Edward Gough Whitlam is 95 years old today.
Whilst it is thirty-five years since Australia’s 21st Prime Minister was dismissed by the Governor-General, his political career contains lessons and his unbounded spirit is missed.
The present Labor government is already nine months older than the Whitlam government was on November 11, 1975. Yet, if it fell today, its record would pale by comparison. The reservoir of good-will would be low and few would hanker for Rudd or Gillard.
Whitlam, however, is loved by his party and many in the community. Affection and loyalty walk arm in arm with him through the pages of history. He is a living lesson in political leadership.
Forty years ago, Whitlam was the Opposition Labor Leader who spoke to a generation of people who had known nothing other than the coalition in power in Canberra. Menzies was long gone and the government of William McMahon was a joke. Only the most rabidly partisan would deny it. The Liberals had disposed of their former leader, John Gorton, and opted for an overweeningly ambitious replacement who wasn’t up to the job.
As a teenager awakening to the world of politics, I was one of those who saw in Whitlam a man for his times. There was a clear sense of a political class in decay. There was the deceit and chaos of Vietnam. There was the conscription lottery. Most of all, there was neglect in so many areas: in education, health, the cities, the law, the electoral system. Whitlam spoke of these issues and offered solutions.
Socially, Australia was stricken by inaction and knee-jerk conservatism. Books were banned. Films were censored. An inward-looking narrowness prevailed, even as the outside world was rent with dissent and the promise of change. In so many ways, Whitlam championed the outsiders, be they Aborigines, women, the elderly, the young, or the poor.
It was an era when the Democratic Labor Party preferenced the coalition and controlled the balance of power in the Senate. These grumpy old DLP men had either walked out or been expelled from the ALP during the calamitous split of the 1950s. They wailed against change in all its forms. Often, they appeared to be against modernity itself.
I remember the fear campaigns. Then, as now, they were whipped up by the conservatives and their urgers in the media. They were ridiculous but insidious. I was one of those school kids who witnessed a teacher drawing red communist arrows descending on Australia from the north. I recall the oleaginous Phillip Lynch describing anti-war protesters as “political bikies pack-raping democracy”. I remember the DLP advertisements insisting that Whitlam would “flood this country with pornography”. In time, I grew to despise these people for their backwardness, their insularity, and their instinctive reaction against change and reform.
Into this strode Whitlam. For a young mind, it was an exhilarating time. Whitlam revelled in ideas. There were policies galore to snare your imagination. His expansive view of the world was matched with a detailed program at home.
Abroad, there could be a historic diplomatic recognition of China, a policy of anti-colonialism in PNG, a more independent approach to the ANZUS alliance, or opposition to racial policies in South Africa. At home, the focus might be on better sewerage for the suburbs, a legal aid program, fault-free divorce, or anti-discrimination laws.
Lindsay Tanner has outlined these policies in more detail in his superb essay in the current issue of The Monthly. He shows that the breadth and scope of Whitlam’s foreign and domestic program was unparalleled.
At the personal level, thanks to Whitlam extending the franchise to 18-year-olds, I voted in two elections that would otherwise have been denied me. When I attended university, the abolition of fees eased the burden on my horticulturalist father.
I know women who still thank Whitlam for giving them the chance of an adult education. For many, these policies were the only means of finding a path to an independent life. Similarly, a friend recalls the revolutionary impact of the establishment of a bulk billing medical centre in his suburb.
In the ferment of ideas, Whitlam is a modern political giant. Despite the myths and misrepresentations that still abound – the “worse than Whitlam” canard – the policies of his government are remarkably entrenched in Australian life.
One great symbol of Whitlam’s impact is Medibank. We know it now as Medicare, but let it never be forgotten that its coalition naysayers only surrendered their opposition on behalf of vested interests fully thirty years after Whitlam adopted the policy. Medibank was dragged through two rejections in the Senate, a double dissolution election and another Senate rejection before the historic Joint Sitting passed it into law in 1974. Even then, the hostile Senate and the subsequent Fraser government continued to neuter it.
Throughout these political hostilities, Whitlam never wavered in his defence of his program. Not for him a cowardly retreat on a major plank of his platform when it encountered resistance from powerful pressure groups.
One of Whitlam’s greatest achievements took place before he became prime minister. He took a sclerotic party, restructured it against all manner of internal opponents, breaking down their power and repeatedly risking his leadership. He survived a leadership challenge and an attempt by his internal enemies to expel him from the party. Sometimes you have to “crash through or crash”, he claimed.
Whitlam gave the party a policy platform and he took that platform to the people and persistently argued his case. At his peak, he was a ferocious, bold and innovative campaigner who terrified his opponents. His ability to win by-elections is without parallel.
None of this is to understate Whitlam’s deficiencies. In office, his model of governance needed an overhaul. The Overseas Loans Affair demonstrated indiscipline, naivety and stupidity. His ministry was less than ideal, containing some men who had spent the best years of their political lives on the wrong side of the Speaker’s chair.
It can’t be denied that Whitlam’s personal style grated with some. It may have been self-deprecation when he described himself as “the greatest foreign minister this country has ever had”, but, like other leaders, a perception of arrogance cost him dearly at various times.
Nevertheless, Whitlam led a government of ideas and initiative. It was an exciting time to watch a government that wasn’t a victim of the arid professionalisation of politics that has overtaken us now.
Arguments about which former leaders would survive in the contemporary political and media climate are futile, but it’s worth pointing out that Australia has never seen a government attacked so vehemently by a hostile Senate as Whitlam’s was from the moment it took office. More legislation was rejected in those three years between 1972 and 1975 than in the entire history of the federation to that point. By comparison, Rudd and Gillard have had it easy, minority government notwithstanding.
But what is so attractive about Whitlam politically is his life-long devotion to a range of ideas and to the means of bringing those ideas to fruition. Long before he entered parliament, he looked to the constitutional impediments to a Labor program, campaigning for the 1944 referendums, which aimed to expand Commonwealth powers.
Long after he left formal politics, Whitlam never gave up arguing for parliamentary and electoral reform. Well into his eighties, for example, he continued to argue the case for democratisation of state upper houses.
The consistency and long-held basis of his political views meant no-one ever accused Whitlam of being a policy-free zone, or of lacking core beliefs. A long paper trail of writings and speeches on all manner of issues proved the opposite.
We are all creatures of our memories and experiences. For me, Whitlam was integral to my political education. He was elected to office on the day I turned seventeen. He was gone three weeks before I turned twenty. The events of the Dismissal are etched in my being. They taught me lessons about human behaviour and power that are as relevant now as ever.
For others, the crucial times may have been with Fraser, Hawke, Keating, Howard or Rudd. There will be many who had their political awakening with Rudd’s demise and the ascent of our first woman prime minister. Each period is unique in its own way. History doesn’t repeat, not really.
For me, on this Whitlam anniversary, my memory and experience is of a political leader with an indomitable spirit, a thirst for learning, and a clear-sighted view of his goals. Whilst Whitlam has never been reluctant to proclaim and defend his record, nor has he been one to dwell in the past. In the very best sense of the phrase, he has always been moving forward.
In November 1977, I attended an ALP election rally at the Moorabbin football ground in Melbourne. In their hearts, the crowd knew that Whitlam would lose and that this was his last hurrah, but they chanted “We want Gough” with a full-throated loyalty – and love – for the man who had brought hope and optimism to their political experience.
- Listen to the crowd chant ‘We Want Gough’
It was a chant that rolled across that football ground from people who knew commitment, conviction and belief when they saw it. It was a chant that told of a political leader who wasn’t going to persuade everybody but who damn well knew how to persuade them.
A third of a century later, which of our current political leaders would dare hope for that?
Happy 95th birthday, Gough. Only five more to the big one.
This article first appeared on The Drum.