The ABC has screened the first of a two-part documentary on Gough Whitlam, The Power and the Passion.
It’s flawed. The incorrect details and dates irritate. The interviews are marred by minor-celebrity bilge. The re-enactments are execrable. It’s hagiography, not documentary.
But last night’s first episode of The Power and the Passion is not that bad. Unreconstructed Whitlamites can rest easy. I lapped it up.
One line stands out: Whitlam had to beat his own side before he could win.
Party structures had to change. Individuals had to be surpassed and sidelined. New policies had to be born. The electorate had to be carried along. There was an inescapable logic to Whitlam’s famous sequence: the party, the program, the people.
For me, the program was a reminder of the inversion that’s taken place forty years since It’s Time. For people like me, the ALP has reverted to its pre-Whitlam shape.
It’s an ugly look the ALP has in 2013. It’s anachronistic and electorally poisonous. In New South Wales, it doesn’t even look like a party anymore, just a criminal enterprise. Nationally, it’s a party controlled by narrow cliques at odds with the electorate.
The Power and the Passion highlighted what’s missing in 2013: structural reform, ideas, leadership and inspiration.
Last night’s episode showed how important it is for a party and a leader to reach out to a broader electorate. It was a timely reminder that Whitlam was a political leader who could find new constituencies and win their votes.
A confession: for the first time in my life, I won’t be voting Labor this year. A track record of voting that began with Whitlam’s re-election in 1974 and continued through another 14 federal and 11 state elections will be interrupted on September 14. Thirty years membership of the ALP will be sidelined. Years and years of myriad branch meetings, federal electorate assembly meetings, preselections, campaign committees, fundraisers, letterboxing, polling booth duty, scrutineering and general plotting will take a leave of absence this year.
No-one’s ever heard of me. I was only ever a local foot soldier. But, like many others, I was dependable, always there when the party called, even as my involvement declined and work took priority.
My membership lapsed some years back, around the time Rudd became leader. I continued to help out at elections but I had become one of the thousands who just drifted away from the party. I know many people who’ve done the same. None of us could ever contemplate voting Liberal but the ALP can no longer depend on us either.
You can find the missing factor in Whitlam’s leadership. The strength of The Power and the Passion is its portrayal of a remarkable man and the bond he forged with a generation of supporters.
And there’s the thing: when it all went wrong and Whitlam’s government was hurtling to defeat, most of us knew it was over but we still believed. We still had faith in The Program. To this day, I can recite the legislative program and make a good case that much of it has survived.
That’s the difference. We were never ashamed, never embarrassed, as we are today by the Gillard government. Whatever the magnitude of Whitlam’s fall, he represented something bigger than just himself.
It was the same with Hawke and Keating. There were moments when the relationship was tested but the bonds of belief always held firm.
Those three Labor prime ministers were able to do something that doesn’t happen today. They could reach out and bring new voters into the tent. Yes, there are cycles in politics and we can overstate the importance of individuals in the context of bigger events and long-term trends. But, in the end, that indefinable quality of leadership matters.
The Power and the Passion reminded me of my own circumstances and the factors that shape our voting habits. The passing of the decades also makes the picture clearer.
I was born in country Victoria. My father was a farmer. In the Mallee electorate, then and now, the Country Party reigned supreme. Then and now, the Labor vote never got much above 25%.
My family was largely non-political. Politics was rarely talked about. But the news was always on and we always had newspapers. A couple of my teachers encouraged me to read more widely.
Somehow, I broke from the influence of family and surrounds. It wasn’t Vietnam – I was too young for that. Nor was it the mythological atmosphere of the rebellious 60s. I was in primary school for most of that. Even the Beatles were already past their peak when I discovered them.
It wasn’t a reaction to Menzies either – whilst he was prime minister for the first ten years of my life, he doesn’t register in my memory. The absence of television in country Victoria until 1965 is no doubt part of the reason.
My political memory of the 60s is scratchy. I have only the vaguest recollection of Kennedy’s assassination but I remember Churchill dying in 1965. Menzies’s retirement in January 1966 is totally absent from my memory but the introduction of decimal currency three weeks later is vivid. The hanging of Ronald Ryan gripped my imagination, although the associated political campaign passed me by. I remember the Sunday Harold Holt disappeared. Looking back, the ascent of John Gorton was the first political event I ever followed. The assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy stirred me in 1968. The 1969 moon landing is imprinted on my memory but the election a few months later made no impact. Whitlam’s first, unsuccessful, campaign escaped me altogether. The 1970 moratorium marches intrigued me but that was all.
It all changed in March 1971. I was in Year 10. Malcolm Fraser’s resignation and John Gorton’s spectacular self-immolation hooked me for life on politics. Since that time, I have gorged on politics.
Whitlam was the dominant figure of that year. His visit to China is crystal clear in my memory, although I was on a steep learning curve and it was only decades later that I fully appreciated how visionary it was.
But it wasn’t just foreign policy. My schoolboy memories of 1971 and 1972 are dominated by a welter of policies. I can remember telling somehow how Medibank would work. Needs-based education funding was debated in my English class. Recognising China was a hardy perennial. A range of issues, from divorce laws to racial discrimination were up for public debate.
The common factor was always Whitlam – driving the debate, relentlessly putting the argument. It was him who got me interested in electoral reform. In the safest Country Party seat in the nation, I had to quickly learn how to rebut one of the central arguments in favour of electoral malapportionment: “but we produce the food.”
There was no necessary reason for me to gravitate towards the ALP as a teenager. It was at odds with my socioeconomic background and most of the influences on me. If I had been born ten years earlier, I suspect I might have found the ALP irrelevant.
The difference was Whitlam. It was him and his ideas that moved me. He was modernity and relevance personified. He was a policy-maker of the most practical kind. He let me see that politics meant something and that politics could work.
As my schooling drew to an end, McMahon’s government was stumbling to defeat, the prime minister an out-of-touch figure of fun. On my 17th birthday, Whitlam was elected.
John Howard was only partly correct when he said last night that Whitlam’s victory was narrow. The ALP won 8 seats off the coalition and took office with 67 seats to 58 in the 125-seat House of Representatives. An 8-seat majority on the floor of the House is hardly a landslide but that’s not the full story.
The ALP under Whitlam won 49.59% of the primary vote, an increase of 2.64%. The coalition parties took 41.48%. Those figures tell the real story, that just on half of the voters were prepared to give their first preference to Labor. Imagine that today! After preferences, Whitlam won with 52.70%, a swing of 2.50%.
And, of course, the real electoral story includes the 1969 election when Whitlam picked up 18 seats and a two-party-preferred swing of 7.10%. Those voters stayed with Whitlam into 1972, and again in 1974, before deserting him in 1975.
For all our talk about political philosophy, about the meaning of Labor values or what Liberalism represents, it is political leadership that makes the difference. That is the significance of Whitlam. He took a moribund party, revitalised its leadership, reformed its structure and its platform, and reached out to the electorate. It was Gough we wanted, not the ALP.
It’s the crucial difference with this year’s election. The more that Labor supporters talk about the nation’s economic success, the handling of the GFC, the structural deficit in the Budget, or the merits of DisabilityCare and Gonski, the more they refuse to face up to the party’s fundamental problem with the electorate: Julia Gillard.
The problem won’t now be solved. The party voted for electoral defeat in February last year. They confirmed the decision again this year. The coterie of right-wing union and factional leaders and their caucus agents have opted to be big fish in a small pond that is emptying fast. They are the 1960s Victorian Central Executive writ large.
Kevin Rudd may have destroyed his credibility by taking fright at the crucial hurdle on March 21 but his announcement of a change of heart on same-sex marriage last week illustrated one aspect of the ALP’s contemporary problem. It was fashionable last week to condemn Rudd for relevance deprivation syndrome or to accuse him of lacking the courage to take a stand when he was PM. These lightweight observations obscured something far more important.
Read Rudd’s statement and ask yourself who else there is in the ALP today who tries to rationally take the argument to the other side. It’s not the specific issue that matters here. The question is who else is capable of reaching out to those people who aren’t natural Labor supporters? As Gillard fights for a dwindling group of rusted-on Laborites, there’s no-one who’s bridging the gap with the Labor voters who’ve either defected to the Greens or gone straight over to the Coalition.
This is what Whitlam did in the lead-up to 1972. The power of his ideas and the eloquence of his language won over me and many others. He spoke to young people, women and migrants. He won over a white-collar, middle-class vote that had been lost for decades. He married it to the traditional blue-collar vote and he did it without recourse to the nonsense we hear these days about inner and outer suburban voters.
Moreover, Whitlam rose above the insularity and the smallness of his opponents inside the ALP. In the end, the prospect of victory won many of them over. Others could see the sense in his policy program. A big-hearted person like Tom Uren has admitted he came late to supporting Whitlam but came to love him.
It’s the leadership, stupid.
Sadly, in our present we sometimes see a past that has to be remade again.
- Episode 2 of The Power and the Passion will be screened on ABC1 at 7.30pm next Sunday, June 2.