Friday, 24 October 2014

Whitlam reminiscence and strategic observations on government

Others are writing reminiscences of life at the beginning of the Whitlam Government. This is my story, entertaining I hope, but if you get bored duck down to my strategic observations at the end.

I recorded some of this as oral history at the National Library.

When Whitlam was elected, I was in a strategic policy job in Defence. I had gone to that from Foreign Affairs, where I was China desk officer, gone to Defence not because of a hankering to soldier but in pursuit of national interest which was not the focus of Foreign Affairs, and because there were new interesting jobs created by the new secretary of the Defence Department, Sir Arthur Tange, who was determinedly in favour of civilian command and who infuriated many service personnel with his direction that no one should come into his office in uniform unless there was that day a ceremonial obligation, because he wanted to hear merits of arguments, not dictums from uniform badges.

Several weeks before the 2 December elections, I called my former boss, head of the North Asia Branch in Foreign Affairs and asked to see him. I went and told him I had been in conversations with Peter Wilenski (to become head of Whitlam's staff) and Stephen FitzGerald (to be first ambassador to Beijing). "There will be an embassy in Beijing before Christmas," I said. "No, that's impossible," said Michael.. for these and those reasons it can't be done. I simply replied: "There will be an embassy in Beijing by Christmas, Michael, I leave it with you."

Well, it was there by New Year. And long long years later, the heavy seniors of the department boasted of their prescience in being prepared for the new government and meeting this objective. Standard operating procedures.

Shortly after the election, Sir Arthur reached down through the foliage of the Defence Department to call me to his office, I think because at my modest level I was next in line person who knew the USA was a foreign country. "You know about the bases [Pine Gap and Nurrungar]?" he asked, knowing full well that I did. "You know the party platform?" Yes, I did, a very interesting indicator of the times, that any and every public servant with policy duties, except perhaps some altitudinous hide-bound fellows, had the ALP Party Platform by bedside. This is the closest National Library holding I can find.

'Well," said Sir Arthur. "I've just come from the Prime Minister and Defence Minister and they have agreed it is in the national interest that the bases stay. We have until the first sitting day of the parliament to negotiate a statement with the Americans." Which we did, which created the curious situation that Sir Arthur and I, who had left the Jesuits, more or less, in leaving Foreign Affairs, had charge of the most difficult issue in Australia-US relations apart from the slanging match arising from the American resumption of the bombing of North Vietnam at Chistmas, slanging led by ministers Cairns and Uren, neither of course with a national security portfolio, Whitlam was both Prime Minister and Foreign Minister, but that did not prevent them from describing Nixon and Kissinger as homicidal maniacs.

So while that traffic was passing overhead, I was involved in a daily process of collecting responses from the Washington embassy, preparing advice for Sir Arthur, which we would discuss around 6pm, as we worked on the Americans for space for sensible policy on the bases.  At the same time, I was sharing a house with a duty officer in current intelligence, who received through the night a phone call conveying a 'critical message' every time the North Vietnamese shot down a B-52.

We pressed the Americans to be able to argue that the bases contributed to war avoidance and arms control, which was true, but the Americans didn't want to say it because they believed the Soviet Union did not understand big bases versus little bases and they did not want to draw attention to Pine Gap. Presumably the Soviet Embassy did not read the local press or talk to people on the Australian left, the Americans surely must know those things.

I remain on the 'silent list' as regards the bases but here's some of the story as I worked out what we could do. We pulled the silly habit-applied secret wraps off two other installations in Australia that were justifiable for arms control and needed to be known about. "See, two rabbits for you to admire, from this hat. See, no see, you can't see what we've got still in the hat because secrecy is important (and it was).. but these things serve arms control and disarmament, indeed they form part of the United States' National Technical Means of Verification under the SALT Treaty."

Albeit with some amazing atmospherics, as when someone reported from the Washington Embassy that an Assistant Secretary of the Air Force had this advice: "You don't want to tell the truth, you need a new cover story: how about "it's to understand better the effect on the ground of incoming nukies." Hard to believe... The truth as we got it out in 1973, was there in a ministerial statement in 2013:
The Joint Geological and Geophysical Research Station is a seismic monitoring station originally established to monitor nuclear explosions during the Cold War. It continues to monitor such explosions as part of the International Monitoring System of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. It also monitors earthquakes. It is jointly operated by Geoscience Australia and the US Air Force. Alice Springs. The Assistant Secretary International Affairs, Department of the Air Force, United States Government wanted us to say we were monitoring the likely effect of nuclear warheads landing in Alice Springs, just up the road from Pine Gap about which the left was screaming "It's a nuclear target, we don't want it!!"

Sir Arthur received one evening a trembling US ambassador who read but did not hand over (big important distinction) a piece of paper from the State Department, brought it to us, not to the Prime Minister or Foreign Minister, to tell us that if we continued as we proposed the alliance would never be the same again. And Sir Arthur did his wonder-shift from office tyrant to totally persuasive man of decency for two hours and the ambassador left assuring Sir Arthur he would do everything in his power to see things unfolded as we wished. Which eventually they did.

In the midst of all the hyper-top-secret- codeworded atmosphere, one day when Sir Arthur was away the Deputy Secretary called me down to say wide-eyed that he had just had X on the phone, on the open phone, from this organisation in Washington I can't mention, that invented and ran that thing out in the desert, shouting abuse... on the open line: "I've just got back from holiday in Paris and I'm telling you...". Such are the wonders of security.

Well, we got a text agreed. The draft speech went from Whitlam to Cabinet on the morning of the first day of the parliament 28 February 1973.

I went over to the Prime Minister's office with Sir Arthur. Sir Arthur drove. As usual, there was uncertainty about whether his official small Ford Cortina (parked out front of his department, alongside the limousine with four star admiral's flag sticks being smooched by the Chief Petty Officer driver of the Chairman Chiefs of Staff) would start. At parliament house, we took quite a bit of time in the summer sun for Sir Arthur to discuss with the secretary of another department the merits of the latter's new tiny car before going in to the under-reconstruction Cabinet Room. There I found myself, with my standard dithersome difficulties shuffling papers, the only person in the room, except the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister (Defence Minister Barnard), who did not have half glasses to glare over, or a knighthood: Bunting PM&C, Tange Defence and Waller Foreign Affairs. Waller showed me the unlooking disdain a man who had only recently stopped wearing spats (a fact) would offer a dead cockroach. The Prime Minister opened the batting, to the shock of the mighty, by saying: "Argall! Argall: your father was in the Commonwealth Bank." "Yes Prime Minister, he was president of the union..." He cut me off: "No, no housing, he was responsible for housing, he taught me everything I know about housing."

Earlier, Whitlam, in the jammed corridor, myself pretending not to be party to it, hauled Barnard and Tange nose to nose and proclaimed, with fingers tapping chests: "He's your minister. Look after him. He's the best you are going to get." Lance Barnard meekly continued to look his natural florid and weepy-eyed self, but was never ever this dumb.

In the Cabinet Room then Whitlam raged: "I will never send anything to that Foreign Affairs sub-committee again! I would have won if I'd gone straight to Cabinet. But that bastard Murphy said 'damn you, you can have your bases, but I won't accept this argument...' "

So after some discussion, Mr Barnard left to introduce the Repatriation Bill 1973, very helpful for ex-service personnel, however much they hated this government, Sir Keith Waller left to speak to the American Ambassador, Sir Arthur left to speak to the Leader of the Opposition... and I was left with the Prime Minister and Sir John Bunting, by whom I was charged to finalise the less than best eviscerated text, all the guts and argument on the floor, just limpy bones left... which was delivered at 8pm by the Deputy Prime Minister. See page 67 of Hansard.

This was not of course the end of it. I next day attended upon the Leader of the Government in the Senate, the lovely Senator Don Willessee who became a friend later. With him Senator Reg Bishop, Minister representing the Minister for Defence in the Senate. There too, the chiefs of Whitlam's and Willessee's offices, the late Peter Wilenski and Geoff Briot. This was a world unfamiliar, everyone a first name or called comrade. For Bishop and I there was a curious visceral feeling of slight exclusion. Willessee, Wilenski and Briot all were blessed with a lazy or wandering eye, that which Anthony Burgess liked to call a 'slight venerean strabismus'... These three could, it seemed, as almost an exclusive court, look at each other collectively, leaving Reg and I in the outer.

"It's all very simple, isn't it," offered Reg, "we can talk about SALT!"*** ... demonstrating wonderfully that he had read the original draft speech, perhaps even liked it. "No, no, sighed Willessee and Wilenski, we can't.
*** A sad contrast: the new government abolished the departments of army, navy, air and supply and brought all under defence. The Secretary of the Navy was found a job as head of the defence staff in Washington. I went to brief him. "An interesting time to go to Washington," I ventured. "Why's that?" he asked. "So many thing happening, like Nixons' visits to China and Moscow and the SALT agreement." "What's that?" he said. 

"What's simple,' said Senator Willessee, looking now at me, "is this. We need two speeches. Saying no more than the Minister said in the House. How long did the Minister's speech take in the House?" "Ah, 19 minutes." "OK then, here it is. This is the Senate: I speak for 40 minutes, Reg speaks for 15 minutes and ... and we'll need another speech for a backbencher. And not going beyond what the Minister said."

Well, I went back to the office and prepared all that. The backbench Senator, the gentle and gracious Tony Mulvihill, was over the moon, nobody had ever helped him with anything before. The speeches set out a whole lot of background to relevant agreements and why this thing was acceptable and that was unacceptable; what had been accepted, what not; what now revealed, what now would remain secret. No new policy, lots of background. The chamber began to fill as Willessee spoke, more so on the conservative side, with cries of "this is a new statement", "this is better than the minister's speech", "where's the text."

3 March 1973, I can't find the relevant Senate Hansard, so sad.

Brilliant, I thought.

"Money for jam!" said the one person I'd consulted, in Foreign Affairs... :-)

What, if any, lessons can be drawn?

[1] The only decent subordinate ally is one that has a view and chucks ideas in and seriously questions folly. Toadying will not get you kissed by princesses, though Andrew Peacock (search for suntan on that page) may demur. This is a lesson so sadly so often and constantly forgotten by ministers, civilian officials and the defence force. Though the defence force leadership is not called upon to argue with Americans, it needs must argue strategic effect and consequence from perspectives other than precious allied interoperability and equipment they want to drive. This [PLEASE WATCH LINK] is the coat-tail, this is the business we have to be aware of and seek to turn around or dissociate from.

A decade later, when briefing Prime Minister Hawke for his meeting with Chinese Premier Zhao Ziyang, the first head of government to visit Australia after Hawke took office, the PM snarled in disbelief when someone suggested that China valued our relationship with the US. I was then able to take him through recent years' developments, how Ronald Reagan, before his election as president of the US, had said he would restore relations with the true free Republic of China on Taiwan (ending relations with Beijing).
The Chinese Foreign Ministry did indeed then ask if we could speak to the Americans on their behalf. We said we could not speak on their behalf but would put our views to them. I noted to the PM that the US was not to be thought a homogeneous lump but that there were many in Washington who were delighted to have us put a sensible view and it was even more valued that the sensible advice about the importance of relations with Beijing came from a conservative Australian government at the time. 
There is always a problem of the awe factor. Australian political leaders have not had behind them a history of diplomatic negotiation or measured urging of change in strategy. Encounters with the great are opportunities to look great.
[2] It's harder to do anything now than it was then. Why, in those days I could walk out of my office, when in Foreign Affairs, meander through the rose garden, nod to the policeman at the door of the parliament and duck down to the men's toilet for a haircut, that being the abode of the Parliament House barber. Though policy making was harder then than earlier, more encouraging of toilet visits frankly. In 1971, China policy had been taken from my China section to a new so called policy planning unit: they filled a file a month with useless unworkable debris as the McMahon Government flailed and the foreign minister said to us "show me how I can change the policy and remain consistent with the last 20 year and I'll do it straight away." Somewhere then, looking at the history of it all, I found a tiny telegram from Sir Keith Officer, then ambassador to China, during the revolution, July 1949, in which he reported simply that:
 At the bottom, the Communications Section, where the inwards telegrams were decyphered and printed, had inserted the price of the telegram (£5?) which they often did as stern discouragement to verbose wastefulness.

This was on a slender file. Two initials had noted having read it.  In consequence of that decision we did not open an embassy in Taipei till 1967, though the ROC had an embassy in Canberra till 1972.

These days "Ambassadors Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary", as they are described still on the letter of credence from the Queen to the receiving head of state, ain't got such plenipotentiary opportunities. Or time to go to the toilet, I suspect...

[3] In new governments, paths have to be found, to do the possible. This is obvious, I suppose, but oft forgotten. The Abbott Government is still eyes-fixed on impossibles and dogmas and now also the gathering mysticisms of self-inflicted battles real and fantasised. And mates and brothers-in-war.

[4] Never presume people know anything. Or want to know, or don't know that they don't know everything. When questioned in London about Australia's high carbon emissions, Treasurer Hockey replied that our coal was clean. It's like a miasm you can't shake off. But you have to try and please dear parliamentary opposition, you have to demonstrate an agenda, a strategic purpose and vision that shifts debate out of the stupids. 

[5] Memorable experiences should be available to young policy officers, even if your papers are getting sweaty and falling on the floor (chance to watch again). It would be helpful if newly elected governments understood that within their departments there is knowledge and there are ideas they would do well to tap into. Gillard was renowned for asking and listening.

Alas we are now in a period when there is contempt for machinery and capacity of government and long term damage is being done. It will be hard for future governments to find their way back from a world top-heavy with politically appointed advisors, shredded departmental advisory capacities and flight of intellectual capital, the only valuable currency of the future.

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