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Trouble-Shooter With a Silencer

Behind every great man there is a public servant. Allan Griffith advised six Australian Prime Ministers on foreign policy.

When Allan Griffith retired as special adviser to Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser, a headline in The Sydney Morning Herald said that Fraser was 'losing a leg'. More than many 'faceless' public servants, Griffith has made his own distinctive mark in world circles.

Chief Anyaoku, the Deputy Secretary of the Commonwealth, calls him a 'genuine, tireless internationalist who flogs himself hard'. Another distinguished diplomat says: 'Griffith has the milk of human kindness. He is a smoother of troubled waters.' The Herald's Peter Bowers says, 'Part of Griffith's negotiating strength is that he manages to get on with people who can't get on with each other. He is a trouble-shooter fitted with a silencer. Griffith never goes off with a bang.'

According to Bowers, 'Reporters on an overseas trip with Fraser would often leave a Griffith briefing convinced that he had a deeper understanding of the subject than the Prime Minister himself.' He cites an occasion in Mexico City when Griffith injured himself by accidentally colliding with a laundry basket in a hotel corridor. 'With Griffith laid up, Fraser briefed reporters on the important but deadening North South dialogue. Fraser got upset when a reporter complained there was nothing to write about. Griffith, who is genuinely moved by the North-South issue, would have found something new to say to spark reporters' interest. Griffith's importance to Fraser is that he can take a raw idea produced instinctively by Fraser and turn it into reasoned policy.'

Griffith is no Sir Humphrey Appleby. But colleagues agree that his somewhat messy appearance and friendly manner give him a unique charm. Bowers describes him as 'a crumpled, dumpy, untidy figure with an immaculately tidy intellect'.

Griffith advised six Prime Ministers, from Sir Robert Menzies to Malcolm Fraser, over 31 years. They trusted him, said a former colleague, because of 'his fine brain, his sincere, no-nonsense approach and his ability to think clearly and pragmatically under pressure'. If Fraser, known as a hard taskmaster, telephoned in the middle of the night, Griffith would be able (and willing) to respond. All good qualifications for any career civil servant, but Griffith does not have the hallmarks of sycophancy or ambition. His body-shaking laugh erupts whatever company he is in.

He was born in 1922 in Toogoolawah, a tiny village in the Queensland bush, one of seven sons of a butcher who supplied meat to timber-cutters. His early education was at a one-teacher school in a nearby saw milling town called Jimna, where his father was a pioneer union leader in the meat industry. He won a scholarship to Brisbane's prestigious Church of England Grammar School, but was unhappy there among the sons of the social set, and left as soon as he could. He milked cows, harvested wheat and ran a country store.

In World War II, he joined the Australian Air Force, was trained as a wireless operator and sent to the jungles of Papua New Guinea and Borneo. Most young Australians in this horrific phase of the war, Griffith says, had 'no thought of ever returning'. Impenetrable undergrowth provided almost total cover for enemy snipers, paths had to be hacked out inch by inch, the army's heavy guns and equipment manhandled along thick muddy trails up steep mountainsides. Tropical disease was rampant. Conditions were a little better by the time the Air Force arrived, but of Griffith's five best friends, only two survived. One of them, later captured and executed by the Japanese, gave Griffith a book called For Sinners Only.

The title was not one you would expect to appeal to a tough young man from the back blocks, but Griffith read it with close attention. It was an unusual book made up of stories of people trying out the possibility that God has a destiny for every individual and can give ideas about how to deal with difficult situations.

The first such 'fragile thought' that came to Griffith was that he should 'acquire a bit more learning'. He began with algebra, of all subjects, because he was bad at maths and, suspected that the future would belong to those who felt at home with figures, statistics, economics. While the fighting continued around him, he sat exams by correspondence and matriculated.

Having survived the conflict, however, he did not make straight for university. He worked for some months in a factory and then applied for Australia's first political science course, at Melbourne University, partly because this required less academic preparation than other subjects.

The campus, as elsewhere in those days, was a hot-bed of political controversy. 'Enormous sacrifices had been made in the fight against fascism and military dictatorships to re-establish the concepts of a free society,' he says. 'It was quite appalling to come out of the world I emerged from and find student politics dominated by Stalinists.' Griffith linked up with others of democratic and Christian conviction, and they were elected to a majority on the student council, with Griffith as editor of the student newspaper, Farrago. Their aim was that 'every philosophic view should be able to contend for the mind of the university'.

On graduation he was immediately headhunted for a government job and by 1951 was in the cabinet office in Canberra.

Five years later Griffith was sharing a small suburban house with three other young men. They entertained an American visitor, Frank Buchman, whose work of Moral Re-Armament Griffith had read about in For Sinners Only. Buchman, in his seventies and partly crippled, had been invited to Australia by distinguished committee members of the Olympic Games, held that year in Melbourne. But rather than seeking dates with public figures, he preferred to eat his meals with Griffith and his friends.

Buchman had a wide knowledge of world affairs, and over the meal table they discussed such subjects as racism in the United States or independence movements in Africa. Griffith was deeply impressed by 'Buchman's determination to do something about segregation, even though he often didn't know at the time what'.

'Buchman,' Griffith recalls, 'always had the view that if the people at the heart of a problem were ready to change their basic attitudes, then the problem would tend towards a solution. He was very clear that people needed to turn their wills to listen to God. He did not pretend that lasting social change would come by any other means. I don't think so either, that is if we are talking about stabilized change.'

As a small step of change in himself, Griffith apologized to a colleague whom he had treated less than honestly. Soon afterwards, this colleague asked him to help draft an important resolution for a conference of the Returned Soldiers' League, of which he was the Canberra branch president. It called on the RSL to review its policy on Japan so as to build constructive relationships in the Asian Pacific region. The resolution was passed just as Japanese Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi was about to visit Australia. It helped create an atmosphere in which he was welcomed nationally, despite the intense bitterness of former soldiers who like Griffith had fought through the jungle campaigns.

Kishi spoke to the Australian parliament and apologized for what Japan had done during the war. Within a few years, Japan was Australia's largest trading partner and wartime hatred was largely left behind.

In 1957 Griffith married Mary Ramsay, a secondary school teacher, whose quiet, down-to-earth sense of humour provides a foil to Griffith's occasionally high-flown conversation. Of their three daughters, one is also a teacher, another a student of genetics and the third won rapid promotion in a state bureaucracy because of her passionate and innovative ideas about what to do about unemployment.

As their children became teenagers the Griffiths built a modern home which blended successfully with Canberra's bush-like atmosphere. A Saturday afternoon visitor at that time might find this distinguished professional adviser dressed in old clothes watching football on television while listening simultaneously to opera on his stereo - none of which would prevent him explaining some world hot spot to his guest. The weekend idyll might easily be interrupted, though, by his departure, with or without the current Prime Minister, for London, Washington, Tokyo or some Pacific island.

When Gough Whitlam led the Labor Party to office after a 23-year gap, he brought his own advisers with him. Griffith applied his mind to a border dispute with Papua New Guinea, which was about to become independent. Queensland's northern coastline had been drawn in the 1880s only a few yards south of some Papua New Guinean beaches, and the issue was about to be referred to the International Court of Justice.

Helping sort this out took Griffith a year's work. He talked with Papua New Guinean leaders and with Joh Bjelke Petersen, Queensland's controversial Premier with whom Whitlam was at loggerheads. A settlement was worked out on the basis of an environmentally-protected zone shared by the traditional peoples of Australia in the Torres Strait.

Petersen, who even christened Griffith 'Canberra's ambassador to Queensland', also agreed to proclaim the Great Barrier Reef as a marine park. Griffith is no recent passenger on the 'green bandwagon'. His worries over ecological destabilization began when as a boy he watched timber-cutters chopping down irreplaceable virgin pine forest.

Malcolm Fraser's campaign to change world marketing arrangements to help meet the needs of the Third World is still close to Griffith's heart. 'The problem cannot just be solved,' he says, 'by throwing money in every direction. There needs to be a restructuring of institutional relationships. The big question is whether the US under Bush will rethink its position on a comprehensive response to Third World need.'

Griffith's varied talents were to be used to the full during the negotiations leading to the independence of Zimbabwe.

'In the run-up to the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Lusaka in 1979,' he recalls, 'Australia played an important part in inducing the expectation that Britain was actively prepared to seek an answer on the basis of majority rule to the seven-year war.'

The elections which had just brought Margaret Thatcher to office for the first time had been fought on the basis that Britain would recognize the Muzorewa government. This could have irreparably damaged relations between Britain and the rest of the Commonwealth. Griffith's job was to work with Fraser to liaise between all parties involved, including the British and Australian governments, and to counter the prevailing belief that neither Mrs Thatcher nor a sufficient number of her party were prepared to support majority rule in Rhodesia/Zimbabwe. Australian estimates indicated that there was in fact the political will in Britain for such a settlement, and this was conveyed to the rebels fighting in the Rhodesian bush, via the front-line states such as Zambia and Tanzania.

'In Britain and the Commonwealth,' Griffith says, 'there were two groups of doubters to be convinced. Some believed any such settlement would produce a black dictatorship - probably Communist. Others believed negotiations would inevitably be unsuccessful, which would have meant a loss of reputation on all sides.'

Griffith believed otherwise. 'There was a sense that a moment of history had arrived,' he says. 'Lord Carrington, the British Foreign Secretary, was known as a man of skill and experience. His thinking was clear, his motives straight.' In September 1979 Carrington, Ian Smith, Bishop Muzorewa and Patriotic Front leaders including Robert Mugabe sat down together at Lancaster House in London. Elections which followed in March 1980 passed off largely peacefully and Mugabe's ZANU party won a landslide victory.

Looking back on the Zimbabwe experience, Griffith says: 'A lot can be accomplished if the timing is right. Much more has to be done to focus critical opportunities when they arise. We don't need to encase ourselves in the concrete of pessimism. It is the job of governments to create understanding about the basic materials of solutions.'

Chief Anyaoku calls Griffith 'a very caring person, always anxious to focus on reconciliation, though never out of expediency where principles have to be compromised'. In the search for a Zimbabwean settlement he seems to have refused to be unsettled by difficulties and to have tried to 'connect the strengths' of different participants and seek positive (if 'fragile') next steps.

Before the Lusaka conference began he took his Prime Minister and Foreign Minister to meet Nigeria's President Obasanjo, whom he had entertained years before as a visitor to Canberra. 'I suddenly began getting greetings from the Head of State's office. I had to look back through my address book to make sure this was the same man.'

Griffith is known for his willingness to give everyone a respectful hearing, and is not above telling the occasional story against himself. At Lusaka, he felt sore at being left out of a meeting to which he had expected to be invited. Sitting in the hotel lobby he was approached by a London Daily Express journalist who asked whether Mrs Thatcher was not doing a U-turn. Griffith was able to argue that the reverse was true, and the Express welcomed the Lusaka developments next day with front-page banner headlines.

Griffith makes no secret of his religious convictions. For many years he was an elder in a Canberra Presbyterian church. Religious experience, he believes, stops people being big-headed, but he does not maintain that only the converted are non-egoistic. God, he feels, can be present in 'great, stabilized change' without the motivators of this change being fully aware of it. 'It's so easy to presume God is only working in your neck of the woods. God is a more universal force.' When Robert Mugabe and Ian Smith held a peacemaking meeting immediately after the Zimbabwe election results were announced, Griffith is quoted by the first Commonwealth Secretary-General Arnold Smith as speaking of 'divine intervention'.

'For stable change,' he says, 'you need the continuing presence of people who are committing themselves to a moral quality of life, who are motivated by concern for others not personal ambition.'

Retired now, Griffith still takes any chance he can to contribute to international thinking. In May-June 1989 he travelled to Zimbabwe, Namibia and South Africa. Between such engagements he is based in Oxford, where he is an honorary member of Oriel College. East-West developments is one matter to which he gives close attention.

He is encouraged by George Bush's performance since he took office. 'He is a good listener who likes to weigh things carefully, and is sensibly taking his time.' He also believes that Gorbachev is a positive element, and is glad that the East-West dialogue has acquired a person-to-person flavour. He believes a leader's personality can sometimes be a more crucial factor than ideology in changing situations.

'Before Gorbachev', he says, 'we were defending democracy in the world. Now in East Europe people are demanding it - as they were, before this recent crackdown, in China.' He hopes that the process will be allowed to take the time it requires. 'The change from a monolithic to a pluralistic structure can never be easy, and no-one wants to see destabilized situations.'

He refers again to what he experienced in Zimbabwe. 'Every problem is different. The formulae for solving them are different. And the need in every case is for the will to settle on the basis of what is right.'

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Publishing permission refers to the rights of FANW to publish the full text of this article on this website.