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Booker, Malcolm Richard (1915–1998)

by Chad Mitcham

This article was published online in 2022

Malcolm Richard Booker (1915–1998), diplomat and author, was born on 9 August 1915 at Lewisham, South London, younger child of Richard Booker, soldier, and his wife Edith Emilyn, née Brittney. He excelled at Brownhill Road Primary School before migrating to Australia in 1927 with his mother and brother. Richard remained in London and died shortly after his family’s departure. Taking up residence in Haberfield, Sydney, Edith worked in a department store while her children took jobs that paid for their evening tuition at Petersham Intermediate Commercial High School. Malcolm studied Japanese with a private tutor before attending the University of Sydney (BA, 1940) as an evening student, achieving distinction in the language.

By early 1939, Booker was an assistant publicity officer at the Sydney headquarters of the United Australia Party. In March 1940, early in World War II, he joined the Department of Commerce in Canberra. He became private secretary (1940–41) to William Morris Hughes in the former prime minister’s capacity as minister for the navy; later, in his book The Great Professional (1980), he would critically but respectfully assess Hughes’s record, especially his assertive foreign policy. In 1942 he transferred to the Department of External Affairs (DEA). With his language skills, he had hoped to deal with Japanese issues but instead was assigned to Chinese affairs and diplomatic recruitment. In mid-1943 he was posted to Chungking (Chongqing), stopping in India en route to assess the practicalities of opening a post there. He developed a close friendship in Chungking with another junior Australian diplomat, Charles Que Fong Lee, a Chinese-speaker whose ethnicity discomforted some of Booker’s colleagues.

Booker returned to Australia at the beginning of 1945, but in May was posted to the Netherlands to establish an Australian legation at The Hague. He transferred to Berlin in June 1946 as second secretary in the Office of the Australian Political Adviser in Germany (1946–47). There he focused mainly on the resettlement of displaced persons and also on war reparations, and came to see himself as an ‘errand boy to do odd jobs all over Europe’ (1996, 10). He returned to Canberra in early 1948 where, the following year, he was elected one of the department’s councillors for the Australian Capital Territory branch of the Commonwealth Public Service Clerical Association. In June 1950 he was posted as first secretary in Manila. There he met Roxana Jule Tayler, an independent-minded United States of America Foreign Service stenographer. They married in her native Detroit, Michigan, on 1 August 1951, the start of what was to be a long and loving life together.

After returning briefly to Canberra, in March 1952 Booker was posted as chargé d’affaires to Rangoon (Yangon), again tasked with opening an Australian legation. He was back in Canberra in April 1953 as a first secretary in DEA’s overseas diplomatic staff division, and went on to lead the western branch (1953–54), the defence liaison branch (1954–55), and the information branch (1955–56). Heading the South and South-East Asia branch in 1956, he boldly advised the departmental secretary, (Sir) Arthur Tange, that ‘in the long term Australia cannot rely on the [United States] being able to protect us with either conventional or thermo-nuclear weapons’ (Reynolds and Lee 2013, 30). Thus, he argued, Australia needed to consider building up its own conventional forces or acquiring a nuclear capability. In November 1956 he was sent to Washington, initially as counsellor but in late 1958 he was promoted to minister. There he played an important role in the multilateral negotiations that resulted in the Antarctic Treaty of 1959. He was posted in June 1960 to Thailand as ambassador, and in 1962 accompanied King Bhumibol Adulyadej and Queen Sirikit on their visit to Australia.

Returning to Australia in February 1963, he took up an appointment as deputy secretary, Department of Territories, but soon returned to DEA as first assistant secretary (1964–70) of the Asian and United Nations affairs division. He participated in discussions on constitutional arrangements for the Territory of Papua and New Guinea; was critical of inadequate liaison between Australian trade and DEA officials in Japan, remarking that not even the ambassador was properly informed on important trade issues; and successfully argued for Australia’s signature of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Yet he remained firmly opposed, despite growing Western interest, to diplomatic rapprochement with the People’s Republic of China, and encouraged the Holt government in its decision to establish an embassy in Taipei. Despite Booker’s experience and proven abilities, his position on China ruled out any likelihood of his becoming his department’s permanent head under a Whitlam government.

In May 1970 Booker was appointed Australian ambassador to Italy, and in March 1974 transferred to become ambassador to Yugoslavia, where he dealt with such sensitive issues as Croatian extremism in Australia. He objected strongly to the Australian Security Intelligence Organization (ASIO) having sent an agent to the Belgrade embassy without informing him. Boldly, he proceeded with publication of his first book, The Last Domino: Aspects of Australia’s Foreign Relations (1976). In this survey of the historical development of Australian foreign policy he criticised Sir Paul Hasluck, among several other former ministers for external affairs. Given his view that Australia ‘may find itself unable to rely on the military support of allies’ (1976, 13), he argued in favour of armed neutrality and more assertive diplomacy in the Asia-Pacific region. Although unprecedented for a serving officer, Booker had decided against waiting for retirement to openly protest what he saw as an excessively conservative and isolationist government led by Malcolm Fraser.

Booker’s return to Australia in December 1976 was marked not merely by controversy over his refusal to stop publication of The Last Domino, but also by his anger over what he felt was an inappropriate and unfair offer of placement in the Canberra office of what was now the Department of Foreign Affairs as head of the international organisations and protocol division. He declined to accept, and while effectively absent from the department initiated legal action against it and the Public Service Board on claimed grounds of the offer being contrary to the Public Service Act, motivated also by his strong belief that it was influenced by ASIO not acting in the public interest. Mounting legal costs, lack of relevant information from ASIO, and concern that to reveal evidence of his claims would contravene the Official Secrets Act resulted in his abandoning the case and formally retiring in June 1977.

Following his retirement Booker regularly published insightful and often provocative articles on international relations, including in a weekly column for the Canberra Times. He was particularly critical of Australia’s intelligence agencies, and thought that the newly established Office of National Assessments would provide merely ‘politically acceptable’ advice (Canberra Times 1978, 7). In 1978 he published Last Quarter: The Next Twenty-Five Years in Asia and the Pacific (1978), and was appointed a visiting fellow (1978–84) in history at the Australian National University. He became a member of the Australian Labor Party, and was in demand as a speaker and media commentator.

Of medium height, with fair hair and bespectacled blue eyes, Booker had a keenly dry sense of humour. He took a lifelong interest in classical music, poetry, Shakespeare, and drama. Despite operating at high political and diplomatic levels, he resisted the trappings of power and remained unafraid to challenge perceived shortcomings. He saw the public service’s foremost value as its provision of independent advice, and firmly opposed its politicisation. While a distinguished diplomat in his country’s service, he was also ‘ever his own man’ (Sydney Morning Herald 1998, 43). He took his own life in Canberra on 15 July 1998, the same day that Roxana died of cancer, having nursed his beloved wife at their home until the end. Survived by their son and three daughters, they were cremated together on 21 July in Canberra. He was remembered by many as an ‘outspoken voice of conscience and good sense in Australian foreign policy, a loving husband and father, and a gentle and kind man’ (Hull 1998, 5).

Research edited by Stephen Wilks

Select Bibliography

  • Booker, Emily. Personal communication
  • Booker, Malcolm. ‘The First Fifty Years of Australian Diplomacy.’ Canberra Historical Journal 37 (March 1996): 2–11
  • Canberra Times. ‘ONA Called Waste of Time, Money.’ 22 July 1978, 7
  • Doran, Stuart, ed. Documents on Australian Foreign Policy: Australia and Papua New Guinea 1966–1969. Canberra: Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, 2006
  • Fitzgerald, Stephen. Comrade Ambassador: Whitlam’s Beijing Envoy. Carlton, Vic.: Melbourne University Press, 2015
  • Hull, Crispin. ‘Couple Shared Diplomatic World for Decades.’ Canberra Times, 23 July 1998, 5
  • National Library of Australia. MS 10199, Papers of Malcolm Booker
  • Reynolds, Wayne, and David Lee, eds. Documents on Australian Foreign Policy: Australia and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty 1945–1974. Canberra: Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, 2013
  • Summers, Anne. ‘ASIO Surveillance on Embassy Staff.’ National Times (Sydney), 27 February 1978, 14
  • Sydney Morning Herald. ‘Outspoken Booker Ever His Own Man.’ 25 July 1998, 43

Additional Resources

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Citation details

Chad Mitcham, 'Booker, Malcolm Richard (1915–1998)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/booker-malcolm-richard-31923/text39378, published online 2022, accessed online 5 July 2022.

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