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DFAT Building Canberra

Australian diplomacy’s creation story

By Graeme Dobell

Two diplomats — one a restless innovator, the other “a master of benign neglect” — helped shape Australia’s opening up to the world

Three Duties & Talleyrand’s Dictum: Keith Waller — Portrait of a Working Diplomat
By Alan Fewster | Australian Scholarly Publishing

Jim Plim, Ambassador Extraordinary: A Biography of Sir James Plimsoll
By Jeremy Hearder | Connor Court Publishing

For the first four decades of federation, Australia didn’t feel the need for its own diplomats. But wake-up calls don’t come much louder than the second world war. As the cataclysm loomed, Australia finally understood it could no longer leave foreign policy to the British.

A small Department of External Affairs was created in 1935, its staff drawn from the prime minister’s department. The new department accelerated through infancy and adolescence as Australia faced a new world, shaped by war and the rise of the United States, the challenge of communism and the end of colonialism. Asia grabbed for independence as Australia groped towards diplomatic adulthood.

Those who joined the fledgling department were present at the creation of an Australian view of the world and the diplomatic instrument to serve its interests. The new institution was a milestone in the transition to an Australia that looked to itself rather than to the mother country.

Even as the war taught Canberra that what Britain wanted wasn’t always what Australia needed, the British manner still influenced the way External Affairs thought of itself and selected its people (and rewarded its stars with knighthoods). Habit, sentiment and culture meant that London still loomed large.

But the diplomatic posts that quickly came to matter for those building the new department were in Asia and the capitals of the cold war superpowers. The list of key missions — Washington, Moscow, Korea, China, Japan, India, the United Nations — is a rollcall of the posting career of two of that first generation who rose to be diplomatic mandarins: Sir James Plimsoll and Sir Keith Waller.

Plimsoll and Waller both headed External Affairs — and Waller was secretary when the name changed to Department of Foreign Affairs in 1970. Amid the tides of the cold war, each of them served as Australia’s ambassador in Moscow and Washington.

These biographies of the two mandarins record the travels, travails and alarums of the diplomatic life. Each book demonstrates the fundamental truth that an ambassador’s most important diplomatic relationship is with his or her own minister and the prime minister, and that the hardest fights are waged back at home base.

Each book draws on deep research. Each is well written. Each presents a private man who had an important life of public service. And each tells the story of the foundation of Australian diplomacy understood through the life of a diplomat.

Fewster quotes Lord Balfour’s three duties of diplomats: to be accepted by the country to which they’re accredited; to interpret for their own government the policy of the country they’re posted to; and to interpret their own government for the state where they are ambassador. To this trio of often conflicting duties, he adds the dry dictum offered to ambassadors by the bishop-turned-diplomat Talleyrand: “Above all, not too much zeal.” As Waller, who judged that Talleyrand’s dictum holds good, commented, “People with passionate feelings make great national leaders. They make very poor diplomats.”

The conceptual frame that the journalist-turned-diplomat Alan Fewster uses in the title of his biography of Waller is equally useful in reading diplomat Jeremy Hearder’s biography (seventeen years in the making) of Plimsoll. Plimsoll and Waller both understood the tensions of the dictum — the need for judgement, the need to offer your government counsel as well as commitment. They trod similar paths but were vastly different men. They brought equal intelligence but contrasting skills to the creation cause.

Plimsoll was a “monkish” intellectual who never married, the better to serve his unstinting marriage to External Affairs. Waller was a harder, more forceful player. Plimsoll, a tall, rumpled figure, was happy to function with just one suit. The “suave” Waller — sardonically nicknamed “spats” for his “sartorial elegance” — had a mind and a tongue as sharp as the cut of his suits.

Plimsoll was a superb diplomat but a poor manager. Waller was a consummate bureaucrat, well able to fight Canberra battles.

Plimsoll started work in the 1930s as a bank clerk and spent eight years studying part-time at Sydney University. After war broke out he became an economist with the army’s think tank, the Directorate of Research and Civil Affairs, an odd-ball collective of intellectuals that honed his talents. He was a captain with an untidy uniform that contrasted with his elegant mind, then a major who couldn’t salute, employed to think about Australia’s war aims and aspirations in the South Pacific and Asia.

Major Plimsoll joined the Australian military mission in the United States in June 1945. His career was transformed when he switched to a diplomatic role, “plunging into an international conference to discuss high policy relating to Japan.” Working with Dr H.V. Evatt, Australia’s external affairs minister from 1941 to 1949, his career took off.

Like many others who dealt with the Doc, Plimsoll had a close-up view of the flaws of a politician with an ambition as towering as his intellect. “Evatt’s ability was outpaced by his complete lack of principle,” Plimsoll judged. “He saw everything in terms of his own interest.”

Plimsoll’s intellect and total devotion to work quickly made him one of the elite of the diplomatic service, and he was knighted at the age of forty-five. He was no dashing diplomat — rather, he was a non-drinker who didn’t dance and was shy around women. Avoiding golf, he aimed to read one or two books a week and delighted in art. Hearder describes Plimsoll as “disciplined and monastic,” although capable of being “quietly devious.” His photographic memory was joined to “an ability to explain complex matters quickly and clearly both on paper and face to face.”

Plimsoll didn’t drive and liked to live in hotels so he could walk to work. When he was secretary of External Affairs, he lived in the Hotel Canberra, a five-minute stroll from the department. It was as though Canberra was just another posting.

Hearder illustrates this “certain otherworldliness” by telling a delightful story of Plimsoll visiting a colleague’s Canberra house and looking at the backyard with bemusement. “What are those round metal frame things?” Plimsoll asked. He was informed they were rotary hoists for drying clothes. “Oh,” said the secretary. He had deep knowledge of Australia’s world, but not much experience of the Australian backyard.

His ministers paid warm tributes to Plimsoll but none claimed to know the man. Richard Casey, external affairs minister from 1951 to 1960, was close to Plimsoll personally and professionally and once joked to him, “Heaven knows, you may be a dyed-in-the-wool dangerous radical, under the guise of a moral, balanced and intelligent individual. I don’t think you are — but who really knows?”

Paul Hasluck, Plimsoll’s minister from 1964 to 1969, called him “one of the most puzzling men whom I have met and I really don’t know whether I understood him. Yet we always worked well together.”

Our longest-serving foreign minister (1996–2007), Alexander Downer, who served as a junior diplomat under Plimsoll in Brussels in the early 1970s, acclaims him as Australia’s greatest-ever diplomat.

Like Plimsoll’s, Keith Waller’s career was boosted by working closely with Doc Evatt. Waller acknowledged Evatt’s drive to develop an independent international stance for Australia, his dogged internationalism in the creation of the United Nations, and his seminal role in the rapid growth of External Affairs. But he disliked Evatt more than anyone he ever worked for, describing his minister as “vain, venal, without honour, without principles, unscrupulous, surrounded by toadies, mean and cruel.”

The young Waller had double exposure to the great men and egos and invective of Australian politics, serving for two years as the key aide to the irascible former prime minister, Billy Hughes.

Fresh from Melbourne University, Waller arrived in what he described as a “bitterly uncomfortable” Canberra in early 1936, among the second intake of graduates recruited to the Commonwealth public service. Joining External Affairs, he later recalled, he found a “puny department without any muscle at all.” Other public servants advised him the new department was a doomed experiment that would quickly vanish — he should shift to one of the bigger bureaucracies “where the action is.”

When Billy Hughes became external affairs minister in 1937, Waller was appointed his private secretary. Waller thought the seventy-five-year-old took little interest in his department, and judged the Little Digger “capable of being both mean and dishonest.”

Waller’s first posting, in 1941, was to Chungking, the wartime capital of the Nationalist Chinese government of Chiang Kai-shek. Waller’s sensory memory of his three years in Chungking was of heat, garlic, smoke, decaying vegetation and human excrement. Much of the transport around the capital was by sedan chair, and Fewster reproduces a picture of Waller sitting, working on papers, as he’s carried on a chair and poles by four men.

By 1945, Waller was in San Francisco serving as the secretary of the Australian delegation at the conference to negotiate the formation of the United Nations. Waller proved his diplomatic skill by handling what he called “a madhouse” delegation subject to two senior politicians who both thought they were in charge. Prime minister John Curtin had sent to San Francisco both deputy prime minister Frank Forde and external affairs minister Evatt but had been “deliberately vague” about which man was the delegation leader.

Waller gave Forde and Evatt equal status and treatment, finessed conflicting orders, and kept business moving. One of the other Australian diplomats at the conference, Paul Hasluck, paid tribute to the skill of the delegation secretary: “If ever Waller dropped a slice of toast, I feel sure that he could arrange that it would not fall with the buttered side down.”

At the summit of their careers, Plimsoll and Waller ran in parallel. Plimsoll was secretary of External Affairs (1965–70) while Waller was ambassador to Washington (1964–1970). Then they did a direct swap, with Waller becoming secretary (1970–1974) while Plimsoll went to Washington (1970–74).

Giving Washington to Waller broke the tradition that Australia’s ambassador to the United States was always a politician. As usual, the ups and downs of Canberra politics played a part in this great professional compliment to Waller. At a farewell meeting before he left for Washington, prime minister Robert Menzies was characteristically wry about the choice: “I’ll tell you quite frankly that this is a position in which I would prefer to have a cabinet minister, but the ones I consider suitable I can’t spare, and the ones I can spare are not suitable.”

The biographies do tandem duty in discussing the role of the two diplomats in running the department and the part they played in the wrenching policy challenge of the era, the Vietnam war.

In the role of departmental secretary, Plimsoll and Waller were contrasts of style and intent. Jeremy Hearder judges that Plimsoll’s five years as secretary “was the least successful appointment in his career up to that time.” Plimsoll aimed to keep External Affairs running rather than trying to run it. He wasn’t decisive enough, says Hearder, and he couldn’t delegate. He lamented the “layered bureaucracy” he had to direct, looking back fondly to the department he first knew when it was “small and personal.”

“On the other hand,” Hearder writes, “Plimsoll was more accessible than previous incumbents. He liked to walk the corridors, especially on evenings and weekends, talking to people. He did not convey a sense of being under pressure. He asked for views and listened, although without indicating if he agreed… He made time to see every departmental officer of diplomatic rank, including the most junior, on departure or return from postings.”

Plimsoll had a wait-and-see approach to his ministers and to policy questions. Rather than the usual bureaucratic alternatives — muddle on or move differently — Plimsoll preferred problems to moulder. The moulder method is easily mocked but often effective.

In preferring moulder, he was “a master of benign neglect.” A new personal assistant joining the secretary’s office found four in-trays laden with papers: “Many were marked ‘urgent’ or ‘decision required in four days,’ going back years.” A decision not to make a decision most definitely ranked as a decision. Plimsoll once quoted approvingly a line from a British prime minister, Lord Salisbury: “The time for change is when you can no longer resist it.”

Hearder offers one example of how Plimsoll could moulder-away an idea that he saw as difficult or wrong. In 1966, Hasluck was worried about the foreign policy impact of Radio Australia’s shortwave broadcasts to Asia. He sought to have the international service removed from the Australian Broadcasting Commission and placed under the control of External Affairs. Hasluck instructed Plimsoll to prepare a submission to that effect. Plimsoll got a draft submission then put it in his filing cabinet and waited. Hasluck didn’t raise the matter again.

Plimsoll once commented to a colleague: “Inactivity can be a policy.” It was the worldliness and wariness of a diplomat who served as an ambassador eight times. He understood that getting agreement inside a government is extremely difficult, and getting a deal between nations is even harder. Energy isn’t enough — timing and judgement are paramount.

When the moment demanded it, Plimsoll could be decisive. In a panicky Seoul in 1951, with advancing Chinese troops pushing back UN forces, he got a call in the middle of the night informing him that South Korea’s president, Syngman Rhee, “had gone to the airport intending to flee the country. Upon hearing this, Plimsoll, clad only in his pyjamas, pursued him to the airport and persuaded him to remain.”

In a different setting, in Washington in 1970, Plimsoll seized the moment by physically seizing his minister. Foreign minister William McMahon, in Washington for an ANZUS council meeting, attended a dinner in his honour at the ambassador’s residence with the secretary of state and the director of the CIA. Towards the end of the meal, McMahon left the table. Plimsoll followed him out and the minister told Plimsoll that he was tired and was going to bed. Plimsoll replied that the guests included a number of important, busy people who had come to meet him. McMahon replied, “Some other time.” He had turned to go up the stairs, when Plimsoll seized him by the back of his coat. “All right,” McMahon conceded. “I’ll stay.”

When Waller swapped Washington for the secretary’s job, he was determined to run the department in new ways, not merely keep it running. Waller admired Plimsoll but described him as an “appalling administrator” who left the department “a mess.” He found that the secretary’s office still had the same furniture and antiquated switchboard it had used when he joined in 1936. One of his first changes was to refurnish his office.

Plimsoll had loved the old department, so it was appropriate that Waller was in charge when the name of External Affairs was changed to the Department of Foreign Affairs in 1970. Waller also won a battle to end the unique status of the Australian High Commission in London, which was still administered by the prime minister’s department.

Waller brought Australia House under the effective control of Foreign Affairs, launching his campaign with a letter to the secretary of the PM’s department: “The time has probably come when we need to deal with the United Kingdom in much the same way as we deal with other countries of real importance to us like the United States and Japan.”

See this as a beautifully weighted public service sentence: a polite declaration of bureaucratic war, plus a reference to the “real importance” of the United Kingdom that is capable of different readings.

Waller remade the structure and administration of Foreign Affairs. He aimed to do away with the “sheep and goats approach to service in the department”: a divided culture where the diplomats were officers while consular and administrative staff were the lower ranks.

Fewster offers a vignette of Waller meeting junior diplomats to talk about his plans for change, “speaking concisely but in somewhat condescending tone.” He referred staffing questions to a personnel officer sitting beside him, but “tapped his cigarette holder sharply against his ashtray” if the personnel man’s responses were too long.

He wanted diplomats with the management skills to run a major public service department. “You would be surprised at the number of heads of mission who are brilliant but administratively inept,” he wrote to his old minister, Richard Casey. “The trouble they cause the department is endless.”

Like many of his generation and education, Waller spoke with more of an English drawl than an Ocker twang. When the Foreign Affairs head rushed to brief Gough Whitlam the day after Labor won the 1972 election, he was wearing a tweed suit. “Keith,” Whitlam boomed, “you look like an English duke!”

“Both men” — Waller and Whitlam — “belonged to a generation that was made to learn passages of the classics by heart,” writes Fewster, “and Whitlam could generally cap any quotation in English or Latin that Waller might throw at him. ‘This sort of thrust and counter-thrust can be enormous fun,’ [Waller] would write, ‘but the minutes would slip by and I would become increasingly conscious that there were many things we should have been doing instead of exchanging rather scholarly witticisms or arguing whether Thucydides was a better historian than Heraclitus.’”

Waller had started out on the Vietnam road in the 1960s every bit as hawkish as his minister, Paul Hasluck. The bitter journey made Waller rueful, if not dovish. His doubt grew during his time as Washington ambassador while Plimsoll, the dutiful External Affairs head, diligently pursued the Vietnam policy of the Liberal governments of Menzies, Harold Holt and John Gorton.

Hearder detects private reservations in Plimsoll’s approach to Vietnam. Yet Plimsoll shared the belief that a communist triumph in Vietnam would be disastrous for Southeast Asia and “tip the balance for the Communist Party in Indonesia.” Plimsoll’s general approach was shaped by a view of China as “unpredictable and a potential threat to the region.”

In checking the proposed text of his speech to parliament in April 1965 announcing the dispatch of the first Australian infantry battalion to Vietnam, Robert Menzies felt it didn’t adequately explain why Australia was making the military commitment. Plimsoll immediately wrote the outline of what became a famous passage on “the downward thrust of Chinese communism.”

In December 1964, Waller wrote a cautionary Vietnam letter to Hasluck, saying he didn’t want to put such a “gloom view” in a cable that would be shared throughout the Canberra system. “I believe I should tell you frankly,” he wrote, “that the signs of a robust and possibly successful policy in South Vietnam are vanishing rapidly.” With plenty of urging from Australia, America did adopt a more robust approach to Vietnam, but failure still arrived.

Waller was at the White House in July 1966 to hear Harold Holt, as prime minister, depart from his prepared speech and declare to president Lyndon Baines Johnson that Australia was the staunch ally that will be “all the way with LBJ.”

Channelling Talleyrand’s dictum about too much zeal, Waller was appalled by the pledge. Even the American president “shuddered” at the line, Waller later wrote, noting that LBJ “was a good enough politician to see that whilst it went down quite well in Washington, it wouldn’t be popular at home” in Australia.

In April 1972, Waller told his ambassadors that government ministers had developed a deep disillusionment with the United States, feeling that American policy was “something on which we cannot any longer rely.” The idea that America was Australia’s best friend was no longer the universal view of Australians. Waller described a “general sense of bewilderment” about “where America is going.” Accepting that there’d be a cooling in the US relationship, he wrote, “I don’t mean that anyone is thinking of denouncing ANZUS, but I think we are moving from a period when the US was the be all and end all of our existence.”

The issue of how much pressure the alliance could bear confronted the new Whitlam government only weeks after its election. The Nixon government responded to the breakdown of ceasefire negotiations with North Vietnam by resuming bombing raids on Hanoi. Waller told the US embassy in Canberra that the Labor government felt the bombing was morally wrong and politically indefensible.

On 28 December 1972, Whitlam sat down in Kirribilli House with his two senior foreign policy advisers, Waller and Plimsoll, who was visiting from Washington. With a detailed note of the conversation from the archives, Fewster puts the three men on stage and plays out the scene — the cut and thrust of their dialogue at the crossroads where politics, policy and diplomacy meet.

The prime minister, foreign affairs secretary and ambassador to the United States wrestle with the frustration of Vietnam, rehearsing the lines Whitlam will use at a scheduled press conference in a few days’ time. Whitlam must preserve the alliance while dissociating Australia from its ally’s bombing campaign. He must criticise Washington’s policy yet not inflame already strained relations with the Nixon administration.

Add to the policy conundrum the political dimension. Whitlam has to speak to Australian voters and hold together angry elements of his own party. There’s potential here for a divide between people and party. Senior members of the Labor Party are keener on breaking away from the United States than many of the voters.

In balancing these forces, Whitlam comments that he’s dealing with a US president, worried about losing face, who has already lost the war.

How should the PM respond to journalist questions about condemning the bombing? Plimsoll suggests that Whitlam might condemn bombing on this scale; the United States would not like the comment but could live with it. Waller says the government could express regret at the bombing of cities, whoever did it.

Whitlam worries about seeming to gloat about the previous Australian government’s Vietnam failures, although Plimsoll suggests that the PM could take the line that, “if there had been a Labor government in power, we would not have had forces in Vietnam.”

Whitlam has to walk a line between expressing his true views and wiping his hands “of a situation the Australian government of the time had helped to produce.” If the aim is to keep the United States interested in Asia, though, “the longer the Americans were involved in Vietnam, the worse the humiliation would be.”

Drawing on this debate, Waller was blunt in expressing the change in Australia’s perspective on Vietnam in a back-channel message to Washington the following month. The Whitlam government, he wrote, wanted good relations with the United States, “but not if the price for this was that they must remain silent in the face of an act which they regard as one of horrifying barbarity.”

Waller retired from Foreign Affairs at the age of sixty in 1974 and died in Canberra in 1992. After Washington, Plimsoll served as ambassador to Moscow, Brussels, London and finally Tokyo. He left Foreign Affairs in 1982 to become governor of Tasmania. Plimsoll died as he lived, hard at work, found in an armchair in Hobart’s government house, in 1987, with a briefing paper on his lap, taken by a heart attack at the age of seventy.

Today in Canberra, Plimsoll and Waller are remembered in the new northern suburb of Casey, named in honour of the minister they both served. All the streets of Casey are named after Australian diplomats and public servants: Plimsoll Drive winds through the centre of the suburb, while one of the streets heading to the heights, off Plimsoll Drive, is Keith Waller Rise.

Plimsoll would note that the backyards are smaller these days, so few have that suburban totem he found so puzzling, the rotary clothes hoist. From the top of his rise, Waller could look down the valley to see the city that has blossomed from the cold and uncomfortable place he first saw in 1936.

Following that valley to Canberra’s centre, the parliamentary triangle, leads to the truest memorial to these two great diplomats. Just down the hill from the parliament is the Casey building, the headquarters of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the service that Waller and Plimsoll helped create.

Originally published by: on 23 May 2018