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Geoffrey John Price (1930–1999)

by Chad Mitcham

This article was published online in 2023

Geoffrey John Price (1930–1999), diplomat, was born on 12 June 1930 in Kuala Lumpur, younger child and only son of Victorian-born parents Johanna Louise Christiana Price-Pontifex, née Vockensohn, and her husband Herbert Gordon John Price-Pontifex, mining engineer. His father was manager (1912–42) of the Melbourne-based Kuala Lumpur Tin Mining Company’s operations in Selangor, British Malaya (Malaysia). Geoffrey began his education (1937–38) at St Margaret’s School, Fraser’s Hill, Pahang, before moving to Brisbane to live with an aunt until his parents retired to Toowoomba. He attended the Church of England Grammar School (Churchie), Brisbane (1939), the Church of England Boys’ Preparatory School, Toowoomba (1939–43), and Toowoomba Grammar School (1944-48), where he won prizes for English and languages, and for an original literary work. While at school he was a member of the debating club, president (1948) of the dramatic society, a lieutenant (1947–48) in the school cadet corps, and a regional finalist to represent Australia at the World Youth Forum (1949).

Price went on to the University of Queensland (BA Hons, 1952; DipEd, 1953), where he resided at Emmanuel College and studied literature and modern languages, including French. He also rowed, played tennis, performed in various productions for the university dramatic society, and was the Student Union arts councillor.

In July 1951 Price applied for a Department of External Affairs (DEA) cadetship, receiving a place in January 1953 and moving to Canberra. After an apprenticeship with the DEA’s South-East Asia section, he was posted as third secretary (1955–57) to the Australian legation, Saigon. His presence there coincided with ‘the first unsteady steps of the anti-communist government in South Vietnam’ (Sydney Morning Herald 1999, 25), following the French withdrawal from Indochina. In that role he developed a good understanding of and a strong affection for the Vietnamese people. Returning to Canberra, he became private secretary (1958–59) to the minister for external affairs, Richard (Baron) Casey, accompanying the Australian delegation to the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization’s meeting of foreign ministers in Manila in March 1958. In 1959 he joined the DEA’s intelligence co-ordination branch.

On 30 January 1960, at St Mary’s Catholic Church, North Sydney, Price married Margaret Patricia Tuttell, who had studied at the University of Sydney before becoming a typist for the DEA in 1955. Price was posted as second secretary (1960–63) to the Australian embassy, Paris, then appointed first secretary (1963–66) at the Australian embassy, Vientiane, Laos, where he was interim chargé d’affaires on several occasions and developed close relations with senior Laotian ministers. During his tenure the ongoing Laotian Civil War (1959–75) prompted the United States of America to increase covert operations to counter the influence of communist North Vietnam. Price was also commended for his central role in Australia’s participation in multilateral Foreign Exchange Operations Fund activities aimed at the stabilisation of the Laotian economy.

Returning to Canberra, Price was appointed MBE in January 1967. As acting director (1967–69) of the DEA’s external aid branch, he was a member of Australian delegations, led by the minister for external affairs (Sir) Paul Hasluck, which attended meetings of the consultative committee of the Colombo Plan in Rangoon (1967) and Seoul (1968). In 1969 he was posted as counsellor to the Australian Permanent Mission to the United Nations, Geneva, in which role he represented Australia in New York and at the third session (April-May 1972) of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development in Santiago. Appointed minister-counsellor (1972–73) at the Australian embassy, Paris, in July 1973 he delivered a note to France’s foreign minister protesting French atmospheric nuclear testing in the Pacific. From September he served briefly as chargé d’affaires.

In December 1973 Price was appointed Australian ambassador to the Republic of Vietnam, a most difficult assignment which followed Australia’s full troop withdrawal from the Vietnam War and coincided with a reduction in American economic and military aid to the troubled anti-communist government of South Vietnam. With North Vietnamese forces closing in on Saigon, Price and the remaining Australian embassy staff were airlifted to safety on 25 April 1975. Five days earlier, he had cabled Canberra expressing grave concern for the fate of locally engaged embassy staff, but the Whitlam government refused to evacuate them. Price was thus ‘caught between horrific political and moral pressures’ (Edwards 2006, 13) while carrying out government instructions.

Returning to Canberra and the Department of Foreign Affairs, Price was assistant secretary (1975–76) of the consular and immigration branch, then assistant secretary (1976–77) of the South-East Asia branch, where he worked closely with the ambassador to Indonesia, Richard Woolcott. In May 1976 he helped embassy officials to investigate allegations of Indonesian involvement in the killing of Australian, British, and New Zealand journalists at Balibo, Portuguese Timor (East Timor), in October 1975.

In December 1977, when announcing Price’s appointment (1978–81) as Australian high commissioner to Singapore, the minister for foreign affairs Andrew Peacock described him as ‘an experienced career diplomat with special knowledge and understanding of the region’ (Australian Foreign Affairs Record 1977, 644). In April 1981 he was transferred to the Australian embassy in Washington, DC, as minister and deputy chief of mission (1981–84). He subsequently served as Australian ambassador (1984–87) to the Netherlands and as ambassador (1987–89) then high commissioner (1989–91) to Pakistan. In 1990 he had the sensitive task of announcing the delivery of ex-Royal Australian Air Force fighter jets, purchased by Pakistan in a transaction opposed by India. He also signed an agreement in July 1991 formalising the Hawke government’s 1989 commitment to provide Pakistan with $15 million in economic assistance. After serving as ambassador (1991–94) to Turkey, an increasingly important Australian trading partner, Price retired in June 1994 after forty-one years of service.

At the time of his retirement, Price had the reputation of being ‘ever discreet, as befits a lifetime in diplomacy’ (Abjorenson 1995, 35). On 22 April 1995, however, he publicly criticised the Whitlam government’s handling of the withdrawal from South Vietnam, especially its failure to protect locally engaged embassy staff: ‘We should have been more generous and sympathetic to our loyal employees. Shamefully we were not’ (Price 1995, 6A). Price’s son would later recall ‘my father’s shame at Australia’s petty betrayal of Vietnamese colleagues who had worked alongside him … did remain with him until the day he died’ (Price 2004, 14). His rift with Whitlam deepened in August 1997, when he accused the former prime minister of injudicious haste in recognising the Khmer Rouge regime of Pol Pot in April 1975, even when ‘its atrocities against the Cambodian people … were being reliably reported’ (Price 1997, 16).

Price died suddenly of a heart attack on 1 January 1999 at Greenwich, Sydney, and was cremated. His ashes were interred with the remains of his parents in Bright cemetery, Victoria. He was survived by his wife, his son Christopher, and his daughters Christina and Julia. Colleagues remembered him for his ‘his loyalty, his affability and quirkish sense of humour, his mimetic gift, and his love and extensive knowledge of classical music’ (DFAT News 1999, 7).

Research edited by Samuel Furphy

Select Bibliography

  • Abjorenson, Norman. ‘Goodbye Saigon.’ Canberra Times, 15 April 1995, 35
  • Australian Foreign Affairs Record. ‘Diplomatic Appointments.’ 48, no. 12 (December 1977): 644
  • DFAT News (Canberra). ‘Geoffrey John Price MBE 12 June 1930–1 January 1999.’ 6, no. 3 (8 February 1999), 7
  • Edwards, Peter. The Fall of Saigon, 1975. RG Neale Lecture Series. Canberra: National Archives of Australia and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, 2006
  • Fogarty, Mike. Personal communication
  • National Archives of Australia. A1838, T174, 1260/10/2/P. G. J. Price, Application for Admission to the Department of External Affairs as a Cadet, 1 July 1951
  • Price, Christopher. ‘Last Days of Saigon Still Linger.’ Australian, 4 May 2004, 14
  • Price, Geoffrey. ‘Controversial Departure from Saigon.’ Sydney Morning Herald, 23 July 1997, 14
  • Price, Geoffrey. ‘It Was One of the Most Inept Diplomatic Moves I Saw in My Career.’ Sydney Morning Herald, 22 April 1995, Spectrum 6A
  • Price, Geoffrey. ‘Misnomer.’ Sydney Morning Herald, 12 August 1997, 16
  • Sydney Morning Herald. ‘Geoffrey Price, MBE, Diplomat, 1930–1999.’ 6 January 1999, 25
  • Way, Wendy, ed. Australia and the Indonesian Incorporation of Portuguese Timor, 1974-1976. Documents on Australian Foreign Policy, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Carlton South, Vic.: Melbourne University Pres, 2000
  • Wuchatsch, Robert. ‘Diplomat Geoffrey Price Was a Westgarthtown Descendant.’ Friends of Westgarthtown News 15, no. 1 (April 2011): 2-3

Additional Resources

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Citation details

Chad Mitcham, 'Price, Geoffrey John (1930–1999)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/price-geoffrey-john-32557/text40411, published online 2023, accessed online 21 June 2024.

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