Obituary: Allan Griffith

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
ALLAN GRIFFITH made many notable contributions to global peace- making initiatives, particularly when Foreign Policy Adviser to the Australian prime minister Malcolm Fraser. He worked closely with Fraser throughout his eight years in office, from 1975 to 1983.

On Fraser's behalf, he shuttled between Canberra, London and Africa in a search for an agreed common basis for ending the civil war in Rhodesia and ensuring a peaceful transition from colonial rule to independent Zimbabwe.

The attitude of Nigeria was crucial. During his Canberra years, Griffith had befriended a visiting Nigerian army officer, Olusegan Obasanjo, later to become head of state. The Nigerian leader received Griffith when he was preparing the Australian position for Fraser to take at the approaching Commonwealth Conference at Lusaka.

Fraser and Griffith went to Lagos before Lusaka. Obasanjo's influence in securing African support for the Australian plan was said to have been a decisive factor in Margaret Thatcher's support for the terms of the independence of Zimbabwe. These were subsequently negotiated at the Lancaster House conference in 1979. Griffith's appreciation of Thatcher was typical of him and welcomed by her.

Griffith was bulky, amiable and of somewhat dishevelled appearance, which belied a brilliant and intuitive mind. At a Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Singapore, during the Cold War period, one of the delegates said to an Australian diplomat, "How did that Russian get in here?" The Australian reassured the questioner that the "Russian" was the Foreign Policy Adviser to the Prime Minister. Griffith protested that his suit was not only not of Russian cut, it was from Savile Row, but had been worn on several long flights.

In addition to his strategic overview of Australia's security needs in the Indian Ocean, because of his ability to get on with people he was deployed in domestic issues concerning the then formative governmental policy towards Australia's original inhabitants, the Aborigines. A Queenslander himself, he defused a quarrel between the then touchy State Premier and Canberra concerning the preservation of the fragile and unique Great Barrier Reef.

As early as 1957, Griffith contributed to a new relationship with Japan. The Japanese prime minister, Nobusuke Kishi, was due to visit Canberra, as part of a tour of the region to express apology for Japan's wartime aggression. Some ex-servicemen were angry. Griffith, as a war veteran himself, drafted a resolution of welcome on behalf of the Returned Services League of Australia (Veterans) Canberra Branch acknowledging the past, but looking to the future. This was adopted. The first post-war trade agreement between Australia and Japan was signed the following year.

A Canberra Times editor described Griffith's foreign policy briefings as being as lucid as those of the Prime Minister himself. They were news and not just official handouts. In fact, he served a succession of prime ministers in this capacity as he had a gift for conceiving fruitful initiatives. Yet his origins were modest.

He was the son of a country butcher and grew up in the timber milling village of Jimna, near Brisbane. His post-war university education in Melbourne was provided by the Commonwealth Rehabilitation Training Scheme as he had served in the Royal Australian Air Force, as a wireless operator in Papua New Guinea and Borneo.

In his student years he became associated with Moral Re- Armament, and this experience was a thread running through his career. When he retired, he devoted two years to quiet and effective work at the MRA/UN Center in New York, where he particularly reached out to Papua New Guinea and Cambodia. He was regarded as being a moving spirit in the 1991 Paris Agreement on Cambodia. This had earlier involved offering an outstretched hand to France with whom Australia had somewhat icy relations, due to reaction to France's nuclear tests in the Pacific and her policy on New Caledonia.

Also after retirement, he was invited by Sir Zelman Cowan, former Governor- General of Australia, who had become Provost of Oriel College, Oxford, to pursue graduate studies there. He wrote a thesis on "Democratic Legitimation in Zimbabwe and Namibia", for which he received an MLitt and the Marchioness of Winchester Prize. His book Conflict and Resolution: peace building through the ballot box, a comparative study of the peace process in Zimbabwe, Namibia and Cambodia, was published last month.

This is of current relevance as he argues that settlements in these two countries accelerated the peaceful transition in South Africa and could be applied in other situations.

Gordon Wise

Allan Thomas Griffith, civil servant: born Toogoolawaha, Queensland 30 May 1922; Foreign Policy Adviser to the Prime Minister of Australia 1952-83; married 1958 Mary Ramsay (three daughters); died Melbourne, Victoria 23 November 1998.