winger who was far away enough in history to mythologise as a ‘real’ Labor leader, “not like the sell-outs we have today”.

5) Getting the ALP back into power in 1972, or at least being there when it happened (to be fair, he did have quite a bit to do with making the ALP electorally attractive, IMAO).

6) A few worthy acts (the ‘handful of sand’ leaps to mind).

Of course, people today who moan about ‘economic rationalists’ have rarely heard of the 25% tarriff cut. Yes, Whitlam was the first great slasher of the Australian Settlement! Of course, if that were better understood, it would damage his reputation amongst the wishy-washy so-called ‘left’ as much as Timor.

Be fair though, and remember that it was Laurie Brereton’s criticism that sparked Whitlam’s “I will not be blackguarded” outburst.

pablo
14 years ago

I, too, hope Gough fronts up to the Glebe Coronors Court. It could be a magnificent swansong where he could have a few things to say about the current government’s failure to support events prior to Mari Alkatiri’s fall …on the steps outside the court of course. Well may we say..

derrida derider
derrida derider
14 years ago

It is true that he faced a difficult choice, and also true that he undoubtedly never dreamt the war in Timor would be so long and murderous. Still, there’s no doubt that Timor and the “Vietnamese Balts” issues are the two things that leave really bloody stains on Whitlam’s honour.

He made the wrong moral choice in both cases – it would be nice to see him say so after such a long period, rather than proffer another of those barrister’s defences he is so good at (which will no doubt include courthouse steps criticism of others).

theHippy
theHippy
14 years ago

I’ll hazard a guess that not many of you were poor, white and nineteen in 1972.

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