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Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Whitlam, political giant, first to promise 'open government'

Forty six years ago "Open Government" first featured in political debate in Australia.It's a long journey.

From Whitlam's famous ALP launch speech 1972:
We want the Australian people to know the facts, to know the needs, to know the choices before them. We want them always to help us as a government to make the decisions and to make the right decisions. Australia has suffered heavily from the demeaning idea that the government always knows best with the unspoken assumption always in the background that only the government knows or should know anything. Vietnam was only the most tragic result of that belief; the idea that the government must always know best permitted the Liberals to lie their way into that war. They could never have got away with it otherwise. Over the whole range of policy at home and abroad this corrupting notion of a government monopoly of knowledge and wisdom has led to bad decisions and bad government. The Australian Labor Party will build into the administration of the affairs of this nation machinery that will prevent any government, Labor or Liberal, from ever again cloaking your affairs under excessive and needless secrecy. Labor will trust the people.
Whitlam's plan to legislate a freedom of information act 'along the lines of the US act' eventually came to pass ten years later when Malcolm Fraser finally overcame the forces of resistance, although that was the start not victory in the ongoing attempt to overcome 'excessive and needless secrecy.'

And personal recollections:

In 1965, as a freshly minted recruit in the then Department of External Affairs and playing rugby for ANU alongside his son Tony, Gough then Opposition leader, presenting the prizes at our end of year function. I didn't win one, but loved the speech to a grand final losing team.

Ambassador Ralph Harry, me in background Vietnam 1969.
In 1969, as Second Secretary at the Australian Embassy Saigon and a freshly minted Vietnamese language graduate from the RAAF School of Languages at Point Cook, interpreting for Gough on his visit to Vietnam including with then Prime Minister Tran van Huong. Huong's deep southern accent was hard to follow even for the locals, let alone someone not long in Saigon who'd spent a year of instruction from teachers who spoke with impeccable northern accents. Talk about white knuckles!

December 1972 as an officer in External Affairs Canberra where just about everyone was excited at the newly elected PM's foreign policy agenda, not to mention social reforms.

In 1973, as First Secretary at the Australian Embassy Washington, being part of the team kept wondering for a while whether newly minted Prime Minister Whitlam would get the traditional audience with Nixon as ALP ministers poured a bucket on Nixon and Watergate engulfed the administration. Then when he did arrive, as the Embassy's man on Capitol Hill accompanying him on the visits to congressional leaders. Gough had them in the palm of his hand, recounting little known facts about US history that some of his interlocuters had never heard. Being at his National Press Club speech when Edward Gough Whitlam was introduced by longtime US based Australian correspondent the late Peter Costigan as "E Go Whitlam" to the amusement of the Australians present. Gough seemed not to notice. And after the visit trying to find out from contacts at the White House what Kissinger said to Gough when he asked everyone else in the room to leave as he wanted to speak to the PM alone. My contact didn't know either, but said that was a Kissinger standard tactic-he did it the previous week with the president of malawi-to duchess the visitor into thinking he was really special. I never found out if it worked on Gough.  

Vale, a giant who makes many before and since look miniscule.

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