Malcolm Booker who died on July 15, was an out-spoken voice of conscience and good sense in Australian foreign policy, a loving husband and father, and a gentle and kind man.
He was a diplomat and foreign-affairs officer for 35 years and for two decades until his death wrote a weekly foreign-affairs column for The Canberra Times which provoked the powerful, and gave a different perspective on foreign affairs to a wide range of readers.
Mr Booker was 82.
His wife, Roxana, who died after a long battle with cancer aged 71 was born and educated in Michigan. She died on July 15. After university she joined the US State Department and was posted to Manila, where the young Malcolm Booker had a two-year posting as first secretary from 1950 to 1952.
Daughter Emily described a friend of her mother saying: “”Malcolm saw her and that was it. He could not leave her side. And it was the same for her. It was beautiful — the little girl from Michigan met the man from Downunder and I remember their engagement party on the peak in Hong Kong.”
They shared the diplomatic world together, but were never taken in by its pomposities.
Mr Booker was Charge d’Affaires in Rangoon from 1952-53. Later he became a fierce advocate for Burmese democracy, even if it meant clashing with those in powerful positions in Australia who had truck with the military regime. He was Ambassador to Italy (1970-74) and to Yugoslavia, Romania and Bulgaria (1974-76).
In Romania, one of his duties was to accompany Prime Minister Gough Whitlam during his visit. On a trip to the Black Sea he was obliged to swim out some distance with Gough, not for the exercise, but in order to give him a run-down on Romania away from the prying ears of Ceausescu’s electronic bugging devices.
On his return from Yugoslavia, he published The Last Domino. It argued against reliance on the American alliance because, among other things, America would not come to the assistance of Australia if that meant a nuclear attack on its cities.
He was strongly anti-nuclear (when it was not so fashionable) and argued for armed neutrality and a more independent, principled foreign policy for Australia. These were arguments he took up in his weekly column for The Canberra Times, along with other themes like expunging short-term national self-interest as the basis for policy. His stand often provoked the ire of both Australian and foreign politicians, diplomats, public servants and spokespeople for pressure groups, but earned the support of many ordinary readers.
He engaged his critics without animosity.
He had a memorable spat with Prime Minister Bob Hawke over the latter’s fulsome support of the US in the Iraq war, which Booker opposed with rigor and intelligence. Hawke referred to Booker as a “”tin-pot diplomat” and an “”irrelevancy”. Booker did not rise to the bait, rather saying: “”I saw him on the golf course the other day and he gave me a cheery wave,” and impishly pointing out that “”by his (Hawke’s) attacks he gave me a good media run that I would not have otherwise got with my anti-war sentiments.”
Despite the interaction with the politically powerful and glamorous world of diplomacy, for Malcolm and Roxana, each other, children and family came first. In his last message to his children, Malcolm quoted the words T. S. Eliot’s gave to Becket: “I am not in danger; only near to death.” He had told his children he would see Roxana through to the end. “”We can all tell ourselves that we did everything we could. I go now in peace to join her.”