Whitlam Institute

Foreign Affairs

Foreign Affairs


The election of the Whitlam Government was a turning point in Australia's international outlook. The nation began to abandon the relics of colonialism, and curtail the hostile and suspicious stance that it had retained toward its own region.

It was a new period of involvement, amity and goodwill between Australia and its neighbours in the Asia-Pacific region. Cold War paranoia gave way to constructive engagement. The most profound example of this was the Whitlam Government's decision to establish diplomatic relations with China. Whitlam sought to reforge Australia's reputation in the international community, as an enlightened, independent and constructive player in world affairs. 


Granted Independence for Papua New Guinea | Established Diplomatic Relations with China | Reorientated Australia's relationship with Asia | Negotiated the Nippon-Australia Relations Agreement with Japan | Increased Foreign Aid Spending


Granted Independence for Papua New Guinea

Gough Whitlam was a strong advocate for decolonisation. Accordingly, he promoted self-government and eventually, full independence for Papua New Guinea. The Australian government had administered Papua since 1906, and New Guinea since 1919. 

Once the Whitlam Government was elected, this commitment was swiftly implemented. Self-government began on December 1, 1973. From that time, the functions of government were progressively transferred from the Australian Government to the Papua New Guinea administration, led by Chief Minister and later Prime Minister Michael Somare. 

Full independence came on September 16, 1975. In introducing legislation to the Australian parliament to grant Papua New Guinea's independence, Whitlam commented: 

'By an extraordinary twist of history, Australia, herself once a colony, became one of the world's last colonial powers. 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.'

Established Diplomatic relations with China

In 1971, as Opposition Leader, Whitlam had taken a political gamble in visiting China for talks with senior politicians in the Chinese government (including Premier Zhou Enlai) to discuss the terms on which recognition might take place. Given the influence of cold war fears over Australian politics that still prevailed at this time, it was a politically risky venture, and one for which he received some criticism as being damaging to Australia's alliance with the United States, which did not have diplomatic relations with China. Whitlam's bold initiative was vindicated when it was revealed that just as Whitlam's ALP delegation was leaving Beijing, US National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger was arriving to arrange President Nixon's visit to China.

Within three weeks of taking office, the Whitlam Government had negotiated an agreement with the People's Republic of China to establish diplomatic relations between that country and Australia. This move marked a radical shift in Australia's outlook on the world, and its region. For decades, Australia had looked to China with distrust, anxiety and paranoia. The Whitlam Government's establishment of diplomatic relations allowed a mature cultural, social and economic relationship to develop.

To learn more about this significant change in Australia's foreign policy, see our online exhibition Whitlam and China.

Reorientated Australia's relationship with Asia

The election of the Whitlam Government marked a turning point in Australia's relationship with Asia. Australia's outlook on Asia until this time had been characterised by its security fears in the Cold War environment. The Whitlam government sought to engage with Asia on terms other than Cold War security concerns, and involve Australia in its region in a deeper, broader way. In his 1969 election policy speech, he state that Australia is not "'the policeman on the beat', we are not 'the sheriff', we are not 'part of the posse'. We see Australia as a good neighbour."

In power, his government increased diplomatic engagement with Asian nations, establishing diplomatic relations with the People's Republic of China, the Democratic Republic of Vietnam and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. Whitlam initiated a dialogue partnership with the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) and pledged Australian financial assistance to its development program.

Whitlam himself visited many nations in the region during his Prime Ministership, including China, Japan, Indonesia, India, Malaysia, Laos, Singapore, the Philippines, Thailand, Fiji, Papua New Guinea, and Burma.

One of the greatest impediments to deeper engagement with Asia was Australia's history of racial prejudice. Whitlam sought to improve Australia's standing in the region by removing the vestiges of the White Australia Policy in immigration program, by ratifying the Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination and by actively combating racial prejudice within Australia itself. These measures were intended to dispel the impression of Australia as a society with prejudices and hostilities towards the people of the Asia-Pacific region.

For Whitlam, there were both moral and practical imperatives to this position. Whitlam saw it as morally reprehensible that Australia should practice racism in its official policies toward its own indigenous population, or non-white migrants who sought to start a new life in here. Whitlam argued that if Australia was to criticise racism in other countries, it needed to confront, and overcome racial prejudice within its own borders. There was also the practical imperative that Australia more closely integrate itself with its own region – an objective that would remain unachievable whilst it continued to discriminate against the people of neighbouring nations. Whitlam later wrote that "it was the concern of my Government that Australia should show a clean face to the world in terms of racial matters."

Negotiated the Nippon-Australia Relations Agreement with Japan

It had long been the desire of the Japanese Government to conclude a treaty of friendship, commerce and navigation with Australia, however the Liberal-Country Party government which preceded Whitlam's had resisted the idea.  For a number of decades, the relationship had stagnated, and had become very narrowly focussed on trade issues.

Whitlam and Japanese Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka agreed in principle to the treaty in late 1973, allowing negotiations to begin. The treaty that resulted from these talks was significant because it provided the clearest articulation of the importance of the bilateral relationship, and mapped how it would be broadened and deepened in the future. It established a basis of goodwill that was necessary for the further development of the economic partnership.

The Fraser Government sustained the Whitlam Government's efforts to conclude the agreement, and the NARA treaty was signed June 1976. Whitlam acknowledged Fraser's continued commitment but wryly commented that 'it is more important to be the father than the midwife'.

Increased Foreign Aid Spending

The Whitlam Government created the Australian Development Assistance Agency (the ADAA) as an organisation dedicated to funding development projects around the world. The ADAA was the predecessor of the present-day AusAID. Australia's expenditure on aid was raised from $220 million in 1972/73 to $350 million in 1975/76.  Most of this development assistance was directed towards nations in the Asia-Pacific region, with a particular emphasis on Papua New Guinea.