Don Willesee

Donald Robert Willesee (14 April 1916  9 September 2003) was an Australian politician, a member of the Australian Senate for 25 years representing Western Australia, and a Cabinet minister in the Whitlam government.[1][2]

Don Willesee
Minister for Foreign Affairs
In office
6 November 1973  11 November 1975
Prime MinisterGough Whitlam
Preceded byGough Whitlam
Succeeded byAndrew Peacock
Senator for Western Australia
In office
22 February 1950  11 November 1975
Personal details
Born(1916-04-14)14 April 1916
Derby, Western Australia
Died9 September 2003(2003-09-09) (aged 87)
Joondalup, Western Australia
Political partyAustralian Labor Party
Spouse(s)Gwendoline Clark
RelationsJanet Shaw (granddaughter)
ChildrenMike Willesee, Terry Willesee
OccupationPostal clerk

Early life

Willesee was born in Derby, Western Australia, to Ethel May (née Flinders) and William Robert Willesee, who were originally from South Australia. His older brother, Bill Willesee, was a state parliamentarian. Willesee was educated at state and convent schools at Carnarvon in the same state. He left school at 14 (his father and brother had lost their jobs during the Great Depression), to work as a postal clerk in Carnarvon, and immediately joined the Australian Union of Postal Clerks and Telegraphists. He eventually became state secretary of this organisation. He later worked as a telegraphist in Perth. In 1940 he married Gwendoline Clarke.[3]

Political career

Willesee joined the Australian Labor Party when he was 21 and was elected as a senator for Western Australia in 1950 at the age of 33, the youngest Australian senator elected up to that time. He worked with Whitlam to reform the Labor Party prior to the 1972 election.[3][4] According to Kim Beazley he was a "... key assistant to Gough Whitlam as he set about the task of restructuring the Labor Party ... and made an intelligent, brilliant rabble fit for government."[5]

Following the 1972 election, Willesee was appointed as Special Minister of State, Vice-President of the Executive Council, Minister assisting the Prime Minister and Minister assisting the Minister for Foreign Affairs in the second Whitlam Ministry (which followed the "two-man Ministry" from 5 December to 19 December 1972). As Special Minister of State he endorsed the establishment of a computerised library information system to connect national, state and university libraries, which has continued to evolve.[6]

Whitlam relinquished the position of Minister for Foreign Affairs to him on 30 November 1973 and in this period he had the major responsibility of implementing the Whitlam government's, ambitious new foreign policy directions, which included improving relations with Asia. For Willesee, this meant Australia taking a more pragmatic approach to international affairs; in a speech to the Australian Institute of International Affairs in June 1974 he declared: "the first duty of Government is to recognise and comprehend the world as it actually is, not as we might conceive or wish it to be. That is a cardinal principle of the way this Government has approached foreign policy. Australia, if it is to serve national interests in an effective manner, can no longer afford to impose on international events interpretations at variance with the facts."[7]

This approach translated into action in various ways, on 26 February 1973, Willesee led the push to recognise the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, and directed the establishment of the Australian Embassy in Hanoi in July 1973. A new Embassy in East Berlin was also established in East Germany in March 1975 following recognition of the GDR in 1973, as well as a new Embassy in Pyongyang, North Korea on 30 April 1975.

Willesee was opposed to Indonesia's invasion of East Timor and is quoted as having said in 1975:

There is no doubt that Gough felt East Timor should be incorporated within Indonesia. I just believed we should have left the decision to the East Timorese, without any suggestions or trying to lead them to Indonesia. That was the difference between myself and Gough.

Don Willesee[3]

He did not stand for re-election at the 1975 double dissolution election.


Willesee died in Joondalup Hospital, Joondalup, two weeks after a heart attack, survived by his wife Gwen, and their six children, Colleen, Mike, Terry, Geraldine, Don junior and Peter.[8] Through Terry, he was the biological paternal grandfather of author and cyclist Janet Shaw. He was the last surviving member of the 1950-1955 Senate.

At his death, the Prime Minister said:

In my acquaintance with him—and I know I speak for those of my party and the National Party who dealt with him when he was a member of parliament—he was a friendly, decent, courteous and forthright man, whom we respected across the political divide.

According to the leader of the opposition at the time,

Don was a great human being, a man of immense integrity. He was much loved by his staff, a passionate Labor man who never forgot the effects of the Great Depression. He never walked past a homeless kid without digging deep into his pockets.


  1. Oliver, Bobbie. "WILLESEE, Donald Robert (1916–2003)". The Biographical Dictionary of the Australian Senate. Commonwealth of Australia. Retrieved 8 March 2018.
  2. Edwards, Peter (29 July 2016). "Australia's forgotten foreign minister: Don Willesee". The Strategist. Australian Strategic Policy Institute. Retrieved 8 March 2018.
  3. John, Howard (10 September 2003). "Condolences: Willesee, Hon. Donald Robert". Hansard. Parliament of Australia. Archived from the original on 24 May 2011. Retrieved 22 September 2007.
  4. Crean, Simon (10 September 2003). "Condolences: Willesee, Hon. Donald Robert". Hansard. Parliament of Australia. Archived from the original on 24 May 2011. Retrieved 22 September 2007.
  5. Beazley, Kim (10 September 2003). "Condolences: Willesee, Hon. Donald Robert". Hansard. Parliament of Australia. Archived from the original on 24 May 2011. Retrieved 22 September 2007.
  6. Anderson, John (10 September 2003). "Condolences: Willesee, Hon. Donald Robert". Hansard. Parliament of Australia. Archived from the original on 24 May 2011. Retrieved 22 September 2007.
  7. "Foreign Minister outlines agenda for the Seventies" (Press release). Department of Foreign Affairs. 15 June 1974.
  8. Stephens, Tony (10 September 2003). "Labor star Willesee dies at 87". The Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved 22 September 2007.
Political offices
Preceded by
Nick McKenna
Leader of the Opposition in the Senate
Succeeded by
Lionel Murphy
New title Special Minister of State
Succeeded by
Lionel Bowen
Preceded by
Alan Hulme
Vice-President of the Executive Council
Succeeded by
Frank Stewart
Preceded by
Gough Whitlam
Minister for Foreign Affairs
Succeeded by
Andrew Peacock
Party political offices
Preceded by
Nick McKenna
Leader of the Australian Labor Party in the Senate
Succeeded by
Lionel Murphy
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