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Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

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Booker, Malcolm Richard (1915–1998)

by Crispin Hull

Malcolm Booker who died on July 15, was an outspoken voice of conscience and good sense in Australian foreign policy, a loving husband and father, a gentle and kind man.

He was a diplomat and foreign affairs officer for 35 years and for two decades until his death, wrote a weekly foreign-affairs column for The Canberra Times which provoked the powerful, and gave a different perspective on foreign affairs to all readers.

Mr Booker was 82.

He met his wife Roxana during his first posting to Manila, as first secretary between 1950 and 1952.

Roxana, who died after a long battle with cancer, aged 71, was also a career diplomat. She was on her first posting at the US Embassy in Manila. Roxana was born and educated in Michigan. She died on July 15.

Daughter Emily described a friend of her mother saying, "Malcolm saw her and that was it. He could not leave her side. And it was the same for her. It was beautiful — the little girl from Michigan met the man from Downunder and I remember their engagement party on the Peak in Hong Kong." They shared the diplomatic world together, but were never taken in by its pomposities.

Mr Booker was Charge d'Affaires in Rangoon from 1952-53. He later became a fierce advocate for Burmese democracy, even if it meant clashing with those in powerful positions in Australia who had truck with the military regime. He was ambassador to Italy (1970-74) and to Yugoslavia, Romania and Bulgaria (1974-76).

In Romania, one of his duties was to accompany then prime minister Gough Whitlam during his visit. On a trip to the Black Sea he was obliged to swim out some distance with Mr Whitlam, not for the exercise, but to give him a run-down on Romania away from the prying ears of Ceausescu's electronic bugging devices.

On his return from Yugoslavia, he published The Last Domino. It argued against reliance on the American alliance because, among other things, the US would not come to the assistance of Australia if that meant a nuclear attack on its cities.

He was strongly anti-nuclear (when it was not so fashionable) and argued for armed neutrality and a more independent, principled foreign policy for Australia. These were arguments he took up in his weekly column for The Canberra Times, along with other themes like expunging short-term national self-interest as the basis for policy.

He engaged his critics without animosity.

He had a memorable exchange with former prime minister Bob Hawke over the latter's cloying support of the US in the Iraq war, which Mr Booker opposed with rigour and intelligence. Mr Hawke referred to Mr Booker as a "tin-pot diplomat" and an "irrelevancy". Mr Booker did not rise to the bait, rather saying, "I saw him on the golf course the other day and he gave me a cheery wave," and impishly pointing out that "by his [Hawke's] attacks he gave me a good media run that I would not have otherwise got with my anti-war sentiments." Despite the interaction with the politically powerful and glamorous world of diplomacy, for Malcolm and Roxana, each other, children and family came first. In his last message to his children, Malcolm quoted the words T. S. Eliot gave to Beckett, "I am not in danger; only near to death."

He had told his children he would see Roxana through to the end. "We can all tell ourselves that we did everything we could. I go now in peace to join her."

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Citation details

Crispin Hull, 'Booker, Malcolm Richard (1915–1998)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/booker-malcolm-richard-31923/text40068, accessed 8 December 2022.

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