Radio Australia: The passing of former prime minister Gough Whitlam is not just a day of mourning for Australia, but also for a region shaped by his expansive policies of outreach to Asia and the Pacific, regional leaders say.
Mr Whitlam has been remembered as a visionary and a giant of Australian politics by figures across the political spectrum following his death on Tuesday at age 98.
The two nations Mr Whitlam brought in from the cold and set free between 1972 and 1975 were China and Papua New Guinea, both now major regional economies.
On Tuesday, Prime Minister Tony Abbott told Parliament: “1972 was his time. And all subsequent times have been shaped by his time.”
“He represented a new way of thinking, about government, about our region, about our place in the world, and about change itself,” he said.
“His attitude was ‘you have to give people opportunity, even the opportunity to Papua New Guinea people the likes of Somare, the likes of [Sir Albert] Maori Kiki and others’. If they can be vocal for their own people he didn’t see reasons why we shouldn’t gradually push them to get their independence for their country.
“That’s the admiration I always had for Gough Whitlam, that he had faith and he had confidence in some of us.”
Just shy of one year of Mr Whitlam taking government, Sir Michael, as chief minister, formed the first iteration of self government, with full independence coming on September 16, 1975.
Introducing the legislation to Australia’s parliament for PNG’s independence, Mr Whitlam made Australians survey their own roots.
“By an extraordinary twist of history, Australia, herself once a colony, became one of the world’s last colonial powers,” he said.
“By this legislation, we not only divest ourselves of the last significant colony in the world, but we divest ourselves of our own colonial heritage.
“It should never be forgotten that in making our own former colony independent, we as Australians enhance our own independence.
“Australia was never truly free until Papua New Guinea became truly free.”
Sir Michael said Mr Whitlam chose to bypass everybody on the call for PNG’s independence … “every learned person, [the] people of high intellect in Australia”.
“He helped more than anyone to change the thinking of Australians at that time that ‘yes, a group of people up on the north, Indigenous people, they are the population, they should be able to govern themselves and yes, it takes time for progression to be made’.
“[And] when Liberals came to power, Andrew Peacock and Malcolm Fraser, [they] supported us like Gough Whitlam did.
“Gough set the pace and they followed the footsteps that they believed in the fate of Papua New Guineans, they can do it.”
Current Papua New Guinean prime minister Peter O’Neill has also expressed his condolences, using Mr Whitlam’s local honorific as a chief.
“Chief Whitlam will always hold a unique and special place in the history of Papua New Guinea as the Australian prime minister who worked with our founding fathers to achieve independence for our nation,” he said from Jakarta.
Whitlam was a ‘pioneer’, China says
The Chinese Embassy in Australia has also expressed its condolences, referring to Mr Whitlam’s groundbreaking visits to China at the height of the Cold War.
“As the pioneer in establishing diplomatic relationships with China, Mr Whitlam ushered in a new era of China-Australia ties,” the embassy said.
“Mr Whitlam will never really leaves us. He will always be remembered as a dear friend of Chinese people for generations to come.”
Ambassador Ma Zhaoxu expressed the deepest sympathy for the loss of a remarkable friend of the Chinese people.
Mr Whitlam led a Labor delegation to the People’s Republic of China in 1971, again while in opposition, and just days before the United States was to hold its first senior negotiations with the nation largely locked out from all international recognition.
He promised to senior diplomats in Beijing that under a Labor administration Australia would officially recognise China over Taiwan, drawing the ire of then prime minister Billy McMahon, who accused him of being a traitor.
Bob Hawke, the next Labor prime minister after Mr Whitlam, said on Tuesday it quickly inked Mr Whitlam as a potential international statesman, and one that knew the importance of near neighbours over Australia’s historically British links.
“There has never been so much egg on the face of an Australian politician as there was on the face of Billy McMahon when, just a few weeks later, it was revealed that Henry Kissinger was visiting China to organise the visit of president Nixon to meet Chairman Mao,” he said.
“He was one of the earliest of Australian statesmen to recognise the changing significance of Asia in the post Second World War, and, in particular, of course, we all remember his commitment to recognising the increasing importance of China.
“Of course, one of his first acts when he became PM was to recognise China. So you look at that stellar career, all the things he did internally, his recognition of the changing world and securing Australia’s place within that world.”
The first ambassador to the People’s Republic of China, Stephen FitzGerald, has said of Gough Whitlam’s 1971 trip: “There is nothing in Australian history to compare with that China visit.”
He subsequently did meet with Chairman Mao, linking the rise of China to Australia in 1973.
China is now Australia’s largest two-way trading partner in goods and services, valued at more than $150 billion in 2013, and as of this month China is the largest economy in the world.
There is much to say of the transformative internal policies of Gough Whitlam in the Australian context, but for our closest partners in Asia and the Pacific his figure looms large as a trailblazer, chiefly, and as a dear friend.