How Gough’s legacy has impacted on our journey to China

“A Moment of Opportunity”1

The Culmination of Australia’s own Long March, wrote Whitlam. There has been a plethora of reminiscing about Gough Whitlam and how he opened the door for us to China, in a sense giving Australia a premier position which we still get traction from today! As a school student during this time, I still recall our teacher, Mrs Ashton’s passion about China and the historic events taking place, perhaps it was here that my enduring interest in China was born.

Australia, in 2012, celebrated 40 years of diplomatic relations. Back in 1972, this marked a ‘profound shift’ in thinking that we can hardly believe was such a bold step forty years ago when today China is so inextricably linked to Australia’s fortunes and, indeed, we could not survive without her. Nevertheless there are things you will read written by Gough Whitlam and his advisors that still bear reflection, even today, for example the importance of empathising with China:

“One of the great troubles in relations between China and the West is that we expect China to believe the best about our statements of intention while we choose to believe the worst about hers. We expect understanding for our own fears, but we have never tried to understand hers. We have been obsessed by our own historical experience, but we scoff at China’s obsession with her own experience.”

The issue of establishing Diplomatic Relations with China was big news in Australia and bitter debates went on. In there is a lesson for us all about the misplaced loyalty to the US that we should heed today:

“Many arguments have been advanced by successive Ministers why in Australia we should not recognise China. They have always omitted the crucial point that we do not do it because America does not do it. Once America does it this Government will quickly follow. We take the attitude officially in Australia that opinion in America is monolithic.”

There is one more little tidbit, which says a lot about the respect of the Chinese for others. In 1973 Prime Minister Whitlam became the first Australian Prime Minister to visit China; loudspeakers played Click go the Shears and Waltzing Matilda; the Chinese, in order to make the couple feel welcome (Margaret accompanied Gough), had done a great deal of homework, they knew Margaret was very tall and that she liked swimming. They prepared a special swimming suit for her, just in case. There is a lesson for all of us here today about both thoughtfulness and doing your homework!

The “moment of opportunity” endures today. Whitlam’s experience and lessons also endure and much can be gained by reading the many accounts and following the principles for effective relationship building.

1.Graham Freudenberg


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