Daily Media Quotation
It's Time ... For Another Reappraisal Of Gough
December 17, 2004
by John Warhurst - Canberra Times
John Howard's star is ascendant at the moment while Gough Whitlam's reputation is again under attack. These two things are not directly connected, but Mark Latham is a bridge between the two men.
Much has been written, some with the benefit of hindsight, about the dangers for Latham of linking himself with Whitlam during the recent election campaign.
Critics have argued that Latham was sending the wrong signals to voters and misjudging the strength of Whitlam's reputation in the community. Less attention has been directed to the unintended consequences for Whitlam's reputation of this publicity generated by Latham.
The Whitlam government and indeed Whitlam himself, divide Australian political opinion. That was the danger for Latham.
Now criticism of one or the other is cumulative. Putting one down inevitably hurts the other.
Whitlam does not need any assistance in generating publicity for himself. But the attachment to Latham has added an extra relevance to long-standing criticisms. It has embroiled Whitlam again in contemporary electoral debate. It has also led to the Whitlam Government being judged, 30 years afterwards, against the public policy fashions of today.
Whitlam has some fervent critics. Less than two months ago Sir David Smith, former secretary to Governor-General Sir John Kerr, launched a savage attack on him on the 29th anniversary of the dismissal of the Whitlam government.
According to Smith, Whitlam's sins were not related just to his behaviour and recall of the events of November, 11 1975. He went much further, and condemned the Whitlam government as the worst Australian government ever.
Now the former secretary to the Treasury and later National Party senator, John Stone, has made the same charge. He has used the 30th anniversary of the Executive Council meeting authorising the borrowing of billions of dollars by Whitlam's minister for minerals and energy Rex Connor, now known as the Khemlani Affair, as the hook.
Stone too argues that the Whitlam government was "the worst government in Australia's history". These numerous anniversaries (election in 1972, dismissal in 1975 and various events in between) alone might generate such attacks on the Whitlam government.
After all, the 30th anniversary of the election of the Government was celebrated by a conference and a big book, It's Time Again: Whitlam and Modern Labor (2002) edited by Jenny Hocking and Colleen Lewis.
They remarked then on the "extraordinary level of media coverage" and claimed that it was "difficult to imagine any other government or any other Prime Minister whose tenure continues to attract such intense debate 30 years later".
The anniversaries of the Dismissal always produce something too. The last big anniversary, the 20th, led to a Paul Kelly blockbuster, November 1975 (1995). And the 30-year rule means that we are in the middle of the release of documents from the Whitlam Cabinet.
Whitlam himself continues to make his own publicity. His prodigious energy and his cocky demeanour infuriate his critics. Many of them are attached to the conservative think-group, the Samuel Griffith Society. Some, like Whitlam himself, are good haters with extra long memories.
Whatever Whitlam's own longevity (and he will turn 90 in 18 months' time) there is probably a decade or more of commentary by participants in the Whitlam era still to come. But the link with Latham is something extra that gives these stories "legs".
For Stone, Latham is "Son of Whitlam". He reckons the current Labor Party's problems include "many of those same policy rocks (upon which the party ship is allegedly foundering)". He especially notes "the quintessentially Whitlamite Medicare Gold".
Now whatever one's judgement of the Whitlam government's performance (and there are many Labor critics too), partisan commentators such as Smith and Stone certainly focus only on the negatives. For many other Australians, while they are aware of the negatives, the visionary positives are at least equally important.
While Whitlam is subject to continuing attack, Howard's reputation continues to rise. The two phenomena are not unrelated.
Most Howard supporters don't care for Whitlam and vice versa. Yet Whitlam has not been in the front rank of critics of Howard. Whitlam has his own agenda, much of it a continuation of what he was trying to achieve in government 30 years ago.
Malcolm Fraser, Whitlam's former adversary, has been a more important and more consistent critic of the Howard government.
So it is not Whitlam's criticism of Howard that produces counter-attacks on him. It is rather the publicity and the sympathetic respect that "the Great Man" (whether said with awe or sarcasm) continues to attract from the public and the media.
His critics can't stand that. To them, it is out of all proportion to his achievements. But that doesn't justify their own over-reaction.
Are there any lessons for Howard? The Prime Minister is well-known for having his eye on his place in history. His continual election victories will settle any argument about that in the short term. But the continued way in which Whitlam's legacy is raked over will befall Howard as well in time. Thirty years from now when the Howard Cabinet documents are being opened the battle will still be raging.
Howard will be 95, almost a decade older than Whitlam is today. It is unlikely, though not impossible, that he will be around to witness it. But certainly some of today's protagonists will be.
Like Whitlam, and like Menzies before him, Howard's reputation will be assessed and reassessed for many years to come.