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Allan Thomas Griffith (1922–1998)

by John Farquharson

A long-time colleague and friend once called him ‘Malcolm Fraser’s John the Baptist’, an apt description for Allan Thomas Griffith and the role he filled as probably the former Prime Minister’s most effective foreign policy adviser.

He was certainly a trail-blazer and original thinker across a spectrum of high policy as distant as Aborigines, Zimbabwe, North-South relations, Australia’s security in the Indian Ocean and Papua New Guinea. And it was his ability to get on with people who could not always get on with each other and put a reasoned view of Australia’s interests and concerns to leaders, such as President Nixon and others, that led this special foreign-policy adviser to at times become involved in domestic issues.

So it was perhaps not surprising that crusty former Queensland Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen, should have called him, ‘Ambassador to Queensland’. This signified the respect Bjelke-Petersen had for him as he spent endless hours smoothing the way for Federal-State agreements on such matters as the Torres Strait border with Papua-New Guinea, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, Aboriginal land rights and Commonwealth Games sporting contacts. He was once hugged by former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher for his efforts on Fraser’s behalf to find a settlement in then war-ravaged Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe.  At various times, he sat around a conference table and put a reasoned view of Australia’s interests and concerns to US Presidents, Nixon and Reagan. As Foreign Minister, Andrew Peacock not only valued the advice but trusted the judgment of this most unlikely looking  trouble-shooter cum diplomat with an intuitive sensitivity to people and the situations with which he had to deal. The parliamentary press gallery, too, responded to the way Griffith handled briefings on Fraser’s behalf. Reporters appreciated the way he invariably managed to come up with something new which they could write about. Often they came away from briefings convinced that he had a deeper understanding of the subject than the Prime Minister himself.

Griffith’s importance to Fraser, it has been said, was that he could take a basic idea produced by Fraser and turn it into a “reasoned policy which projected Australia to the world in an Australian perspective”. So from an idea by Fraser, filled out in policy terms by Griffith, Professor Owen Harries, who used to write the Prime Minister’s major foreign-policy speeches, would provide the final words. Griffith and Harries, together with David Kemp, now a Howard Government minister, had a hand in drafting Fraser’s 1976 statement laying down the doctrinal foundations for Australia’s foreign policy under his government. Among other things, this argued that the guiding principle for Australia’s role in the world ought to be ‘active and enlightened realism’. Of course, Griffith often came up with policies for initiatives entirely from his own thinking. It was Griffith who encouraged Fraser to have a global approach to foreign policy, for Australia to resist within its power the ambitions of the Soviet Union and to persuade the industrialised Western nations to help the poorer ones of the Third World.

What made Griffith’s advice so valuable to Fraser was that it crystallised an overview shaped by an unbroken 30 years or more, covering almost the entire sweep of Australia’s post-war foreign policy.

His influential role in the halls of power was a far cry from his humble Queensland beginnings.  Born at Toogoolawah, on May 30, 1922, Griffith was the son of a butcher who was a pioneer leader in the meat industry. He grew up in the timber-milling village of Jimna, near Brisbane. Doing well at Jimna’s one-teacher primary school, he went on, with a scholarship, to Brisbane Church of England Grammer School (Churchie). But for the boy from the bush the abrupt lifestyle change was too much. For a while he worked on a Darling Downs dairy farm, then ran a grocery store in the Jimna area before joining the RAAF in World War II.

He became a wireless operator, but sweating it out in the jungles of Papua New Guinea and Borneo, as the war progressed, he felt he had to get a proper education. Arranging for books to be sent to him, he began studying for the matriculation exam. Once over that hurdle, he enrolled at Melbourne University. Entering Queen’s College, he studied under the Commonwealth Rehabilitation Training Scheme (CRTS) for a Bachelor of Arts degree majoring with honours in political science.

Finding student life permeated with a strong communist influence, he and several like-minded friends decided to try and break it. Among the group were men who were to make their names in politics, including Ivor Greenwood (Attorney-General in the Fraser Government before his death) and Alan Jarman who was also to become a Federal Liberal MP. Campaigning as an independent Christian voice with the slogan, ‘If you don’t vote for me, I won’t get on’, Griffith was elected to the Student Representative Council. He became editor of the student newspaper, Farrago, where his two sporting editors were Lindsay Thompson, who became a premier of Victoria, and Geoffrey Blainey, the historian. A sub-editor was Jim Ramsay, later a Victorian Cabinet minister, whose sister, Mary, Griffith married in 1957.

After completing university, he did a brief stint in the Defence Department before joining the Prime Minister’s Department in 1952 on the strength of a recommendation to Menzies from Sir Frederic Eggleston, Liberal thinker and former diplomat, who had ‘spotted’ Griffith as a likely talent as he was going through his political science course. At PM’s Griffith became personal assistant to its permanent head, (Sir) Allen Brown. Through the 1960s and early 1970s he worked in the department’s external relations branch, becoming a first assistant secretary. Subsequently the branch became the international affairs division. With the advent of the Whitlam Government, Griffith found himself on the outer, seen by Labor as Tory-minded, and his association with Moral Re-Armament, dating from his war-service years, did not help either.

But when Fraser became Prime Minister after the Whitlam Government’s dismissal, he soon discovered Griffith and made him a special adviser. His first tough assignment was the Torres Strait border treaty which required delicate handling to satisfy the interests of both Queensland and PNG. Under the Whitlam Government moves had been made to refer the question to the international court. Perceiving the danger in this, Griffith swung the Fraser Government to opt for a negotiated settlement. When a treaty acceptable to both parties was finally negotiated, Andrew Peacock, then Foreign Minister, sent Griffith a note, ‘I would be grateful if you would accept a copy of this treaty. Its successful conclusion owes much to your efforts’.

Beside earning Bjelke-Petersen’s respect, that cemented the trust that Fraser and his ministers began to place in Griffith. But the greatest satisfaction in his life was the Zimbabwe peace settlement. No public servant had a greater involvement in this than Griffith. It involved negotiations over some four months in London and Lusaka paving the way for a peace settlement. After Margaret Thatcher made a speech committing her government to it, Griffith, on passing her in a corridor, said, ‘First-class’. Thatcher, turned and said, ‘What did you say?’ When he repeated his remark, the iron lady took him in her arms and hugged him.

Though he did not get the advancement he undoubtedly deserved within his department, Griffith was yet able to leave a significant imprint on the formulation of Australia’s foreign policy. As well as doing some consulting work after retirement, he continued in his quiet way to work, through his association with Moral Re-Armament, on sensitive international questions, such as the Namibia and Cambodian settlements.

With encouragement from Sir Zelman Cowen, then Provost of Oriel College, he took himself to Oxford University which awarded him a M. Litt for his thesis, ‘Democratic Legislation in Zimbabwe and Namibia’. Recently while back at Oxford completing a shortly to be published book based on the thesis, he was made a Visiting Fellow of Oriel College.

A warm-hearted, generous man, steadfast in friendship and devoted to his family, Allan Griffith bore the illness that led to his death with great fortitude. He is bound to live long in memory and story.

His wife, Mary, three daughters, Catherine (Taylor), Julia (Smith) and Megan, and a brother, Ken, survive him.

Allan Thomas Griffith, born May 30, 1922; died November 24, 1998.

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John Farquharson, 'Griffith, Allan Thomas (1922–1998)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 29 May 2024.

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