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Griffith, Allan Thomas (1922–1998)

by Chad Mitcham

This article was published online in 2022

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Allan Thomas Griffith (1922-1998), foreign policy adviser, was born on 30 May 1922 at Toogoolawah, Queensland, youngest of nine children of Queensland-born parents George Mervyn Griffith, butcher, and his wife Catherine Mary, née Home. Allan, or ‘Griffo’ as he came to be called, spent his early years at Jimna, near Kilcoy. The family endured considerable poverty during the Depression, but in December 1935, while at Jimna State school, he earned a State scholarship to Church of England Grammar School (Churchie), Brisbane. There he achieved mixed results, sitting for the junior public certificate both in 1937 and 1938, and shining in history. Life away from home in a big city proved difficult for him, particularly as school boarding fees forced him into cheaper accommodation. He withdrew from his studies in 1939 to work on farms on the Darling Downs before returning to the Jimna area to manage a grocery store.

During World War II Griffith enlisted in the Royal Australian Air Force on 28 February 1941. Qualifying as a radio operator mechanic, he served in Australia, Papua, Morotai, and Borneo, mainly in signals and radar units. While on active service he determined to complete his matriculation studies and qualify for university entrance. His reading when off duty exposed him to the Christian philosophies and writings of A. J. Russell and Frank Buchman, the beginning of an enduring involvement with Moral Re-Armament (MRA). Doubts that Allied wartime leaders were conducting the political battle in accordance with the principles espoused by such writers spurred his interest in politics. In August 1946 he was discharged with the rank of corporal.

Griffith began studies in 1947 at the University of Melbourne (BA Hons, 1951) through the Commonwealth Reconstruction Training Scheme. At Queen’s College he joined a small circle of ex-servicemen associated with MRA, while studying history, English, and political science. Although history was a lifelong passion, peace building became his great cause. But for his strong desire to find a practical expression for his sense of moral absolutes in international cooperation and reconciliation, he may well have pursued an academic career. Disgusted to find student politics dominated by those he considered Stalinists, he moved away from orthodox Labor values and towards the right. He worked closely with his liberal and Christian peers to control the student representative council, of which he became an elected member. As co-editor of its newspaper, Farrago, he had as his sports editors the budding historian Geoffrey Blainey, and a future State premier, Lindsay Thompson. One of his subeditors was the future State government cabinet minister Jim Ramsay, whose sister, Beatrice Mary, a Melbourne schoolteacher, he would marry at the Frank Paton Memorial Presbyterian Church, Deepdene, Victoria, on 30 November 1957.

After graduating, in April 1951 Griffith joined the Melbourne-based Joint Intelligence Bureau, Department of Defence. The political intellectual and his fellow Methodist Sir Frederic Eggleston recommended him to Prime Minister (Sir) Robert Menzies, and in July 1952 Griffith was promoted to the Prime Minister’s Department (PMD) in Canberra as a research officer. He became special assistant (1953-57) to the permanent head Sir Allen Brown, and subsequently worked (1957-61) in the external relations and defence branch. Griffith attended the Joint Services Staff College, Latimer, Buckinghamshire, England (1958-59), before returning to the branch, becoming deputy assistant secretary (1961-64), and senior adviser (1964-65). In May 1965 he was promoted to assistant secretary. He contributed to PMD’s growing role in foreign policy formulation through direct briefing of the prime minister, to the unease at the time of the Department of External Affairs. In October 1966 he accompanied Prime Minister Harold Holt to the Manila Summit Conference of heads of Asian-Pacific states involved in the Vietnam War. 

Meanwhile, Griffith studied management accounting and economics at the Australian National University (BEc, 1969). He accompanied Prime Minister (Sir) John Gorton to North America in March-April 1969 for talks with the president of the United States of America, Richard Nixon, and the Canadian prime minister, Pierre Trudeau. After serving as acting head of the newly established external relations and defence division of PMD for about a year, on 30 July 1970 Griffith was formally appointed its first assistant secretary. During 1971 he studied at the Royal College of Defence Studies in London.

The Labor government elected in December 1972 was initially mistrustful of Griffith, and it took some time before Prime Minister Gough Whitlam solicited his direct advice. In September 1974 Griffith became acting deputy secretary of what had become the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet (PM&C). Having worked for over two decades on formulating high-level policy on issues as diverse as defence, science, nuclear energy, outer space, disarmament, the Law of the Sea, Australia-Japan relations, environmental issues, foreign aid, Papua New Guinea, and Commonwealth relations, Griffith was by now a ‘PM&C institution’ (Weller, Scott and Stevens 2011, 100). Despite internal criticism of his managerial skills and the impracticality of some of his ideas, his intellect and advice were usually held in high regard.

Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser used the external relations and defence division as a major source of foreign policy advice, including in the drafting of his government’s 1976 foreign policy statement that proposed a greater Australian role in halting Soviet expansion, and using an invigorated Commonwealth of Nations to encourage Asia-Pacific regionalism. In 1977 the division was restructured as the international, intelligence, and security division, still headed by Griffith. He believed that Australia should set an example within the Commonwealth by acting as a ‘bridge of care’ to developing countries and supporting global efforts to resolve north-south inequalities. Although a key figure in PM&C’s prominence in foreign policy, his importance as an adviser may have hindered him from being promoted further. In August 1978 he become special adviser to the prime minister (1978-82), a then unusual appointment that established a precedent. His close relationship with Fraser saw him later dubbed the prime minister’s ‘John the Baptist’ (Farquharson 1998, 18).

Griffith remained a proud Queenslander, and his broad perspectives and diplomatic skills provided a basis for his leading negotiations with the Queensland government on Aboriginal land rights, a Great Barrier Reef marine park, and delineation of the Australian-Papua New Guinea maritime boundary, for which he encouraged the Federal government to seek a negotiated bilateral agreement instead of international legal adjudication. He came to be seen also as Fraser’s ‘ambassador to Queensland’ (Brown 1981, 5). The prime minister also found that his adviser had an aptitude for turning seemingly abstract ideas into credible policy proposals, a notable instance being his contribution as a member of the committee chaired by Owen Harries that produced the seminal report Australia and the Third World (1979). Griffith attended Commonwealth Senior Officials’ conferences (1974, 1976, 1978), and accompanied the prime minister to Commonwealth Heads of Government meetings (1977, 1979, 1981), and to Commonwealth Heads of Government regional meetings (1978, as organiser of this inaugural meeting that was held in Sydney, 1980 and 1982). Press appreciation of his comprehensive briefings led to a degree of public recognition of his skills that was rare for a public servant.

The highlight of Griffith’s career was his role in the Fraser government’s efforts following the 1979 Commonwealth Heads of Government Conference in Lusaka, Zambia, to forge an internationally agreed formula for granting independence to Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe). This ‘contributed to easing Commonwealth tensions’ and to ‘establishing a special connection between Australia and Zimbabwe and other parts of the African Commonwealth’ (Hancock 2011). As his prime minister’s emissary, Griffith shuttled between Canberra, London and African states, and was subsequently a member of the Australian National Observer Group which monitored the elections that preceded Zimbabwean independence in April 1980.

On 26 January 1979 Griffith was appointed AM. He retired from the public service in September 1982, having advised six prime ministers on international relations over a thirty-five-year period. He at once became a paid consultant (1982-83) to both Fraser and his minister for foreign affairs, Tony Street. Griffith also began publishing highly informed newspaper and journal articles on foreign policy. He remained true to his fundamental belief that ‘foreign policy must contain a realistic element of conciliation and compassion’ (Griffith 1988, 14). Strengthening his commitment to MRA, he took a close interest in such initiatives as the 1991 Paris Agreements on Cambodia. Postgraduate studies at the University of Oxford (MLitt, 1993) led to his being awarded the Bapsybanoo Marchioness of Winchester prize for his thesis on ‘Democratic Legitimation in Zimbabwe and Namibia.’ The work formed the basis for his posthumously published Conflict and Resolution: Peace Building Through the Ballot Box in Zimbabwe, Namibia and Cambodia, in which he expanded on his concept of the ‘democratic legitimation package—cease-fire, transitional government and an internationally supervised election toward an agreed constitutional objective’ (1998, ix).

The ever-amiable Griffith was known for his ‘somewhat dishevelled appearance, which belied a brilliant and intuitive mind’ (Wise 2011, 6), the basis of an invaluable ability to disarm adversaries. Having moved to Melbourne following his retirement, he died at Templestowe, Victoria, on 24 November 1998 after a battle with cancer, survived by his wife and their three daughters. He was cremated, with memorial services held at Parliament House, Canberra; Canterbury Presbyterian Church, Melbourne; and Oriel College, Oxford.

Research edited by Stephen Wilks

Select Bibliography

  • Barnett, David. ‘Adviser and One-Man Think-Tank.’ Australian, 7 December 1998, 16
  • Bowers, Peter. ‘Griffo’s Going: Fraser Loses a Third Leg.’ Sydney Morning Herald, 16 January 1982, 13
  • Brown, Wallace. ‘The Crusader Behind Malcolm Fraser.’ Courier-Mail (Brisbane), 8 July 1981, 5
  • Farquharson, John. ‘Obituaries: Allan Griffith AM.’ Sydney Morning Herald, 26 November 1998, 18
  • Griffith, Allan. ‘Forgiveness in World Affairs.’ For a Change 1, no. 9 (1 May 1988): 4-5, 18
  • Griffith, Allan. Conflict and Resolution: Peace Building Through the Ballot Box in Zimbabwe, Namibia and Cambodia. Oxford: New Cherwell Press, 1998
  • Hancock, Ian. Australian Policy Towards Rhodesia/Zimbabwe in 1979-1980, R. G. Neale Lecture Series, 19 May 2011. Canberra: National Archives of Australia and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, 2011
  • National Library of Australia. MS Acc01.114 and MS Acc08.077, Papers of Allan Griffith (1935-1998)
  • Weller, Patrick, Joanne Scott, and Bronwyn Stevens. From Postbox to Powerhouse: A Centenary History of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet 1911-2010. Crows Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 2011
  • Weller, Patrick. Malcolm Fraser PM: A Study in Prime Ministerial Power. Ringwood, Vic.: Penguin Books, 1989
  • Wise, Gordon. ‘Obituary: Allan Griffith.’ Independent (London), 23 October 2011, 6

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Citation details

Chad Mitcham, 'Griffith, Allan Thomas (1922–1998)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/griffith-allan-thomas-444/text39690, published online 2022, accessed online 3 December 2022.

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