Thursday, October 23, 2014

Gough Whitlam: To PLO or Not to PLO 2

"Lionel Bowen appeared to sense that Gough was about to somersault and that Willesee and I were going to be left high and dry, so he took the point that the matter should never have been brought to Cabinet and ought to be left to the Minister for Labor and Immigration. He said, 'Clyde has already said that he is willing to let them in. We should do that if he wants to.' But Gough, no doubt realising that the issue had already gone too far and that it was therefore too late to sweep it under my carpet, reminded Cabinet that both Willesee and I had sought Cabinet's guidance because we feared the consequences of a decision taken either way. There were enough 'hear, hears' around the room to convince Bowen that a decision could not be avoided so he did not persist with his point.

"Bill Hayden took the line I had expected. He said that he would be disappointed if Cabinet decided not to issue the visas. Israel, he said, had been successful in getting its story across in Australia and other countries and the Arabs had been equally unsuccessful. To talk about the PLO threatening the boundaries of Israel, he said, was sheer nonsense because there were no internationally acceptable boundaries of Israel. He argued that the Arabs had been treated quite badly, but as they were accepted into society they would become more responsible. But responsibility, he said, could not be expected from them while the world treated them as terrorists and outlaws. 'We shouldn't play for teams; and so to deny the delegation the right to even put their case would be establishing an unhappy principle.' The Government, he declared, shouldn't allow emotions to overshadow the real issue.

"I had been waiting for Beazley to come into the debate because I wanted to reply to him as I knew his contribution would be a telling one. I had expected him to speak earlier, but apparently he was well satisfied with Wheeldon's contribution. However, Hayden's argument was too persuasive to ignore and Beazley immediately followed. He agreed with Hayden about the emotional issues involved, but took another view. It was not opportune for the PLO to come to Australia now, he argued; neither would he accept a delegation from the IRA while they were responsible for bombings in the UK. 'I mean,' he said, 'that I wouldn't accept IRA supporters as representatives of the IRA while they are planting bombs in London.' For these reasons he was against any of the delegation members being permitted to enter Australia.

"Beazley's speeches were always good, but coming after Wheeldon's, this was something of an anticlimax. It fell far short of what I had expected. But I could tell from Gough's affirmative 'head-nodding' that he had already decided to switch. He was beginning to see the political consequences of his original stance. Joe Riordan was heavily dependent upon Jewish support in his elctorate of Phillip. Joe Berinson was an influential backbencher and shared with Riordan the distinction of being the most powerful backbench debater in Caucus. And there were other reasons: not the least of which of which was the financial backing given to the Leader's fund by Jewish sources. And, in any event, if the decision went against the Arabs, Cabinet anonymity would guarantee that no one would question the reasonable assumption that Gough had been over-ruled.

"I followed Beazley and told Cabinet we would be doing ourselves less than justice if we debated the question in a climate of heat. We ought to look at the question calmly and make an objective assessment of the real issues and reach a rational conclusion. I said that it was not history that was important, but whether we adopted a correct national approach to the principles involved. This called for a sensible and rational understanding of what was being proposed. 'I will clear the visas,' I declared, 'unless Willesee says 'No', and providing they are cleared of any suspicions of being involved in terrorist activities.' I reminded Cabinet of the decision taken on 15 October 1973 in response to a motion put on the notice paper by DLP Senator Kane concerning the Middle East war when it was agreed by the Government that there should be no departure from its neutral and even-handed policy in the Middle East. The government, I said, should not be taking sides in the Middle East dispute and should not be seen to be taking sides either. 'The PLO is fighting a war! War itself is terrorism,' I argued. However, I said I would be prepared to support a deferment of the matter if that would solve anything. 'But deferment would not solve this issue,' I went on, 'we must take it head-on and face the political consequences whatever they may be. If the PLO comes here, the Government will lose votes and we ought to recognise this, but we must not submit to blackmail from any group.'

"For the third time Gough came into the debate. This time, he began ambivalently. He said that he had been put in a non-partisan stance. Freedom of entry and the right of the PLO to be heard were something we ought to support, he said, but lamented the fact that the granting of visas would not get the government any votes. He said he was worried! 'The PLO,' he confided, 'had approached us through diplomatic channels and we put them off.' They are aware that Hartley is not supported by the Government. This was a clever tactic because he knew that most of his Ministers shared his dislike for Hartley. However, only two or three were swayed by their hostility to Hartley. Gough said he recognised that the Palestinians were entitled to have a country of their own 'but if we take Beazley's point, it will exacerbate feelings within the Australian community to allow entry to a delegation from the PLO. However, if we refuse them entry we would also have to deny entry to Zionist groups.' He argued that all PLO members were not terrorists and that Israel was just as intransigent as the PLO. He concluded: 'Although it may be against our principles, I feel we ought to advise the Ministers not to issue visas. These representatives can't tell us anything we don't already know.'

"Once again, Gough had caved in under pressure. He was afraid of the political, rather than the electoral, consequences of standing by proper principles. I was the one who would have been forced to accept the odium for the decision and it made me angry that after leading us to believe he supported our line, he should leave us holding the bag. Even so, I still thought there was a good chance we could win, but I was determined that if we were defeated on the voices I would call for a show of hands and thus force Gough to register a recorded vote."

To be continued...

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