We have been recently saddened by the passing of Gough Whitlam. I thought this week I would like to share with you some thoughts about his influence and his legacy and how he impacted me personally.
We all interpret the world through what I call our “worldview”. Our politics in particular are greatly influenced by our worldview. So before I begin this essay let me try and inform you of the shaping factors that have influenced my own political world view.
I come from a working class family all of which have been die-hard Labor supporters. My father was heavily involved in union activities and was elected to local government as a Labor candidate. Not surprisingly in my youth and young adulthood I had the same zeal for the Labor cause. As I matured as an adult I became more discerning about my political beliefs. I am now largely a swinging voter and more inclined to vote according to the offerings of the various parties at respective elections. But it would be true to say, much to the chagrin of my siblings, that I am more conservative than I was as a young man.
Gough Whitlam burst on the scene when after Menzies the conservative forces had become particularly moribund and had thrown up a plethora of particularly uninspiring leaders. Whitlam, after becoming leader of the Labor party, revitalised and reformed his party (something which is sorely needed again). It is not surprising that he was hailed as a revolutionary in the party after the uninspiring efforts at leadership of Arthur Calwell and H V Evatt.
Whitlam’s ascension to the leadership of the Labor party occurred in my last years at university. They were exciting times. Of a sudden politics had become riveting with the new and often controversial policy proposals the Labor opposition were beginning to propose. The Australian newspaper which had recently been launched became a staunch supporter of Whitlam and in its columns almost every day we learnt how a new Labor government might help us progress to a better Australia. And having come from a Labor family and surrounded by left-wing peers at university, we pinned our hopes on Whitlam.
In December 1972 Whitlam lead Labor to its first election victory in 23 years on the back of the “It’s Time” campaign. There was a prevailing sense of euphoria that Australia was about to embark on a new journey guided by the principles of social justice. He started like a whirlwind when he and his deputy Lance Barnard assumed the responsibility of all 25 cabinet portfolios in the first weeks after the election and ran the Government with a two-man ministry. These were heady days and we watched on breathless as Whitlam and Barnard made numerous decisions and began implementing them. (Famously, Whitlam was to later remark that he felt his first cabinet had one too many ministers!)
My father, who held out for another Labor Prime Minister with the same zeal that some Christians awaited the Messiah, was delighted in Labor’s return to power, but admitted he would have been happier with another train-driver as prime minister rather than a lawyer!
There came an avalanche of new initiatives – conscription was ended, university education was made free, Whitlam initiated a rapprochement with China, PNG was granted independence, universal healthcare was implemented, government committed to funding for non-government schools, no-fault divorce was legislated, Whitlam progressed the cause of indigenous land rights, took steps to protect the Great Barrier Reef and so on.
This was an exciting time when compared to the stolid conservative governments that had recently gone before.
Whitlam should surely be remembered as a great social reformer. He was a great patriot but sought to have Australia make its own way with less dependence on the US. He also abolished the imperial honours system and sought to reduce the rituals and traditions associated with the monarchy. Nevertheless he maintained that toning down the pomp associated with the monarchy should not be seen as a criticism of the monarchy.
However it soon became apparent that Whitlam’s Achilles’ heel (not unlike the recent Rudd/Gillard governments) was the management of the economy. Whitlam himself seemed initially not to take any interest in such mundane matters. He seemed content to leave these matters to his treasurer, the doctrinaire and trouble prone Jim Cairns.
As a result of government profligacy the economy rapidly deteriorated. In 1974/75 government spending increased by a massive 40%. Inflation became rampant peaking at more than 20%. With a union friendly government wages followed suit. And in a pathetic attempt to catch up on the revenue side to the outrageous spending, taxes increased by 30%. Alan Mitchell, writing in the Financial Review this week opined that “Whitlam lost control of the budget in 1974 – 75 and it took 20 years and four prime ministers to get it back under control.”
Then of course the government got caught out trying to raise funds from dubious sources in the Middle-East via a shady intermediary Tirath Kemlani. This scandal implicated both the Treasurer Jim Cairns and the Minister for Minerals and Energy, Rex Connor.
Amidst all the eulogies, Whitlam’s rather unfortunate stance on Vietnamese refugees also seems to have been forgotten.
Whitlam didn’t seem to rely too much on his cabinet which probably was a reflection of his own ego. But on the other hand he was terribly let down by some of his senior ministers leaving him isolated and undermined. Although it should be acknowledged that one of the keystones of the Whitlam Government, the creation of Medibank, was due almost entirely to the skill and the advocacy of Bill Hayden in the face of the opposition by the vested interest of doctors.
And then in October 1975 the opposition, who held a majority in the senate, refused to pass supply bills in the senate unless the government agreed to call an election. Whitlam refused to bow to this ultimatum. Malcolm Fraser consequently went to the Governor General, John Kerr who dismissed the Whitlam government and allowed Fraser to install an interim administration. Whitlam railed against the actions of Fraser and the Governor General. Notwithstanding Whitlam’s sense of aggrievement, in the subsequent December election the coalition was elected in a landslide victory.
Whitlam and his reforming government had been unceremoniously despatched. In a mere three years Whitlam the reformer, the supreme optimist, the polymath and the great hope of the supporters of socially liberal reformation had been relegated to opposition status in the parliament.
He contested one further election as leader of the opposition, which he again lost. Soon after, he resigned. Surprisingly, whilst his tenure as Prime Minister was short, his resignation ended the longest stint anybody has ever held at the helm of the Labor Party of 10 years and 10 month’s duration.
It is now nearly forty years since Gough wielded political authority. Despite his economic misdemeanours I will always remember him fondly. Sandwiched between Billy McMahon and Malcolm Fraser as prime minister, he was a breath of fresh air for the young, naïve idealist I then was. (Of course I am still an idealist but not quite so young and hopefully not so naive!) He was erudite, witty and seemed to stand for something noble.
And it is hard to think about Gough without also thinking of his marvellous wife Margaret. Margaret had been a former champion swimmer. But unusually for the era, as a politician’s wife she still was prepared to express forthright opinions on the issues of the day. She was widely admired and respected. They were inseparable. Unfortunately she died after a fall at home in 2012.
When our parliamentarians rose in the house to pay their respects after Gough’s death, perhaps the most moving address was given by the emotional Malcolm Turnbull. He said, “We must remember that nearly 70 years of marriage, that extraordinary love affair,” he said. “And if Gough is in Olympus, I have no doubt that he’s there with Margaret … in some respects one of the things we can be happiest about today is the fact that that old couple are no longer apart.”
So now he is gone – the elder statesman of the Labor Party. It is amazing that someone who only served for three years as Prime Minister seems to have had such an impact on Australia. Many of the Whitlam reforms have become mainstream and consolidated by successive governments. Many also were abandoned. However in retrospect I personally believe Australia is a better place, with a richer culture as a result of Gough Whitlam. If nothing else through Whitlam’s efforts the Labor Party was sufficiently reformed to again be a credible political force which surely was good for Australia. Considering now that both the Liberal and Labor Parties are in substantial need of reform and how difficult that is in face of the vested interests, that was quite an achievement. In doing this Whitlam moved the Labor Party away from its working class roots and made it increasingly attractive to middle-class Australians.
Conservative commentators are recognising Gough’s contribution but are decrying the mythology that has been built about him. In my recollections of politics he was “larger than life” in a way that brooks few equals in modern times. Let us be generous enough to allow him a little mythology. I for one won’t begrudge him! I loved his wit and erudition. Today’s parliament is increasingly adversarial and the ripostes are often nothing more than juvenile taunts. I remember Gough famously labelling Billy McMahon as “an antediluvian reactionary troglodyte”! Our current members seem no longer possessed of his great learning and intellect let alone such a rich vocabulary!