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Daily Media Quotation

1975: Crisis-Torn Politics On The Wild Side

January 1, 2006

by Michelle Grattan - The Age

Michelle Grattan reviews the impact of our most turbulent political year.

Peter Walsh, a quite new senator during the Whitlam government's last tumultuous year, recalls asking a colleague, "when did you realise (minerals and energy minister Rex) Connor was mad?" Around the end of '74, came the reply. "I said, 'I must be a slow learner. I didn't realise until June'."

Walsh was only a little more than a year off his West Australian wheat farm tractor - he'd been elected in the 1974 double dissolution. The man who went on to become a well-regarded finance minister under Bob Hawke found the Whitlam administration "really a terrible government. Whitlam knew better (economically) but was obsessed with 'The Program'."

It's true, Walsh concedes, that as 1975 wore on towards its extraordinary November 11 climax of "The Dismissal", the Government significantly improved. Jim Cairns, victim to his infatuation for Junie Morosi and his incompetence and ideology, was replaced in June as treasurer by the economically respected Bill Hayden, who brought down a budget that won praise. Crazy Connor, blinded by his nation-building dreams into promoting unrealisable loan raisings by impossible means, finally was forced to resign his ministry in October.

But it was all too late: Connor's quitting, which followed damaging revelations about the notorious loans affair, simply became a justification for the opposition to do what it intended to do - use its Senate teeth to mortally wound the government.

Asked at the pre-Christmas briefing on the release of the 1975 Cabinet papers whether ministers such as Connor and Cairns had let him down in relation to loan raising, Whitlam said, "Completely!" But Whitlam, through most of his time in power, let down himself and his government - which had many notable and lasting achievements - by failing to control his ministers. Then he made his ultimate gesture of defiance, grandness and unreality - his attempt to "tough out" the crisis after the opposition blocked the budget.

Without a doubt, 1975 was the most intoxicating year in modern federal politics. Its effects have reverberated for a generation.

For Whitlam, who'd left in December 1974 on an extraordinary overseas sojourn, the start of 1975 was disastrous. While he had briefly broken the trip after Cyclone Tracy hit Darwin, he insisted on rejoining his entourage. Then, from abroad, he lashed out wildly at the incompetence of the captain of the ship that crashed into Hobart's Tasman Bridge, an attack for which he had to apologise. In contrast to the appalling publicity Whitlam was receiving, Cairns, as acting prime minister, basked in media plaudits as he coolly managed the home front.

The ALP's February national conference at the NSW resort of Terrigal turned to farce. ALP and ACTU president Bob Hawke was "flogged" in stocks at Old Sydney Town ("Labor's whipping boy", was the irreverent Age headline). Cairns confessed to a newspaper reporter to having a "kind of love" for Junie.

Morosi, according to a wonderful story that circulated (apocryphal or not, but told to illustrate how she mismanaged his office), once sought to deny an appointment to Clyde Holding, on being told he was Victorian opposition leader. "Dr Cairns wouldn't want to see an opposition leader," she allegedly said.

Hubris abounded, such as in the appointment of attorney-general Lionel Murphy to the High Court. So did chaos and impetuousness. One extraordinary day Jim Cope, amid humiliating scenes in the Parliament, was forced to quit the speakership when Whitlam, frustrated beyond endurance, calculatingly stood him up.

The June byelection for the Tasmanian seat of Bass, vacated for a diplomatic appointment by defence minister Lance Barnard, both sealed and foretold the government's fate. Labor chose a dud candidate; a bad-tempered Whitlam abused a woman during the opening meeting of the campaign, and got into a verbal fight with a teacher at a rally. But these were side issues. The people had had enough of the government and said so, in a huge swing that gave the seat to the opposition, under its new leader, Malcolm Fraser.

After Bass, Labor's national secretary, David Combe, wrote in a report that was inevitably leaked: "We look like a party of junketeers who don't expect to be in office often or long."

Fraser had said, when in March he deposed the benign but ineffective Liberal leader Bill Snedden, that if he were to force an election he'd want to catch Whitlam "with his pants well and truly down". In fact, the government's pants were almost always down in '75, but the opposition's chance for action came with the budget.

The supply crisis, Whitlam's dismissal, with the installation of Fraser as caretaker PM, and the election that followed delivered a triumph for Fraser and huge rebuff for Whitlam.

But success and failure can have funny ways. If Whitlam had been routed in a routine fashion, rather than being first sacked by John Kerr and thereby martyred in the eyes of many Labor supporters, he would not be the larger-than-life figure he is today. If Fraser had come to office in more pedestrian circumstances, the expectations of his government would not have been so high, nor would he have been affected by doubts that he perhaps wasn't entirely "legitimate". He might have done more, or at least been blamed less by his own side for what his government failed to do.



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