Fifty Years On, Whitlam's Government Is Still Worth Celebrating
Canberra, National Press Club
Friday, 2 December 2022
When Prime Minister William McMahon set the date for the 1972 election as December 2, Whitlam noted that it was the anniversary of the 1805 Battle of Austerlitz, when Napoleon defeated the Russian and Austrian armies. It was, he said, ‘a date on which a crushing defeat was administered to a coalition - another ramshackle, reactionary coalition’.
Whitlam was a reformer, but he valued tradition, and knew his history. Visiting Australia in 1974, Gore Vidal was struck to meet a Prime Minister who took issue with the historical accuracy of Vidal’s novel about the Roman Emperor, Julian.
It was, Vidal later noted, ‘an unusual experiment for Australia to choose as its Prime Minister its most intelligent man’. As Julia Gillard noted in her 2011 Whitlam oration, Whitlam – like his near namesake Whitman – could well have said ‘I am large, I contain multitudes.’
Scott Prasser and David Clune’s edited book ‘The Whitlam Era’ also contains multitudes – bringing together more than a dozen respected commentators to provide a critical analysis of the Whitlam Government, half a century today from its election.
Even for dewey-eyed Whitlamites, it provides new insights. The chapter by Andrew Podger and David Stanton reminds us that Bill Hayden, like Whitlam, was serious about research, and established a journal within the Department of Social Security, ‘Social Security Quarterly’, to promote evaluation and analysis of social welfare interventions.
Stephen Duckett’s chapter tells the story of how the Australian Medical Association attacked universal health care as an unwarranted ‘interference in the doctor-patient relationship’, and paid a former Miss Australia to front its campaign against the reform.
We get Stephen Fitzgerald’s observation on Whitlam in Asia: that while he didn’t speak any Asian languages, he would plunge into learning about any new countries, surprising his hosts with his curiosity and knowledge.
Gough Whitlam sought to change Australia, but to do so from the standpoint of a deep understanding of the past. As he put it, ‘Rather than discard our authentic traditions, we want to restore and invigorate them. … Rather than overturn the true values of Australian society, we want to resurrect and foster those values.’
Whitlam saw Australia not as a fearful fortress, but as a proud nation with much to offer the world. As Michael Easson puts it in his chapter on the government’s foreign policy, ‘Whitlam was chief batsman, weed-puller and imagination driver’.
He secured independence for Papua New Guinea. He cut Australia’s tariffs by 25 percent – the beginning of the end for the old McEwenist policy of ‘protection all round’. John Button said that Gough would often remark ‘When I opened China to the world…’.
Gough Whitlam was no pacifist. The day after Pearl Harbour, he signed up for the air force, and flew hundreds of reconnaissance, escort and bombing missions. But he knew the limits of our military action, and one of his first acts as Prime Minister was to withdraw our remaining troops from Vietnam, a conflict that he described as ‘disastrous and deluded.’
Whitlam was proud of his nation, but he embodied the distinction that George Orwell draws between nationalism and patriotism. You can love your country, Orwell averred, without needing to claim it as being better than to all others.
If there was a central value that drove the Whitlam Government, it was egalitarianism. Speaking at Ballarat in 1973, he said ‘Egalitarianism – by whatever name we call it – is at the heart of the Australian tradition.’ Gough agreed with Doc Evatt’s view that ‘Australian democracy was born at Eureka’, and noted the ‘auspicious coincidence’ that the Whitlam Government was elected the day before the 118th anniversary of Eureka.
Bob Carr’s foreword to the book notes one of the ways this egalitarianism manifested itself: the immediate decision to vote against apartheid in the UN General Assembly.
Whitlam put egalitarianism into action through universal health care, the Schools Commission, the World Heritage Conventions, the Trade Practices act, the Racial Discrimination Act, a land rights deal that led Vincent Lingiari to say ‘we are all mates now’, and sewering Western Sydney (which he said made us the world’s ‘most effluent nation’).
Paul Keating called the Whitlam Government ‘the re-sparkling of Australian social experimentation, which was snuffed out prematurely with Gallipoli and Flanders’.
Whitlam’s term in government was too short. If he had won in 1969 – if Don’s Party had a happy ending – then Whitlam would have had three easy years to implement his social agenda. But his government had to face a major global crisis. This seems to happen to Labor Governments. James Scullin was sworn in two days before the stock market crash. John Curtin was elected two months before Pearl Harbour. Kevin Rudd was elected the year before the Global Financial Crisis.
Gough Whitlam faced the oil shocks, and the challenge of stagflation. Any analysis of that government’s economic record must take the world economy into account.
But it also made mistakes. In his chapter on the economics of the Whitlam Government, Gene Tunny points out the oddity of the government’s decision to borrow via Pakistani commodities dealer Tirath Khemlani, against the advice of Treasury.
In their chapter on education, Martha Kinsman and Linda Hort note that the share of young people attending university rose only from 8.6 to 9.3 percent under Whitlam, and that the abolition of university fees mostly represented a subsidy to those who would have attended anyway.
But you don’t have to be perfect to be great.
In Manning Clark’s words, Whitlam was an enlarger, not a straitener. Keating once called him Fabius Maximus. Hawke called him Prima Donna Assoluta. He is the only former Prime Minister with a prominent rock band named after him. But he was always looking to do more. The to-do list he left us includes a republic. Fixed four year terms. More work on the reconciliation journey.
It is appropriate that this launch is occurring in the nation’s capital. Canberrans have always treasured Whitlam. As a child, he attended Telopea High and Canberra Grammar. As John Martin’s chapter notes, Whitlam’s time growing up in Canberra may have shaped his passion for urban development projects, such as sewering Western Sydney, where he raised his young family.
For me, the 50th anniversary of the Whitlam Government is personal. I was born in August 1972. When my mother’s pregnancy reached the nine-month mark she pinned an ‘It’s time’ badge onto the part of her shirt that covered her belly.
Little could she have known that at 8.41am on the day of the 50th anniversary of the Whitlam Government, her child would have been one of the Labor MPs that finally voted in the House of Representatives to make the Secure Jobs, Better Pay bill a law.
Gough’s vision and optimism helped shape my political life, and I am proud to officially launch ‘The Whitlam Era’ today.