When Professor Glenda Sluga introduces Michael Sexton to the audience at the SWF Curiosity Stage on Thursday afternoon, she describes him is a witness to history. The NSW Solicitor General has certainly had a long involvement with politics and public administration, and seen close up and personally some of the biggest upheavals in Australian politics as well as some landmark legal cases. His own books have caused controversy, including his account of the Whitlam Government, where he worked as a ministerial advisor, and his revelations of how Australia muscled in on the Vietnam War.
His latest book, On the Edges of History, is a memoir exploring his life between “law, books and politics”. He was born in 1946, which “marks him chronologically as one of the first of the post-war baby-boomers”. Mr Sexton’s father was a lawyer, and Michael followed in his footsteps at Melbourne University. This was during the time of strong feelings and action around Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War. However, he told the audience, even if he was against the war, the majority of his friends were in favour, and “it didn’t stop me getting along with them.” According to him, that time was more tolerant than today.
Later, he witnessed two of the defining moments in the 1970s. He was at Munich in 1972, for the Summer Olympics, when on September 5 and 6 the Palestinian terrorist group Black September kidnapped and killed 11 athletes and officials and a police officer: “We were there to witness all this” he said. The next year he went to work in Washington DC. His office was one block away from the White House and he saw close up the decline of President Richard Nixon after the Watergate scandal. “It was an extraordinary time to be in Washington,” he said.
He returned to Australia and went to work for the Whitlam government. His book, A War for the Asking: Australia’s Vietnam Secret, was published in 1981. It was republished in 2002, with some changes, including the subtitle: How Australia invited itself to Vietnam. The documents that he used were diplomatic cables between Canberra and Washington, showing the government’s anxiety that the US would do a deal with North Vietnam, and that then Prime Minister Menzies urged the US to take Australian troops. “Although the material was highly classified and haven’t been released publicly, there didn’t seem to be any question here about its publication involving danger to national security”. For him, it was historical material.
He told the audience Australia decided to be involved in the conflict in Vietnam for two reasons: concern about Indonesia and Australia’s security, and the alliance between Australia and the United States; we wanted the US to have a presence in South-East Asia. He personally believed that it was a war that couldn’t be won, and he recalls General Charles De Gaulle told John F. Kennedy that like France, they would be defeated. With his law background Mr Sexton knew that if the book had publicity before the publication, the government could take action against him, because even if it was not a danger for national security, it was still classified document and embarrassing for some people. So he decided to publish it before any publicity.
Mr Sexton moved on to talk about the “remarkable year” of 1975 and the infamous month of November, when Governor General John Kerr dismissed the Prime Minister Gough Whitlam. He said if John Kerr had “told Whitlam what he might have to do … the outcome would have been quite different from Kerr’s point of view”. He said perhaps the result would have been the same, but perhaps Kerr would be not seen as the most responsible. “Malcolm Fraser started the exercise, a very cynical attempt to gain power before the next election was due. He is in many ways, of course, the person most responsible for these events”, he said. Mr Sexton’s book Illusions of Power: The fate of a reform government, was published in 1979, and again, republished in 2005 under another title, The Great Crash: The short life and sudden death of the Whitlam government. He told the audience he had sympathy for the Whitlam government but at the same time he had to be critical.