Chapter 43. Canberra – The Ugliness and the Beauty


1. Yarralumla – The Beauty of Old Canberra.
2. The Ugliness.  Dealing with the Canberra Hawks
3. Information as Power
4. How the Hawks Undermined the Whitlamites
5. Ignore the Hawks?
6. Post-Vietnam Hawk Point-Scoring
7. Larrikin Irresponsibility
8. Non-Convict South Australia – The Exception

I had returned to Canberra in a hurry, leaving Yasuko in Tokyo with son Dan, then all of seven months old.

I was due to take up my position in the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet. 

1. Yarralumla – The Beauty of Old Canberra

With luck I had found an ideal rental house in an old, traditional area of Yarralumla. 

It had one of those large, seemingly deliberately unkempt gardens that went with old Canberra houses in those days. 

Canberra had never succeeded in its original design. But the parts left over from that design – the large rambling tree-covered houses on their 2.5 acre sites gave a glimpse of what Canberra could have been.

And that is what I found in Yarralumla. With a view out to distant mountains.

Long, lazy, late summer afternoons lying around on the back lawn of my garden drinking wine with old friends – a good way to be reintroduced to Canberra life. A few old mates, Gerry Gutman especially, were helping me feel back at home. 

Meanwhile visas for Yasuko and Dan were being held up by one of those anti-Japanese immigration officials that Canberra liked to send to Japan. (He was also anti-Clark over Vietnam, which did not help.). 

Sorting out that problem involved direct confrontation with the Tokyo Embassy. It ended any relationship I still had with Shann, who favoured the immigration man, for some reason. 

It was a precursor of the problems I, and Menadue, would have in getting accepted by the Canberra bureaucracy

But finally the family could be back with me in Canberra, away from the cold and restrictions of Tokyo living. 

Yasuko ended up with a good job in the ANU library. Dan ended up in the ANU creche

2. The Ugliness.  Dealing with the Canberra Hawks 

I had returned to Canberra with one special hope, that under a Labor government I would finally see the down-grading of the military and bureaucracy hawks who had made life so miserable for us anti-Vietnam War people during the early days of the war. 

Then, they had looked at us with the scorn usually reserved for the infantile or the demented. 

The idea that the US intervention was immoral? That the West was opposed by legitimate forces of Vietnamese nationalism? That Vietnam was a genuine civil war? 

That the US might lose? 

Only communists and small children could believe that kind of nonsense. 

Now with the US humiliated, with Saigon’s armies in retreat, and with an ALP government in power, surely they would be busily covering their former hawkish tracks?. 

Wrong, Mr. Clark. You are wrong, and wrong.  

If anything, the hawks were even stronger than before. 

And this was under an allegedly progressive Whitlam administration. 

In the foreign policy briefing papers they churned out for the government they were still happily using their immaturely belligerent anti-communist clichés. 

3. Information as Power 

The hawk monopoly over the secret information that administrations like to hear – details of plots, bombings, scandals, wars and so on – is a powerful weapon. 

Before Wikileaks these kinds of information did not come from progressive sources. 

They came from the depths of the military/intelligence machine -from  wire taps,  interrogations, dirty tricks, or passed on from CIA, MI5, MI6,  and most all from the massive decoding operations. 

Only now are some beginning to realise the scope of this decoding exercise. 

I saw it up close, back in the fifties and early sixties when I was still regarded as a safe conservative External Affairs employee. 

In secret rooms, walls would be covered from roof to floor by massive rolls of decodings.

If the hawks were going to pass this information on to anyone it would not be to doves.  It would be to birds of their own feather – fellow hawks in the bureaucracy. 

Soon the hawks have strong control over the policy making machine. 

4.  How the Hawks Undermined the Whitlamites

This I am sure is what happened under Whitlam. The people around him – Wilenski, Spiegleman, Mant etc. – were genuine progressives. I knew them all, closely and personally.

I am sure that at first they would have wanted to want to hold their noses in any dealings with the hawks. 

But eventually they had no choice. 

Secret information about Japanese plots over NARA Treaties? 

US plans for Vietnam? 

Activities at secret US bases in Australia? 

Introductions to the rich and the powerful? 

Who else but the hawks could answer such questions or provide the information? 

Little wonder that most of the progressives I had known before had fallen by the wayside or shifted to positions of irrelevancy. 

5.  Ignore the Hawks? 

Arriving in Canberra my stomach would turn whenever I had to drive past the large Russell Hill military complex, with its flag tower and buildings dominating Parliament House and the bureaucracy below on the other side of the Canberra lake. 

It symbolised the crudity and arrogance of Australia’s nascent militarism. 

The soldiers trying to destroy a small Asian country far to the north were rewarded with their prime location and buildings. The bureaucrats trying to run Australia were scattered in semi-shack conditions elsewhere. 

But even with the Vietnam war almost over, that militaristic blot still polluted the Canberra landscape. Its inhabitants were still making policies. 

Even Menadue, for all his anti-war sentiments, seemed to have decided not to fight them. 

Ignore them. Humour them. Let them play their militaristic war games on the other side of the lake. Meanwhile we will get on with the serious business of government on our side of the lake. 

It was an unwise attitude, I thought. It was to undermine even more Whitlam initiatives, especially my attempts to get Australia involved with Hanoi immediately after the fall of Saigon. (Details in my 1975 article). 

Somehow the hawks in the bureaucracy and the media were able to take the war-end chaos in Vietnam – refugees, orphans, boat people – and use it to score points against the Whitlam regime, as if it was the progressives, not the hawks, who had caused the chaos. 

Once again the Whitlamites were left on the defensive, scurrying round for media word-bites and ad-lib policies to answer the hawks and their media friends. 

6. Post-Vietnam Hawk Point-scoring  

With the fall of Saigon, Freudenberg – Whitlam’s speech writer – had prepared a gloating speech attributing full prescience and wisdom over Vietnam to the great Gough. 

(This incidentally was the great Gough who, as I mentioned earlier, had shown no interest in solutions to the Vietnam War back in the sixties, who had gone along with the ‘aggressive China’ scenarios etc.. .) 

(His only argument against Australian intervention in Vietnam was a bizarre belief back in 1968, before Tet, that the US had already won the war there and help from Australia was needed only for reconstruction.) 

From PMC I had tried in April 1975 to put forward a humbler and more constructive draft – what Australia could do to help Vietnam get back on its feet. 

But no one around Whitlam was interested. All they wanted to do was score points against the opposition. 

The hawks were then able to put an end to any point-scoring with the wretched Vietnam Cables affair. 

Overnight the gloaters and the boosters disappeared. I was left to  defend Whitlam, alone. 

Even in victory I had to suffer the bitterness of defeat. 

In an article I wrote for the February 1974 issue of Meanjin (one of the very few journals of progressive intellectual opinion in those days) I tried hard to look at this dilemma (see website – Between Two Worlds:The Radicalisation of a Conservative): 

‘As our best and brightest (in the Department of Foreign Affairs in 1965 which in those days was still far from being hawkish) saw things, only a fool would want to doubt US aims in Vietnam. The closest I got to sympathy was in a farewell talk with the then head of the department’s administration.’ 

‘ He was far enough to the left to have identified with the dozen or so EA men who had opposed Australian support for the British over Suez, but he could not understand why anyone would want to resign over Vietnam.’ 

‘As he put it to me tactfully: “Greg, some of us thought of resigning in 1956 over Suez. But surely you agree that would have been a mistake, and that we have been far more effective working to change things from the inside.’’ 

In the article I go on to say that the analogy was not very good. 

The concerned Western liberal who could understand and oppose the immorality of the Suez intervention had not even begun to understand the far greater immorality of Vietnam. 

Working from the inside had for me meant watching helplessly while intelligent men wallowed in the anti-China hysterias that had already led directly to Vietnam. 

7. Larrikin Irresponsibility 

What upset me most was the seeming inability to feel any guilt or sense of responsibility even when the ignorance, the brutality and the mistakes over Vietnam had been exposed. 

Australia had played a leading role in persuading the US to stay the course into Vietnam. But it felt no responsibility for the consequences.

Elsewhere in the West, those who saw their dogmatic anti-communist arguments proved wrong in Vietnam sometimes later had the honesty or conscience to admit it. Robert McNamara is the name that comes first to mind. 

There had been at least some semblance of a principled debate. 

But not in Australia. 

8. Non-Convict South Australia – The Exception

The one exception was South Australia with I visited several times during the Vietnam War years. 

There the anti-war movement seemed to have genuine intellectual foundations. 

In Adelaide one could find people who studied the facts of the war and tried to reach considered opinions. Opposition to the war was not simply because of opposition to the government. 

Even those who favoured the war gave reasoned arguments. 

Why the difference, as compared wth the slovenly indifference in say New South Wales. 

Thinking about my conclusion was that it might have had something to do with South Australia’s non-convict origins. 

The convict heritage in the rest of Australia, NSW especially, may have helped create the mateship, the distrust of authority and the many other attractive aspects of the Australian personality. 

But it also created a very unattractive larrikin-like lack of moral responsibility. 

Even little isolated New Zealand did better than Australia when it came to showing some sense of conscience over Vietnam and some attempt at a principled debate.