One man’s grand vision – a true act of leadership

Symbolism can be a massively powerful communication medium and transformative on a global scale. A great example was US President John F Kennedy’s inspired phrase “Ich bin ein Berliner” (I am a Berliner) on his 1963 visit to that city in the wake of the Soviets’ construction of the infamous wall that viciously tore a hallowed capital apart.

Attracting far less attention but in its own way just as transformative was an initiative by former Australian Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam, in 1972.

Having cast off the shackled thinking of a two-decade old very conservative government, Whitlam hungered for a period of genuine and pervasive reform in the image of his centre-left ideals. His was a socialist government that ultimately came to grief on the inadequacy of its economic approach, compounded by gross maladministration. But of Whitlam’s numerous legacies, one has proved exceptionally enduring and delivers massive national benefits still.

It was his determination to diplomatically recognise the People’s Republic of China.  It was both bold and risky in enormous measure.

In doing so, Australia became the first nation in the world to symbolically stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the Chinese state.

Whitlam was excoriated by his conservative opponents and much of the rest of the world looked askance at his radicalism. But not America.

The doyen of US Secretaries of State, Henry Kissinger, subsequently undertook a secret visit to Beijing to pave the way for the historic and norm-shattering visit to China a year later by President Richard Nixon.

Even though this was an outstanding high point of the era of detente, the Nixon initiative hardly thawed the suspicion and mistrust between these two superpowers. But Whitlam’s scene-stealer certainly cultivated a new and vital relationship for Australia.

In the four decades since, we have become China’s seventh-largest trading partner. Not bad for a nation of a mere 22 million people compared with one that is a billion stronger. And China is now our largest export market.

There have been potholes and rough patches in this relationship along the way and it would be foolish not to anticipate more to come. But we earned the respect of the Chinese state apparatus, and many of its people, by our willingness to stand alongside them when no-one else would. It endures today.

It would be easy – and very wrong – to see Whitlam’s initiative back then through the prism of today’s commercial engagement. Now, we have billions upon billions of financial reasons to be friendly with China. Self-interest could now be seen to guide our relations. But not then.

Then, it was done because Gough Whitlam believed it should be done. He believed it was the right thing to do to offer encouragement to the Chinese nation that was still regarded by many as an outcast. Oh, Whitlam’s Fabian sympathies no doubt fostered his sense of socialist solidarity and, we can equally assume, his delight in thumbing his nose at hide-bound conservatism. But he risked all and it has proven to be an absolute winner.

In the annals of our national leadership, this initiative should always be honoured for its surpassing legacy. Well done, Gough.