The passing of Gough Whitlam

I wrote about Gough last year, when he turned 97, and I don’t want to repeat any of that. He was the most interesting politician I met, and he and Bob Menzies, for somewhat similar reasons, have been the two most powerful Australian politicians of my time. He didn’t quite get to 100 years, and thereby receive the Queen’s telegram, but he did have long innings, of which the last few years were not at all his most enjoyable.

The tributes are pouring in, and they tell a similar story. He made us conscious of who we were as a nation, and what we might be and become. He did important things in every sphere of public life — the status of women and of indigenous Australians, the arts, education, and often for the first time. He left office in the most dramatic way, and he never had a second experience of that role. He was gifted with a powerful intellect and an extraordinary memory. Someone is bound to say, again, that ‘he bestrode Australian politics like a colossus’. He was indeed a larger-than-life figure. I would accept a lot of that.

I was not an unqualified admirer, but I knew him over forty years, once interviewed him at length, and encountered him on scores of occasions. He did not enjoy criticism from someone like me, 21 years his junior, who wrote a weekly column in the National Times. And he loved to score off others, sometimes when it really was not to his advantage to do so. I got my share of it.

Barry Cohen collected two books’ worth of stories about Gough, and many of them are really funny, though the subject chided Cohen for saying that he was funny, preferring ‘witty’ or ‘epigrammatic’. To be called funny, he reproved Cohen, made him sound like a clown. And Cohen makes an important point that Gough liked to send himself up, recognising that he would never be able to put down the widely accepted view of him as arrogant or elitist. In his own tribute in The Australian Cohen says that he once asked Gough how he would handle his Maker, when the dreaded Day of Judgment arrived. “You can be sure of one thing,” Whitlam intoned. “I shall treat him as an equal.”

Two important points are likely to be missed in all the celebration of what was indeed an important life for all of us. The first is that there was no great tide of popular feeling that swept him into office in 1972. Labor enjoyed a small swing of 2.6 per cent and, when all the votes had been counted, had a majority of nine seats in the new Parliament. And yet Whitlam had bested the former Coalition Prime Minister, Billy McMahon, on almost every occasion, the tide had turned on the war in Vietnam, in Labor’s favour, Whitlam had gone to China and met Chou En-Lai, the Premier, while the Coalition Ministry was full of rancour and Ministers were as bad as their PM in telling all to a friendly journalist.

In truth, Labor was not desperately popular in the 1970s, despite the 1972 electoral victory, and did not really regain its wartime popularity until the Hawke years in the 1980s, and the demise of the DLP. The turbulence of the Whitlam period did not help, though the fault did not always lie with the Leader.

The second thing to remember is that Whitlam in power was able to build on what others had started. He is credited with empowering the Australian film industry, for example. But previous Coalition Ministers and Prime Ministers had already begun to stimulate Australian film-making and film-financing. Same with the arts. Same with Aboriginal people. Same with multiculturalism. Same with the status of women.

There is a strong thread of continuity in our politics, and it is rare for anyone in Parliament to be able to do something for the very first time. Even Whitlam’s 25 per cent tariff cuts had their genesis in the tireless work of people like Bert Kelly MP, who had been preaching to the unconverted in the Liberal and Country Parties (let alone Labor) for twenty years about the need to expose Australian industry to real competition, and to remove the warm but stifling blanket of protection.

In 1973 the Whitlam Government lowered the voting age from 21 to 18, but it is fair to note that Western Australia, South Australia  and New South Wales had already done so, and the meaning of ‘adult’ had already become anomalous, since one could marry, be called up for military service, and be tried as an adult under Australian criminal law. Once again, this was a change that was plainly coming.

Most people  see the National Health Scheme as a Labor initiative, and there is a certain amount of truth in the claim. But the first National Health Scheme was set up in 1956, almost twenty years  earlier, when Sir Earle Page was the Minister for Health in the Menzies-Fadden Government — and Page had tried to set up an even more ambitious scheme in 1939, when a Minister in the Lyons Government. Whitlam’s was an improvement, and an important improvement, too. But it was not a beginning.

He was always referred to by his staff and close associates, when he was the leader of the Parliamentary Labor Party, as ‘Leader’. That usage grated on me a bit, and I asked one of them one day whether she was aware of the German translation of the word. She wasn’t, and was displeased when I told her that it was ‘der Fuehrer’. He was certainly ‘Leader’ in substance and style, and just as certainly wasn’t ‘der Fuehrer’.

Nonetheless Whitlam was a powerful force in persuasion and rhetoric when he took up an issue, and he knew well enough how important it is to claim credit for initiatives, even when the reality, years later, is much less impressive. Great in frame and in vision, Gough Whitlam has had no real counterpart in our politics. I would have liked him to have another term in office after that dreadful defeat (for him) of December 1975, when Labor’s strength in the House of Representatives was almost cut in half. I think he would have entered on a second term in a much  tougher and more chastened frame of mind, and the outcomes possibly a lot surer.





Join the discussion 8 Comments

  • DaveW says:

    Thanks Don. I find all the de mortuis adulation on hand somewhat annoying, especially at the ABC, but even the Australian coverage is over the top. Nice to see the myth balanced by some facts, but I suppose that will cause some of your readers to have a fit. For a failed politician, he certainly commanded a lot of worship. Your Leader story would be funny, but those who want government to control our lives certainly do seem to need a ‘great man’ whose picture can be plastered everywhere.

  • whyisitso says:

    It hasn’t escaped my notice that even his former political enemies have paid tribute to him. This is in marked contrast to the appalling behaviour of those on the left when Margaret Thatcher died last year. The ABC was especially egregious, Tony Jones of Q&A laughingly agreeing with Brooke Magnanti who, on hearing the news of her death uttered “…and me without champagne”. And even before she died, Meryl Street won an Oscar portraying her as a demented fool in what I thought was one of the most appalling movies movie I’d ever seen.

    There has thankfully been no equivalent in Whitlam’s death of the chants of “the witch is dead”.

  • PeterE says:

    You are quite right to point out that many of Gough’s policies had already found a head-start under the previous Coalition government. For example, in 1971 I was in a Department named Environment, Aborigines and the Arts. After December 1972, I, along with the Arts, went into Gough’s Department. Three tumultuous years followed and there were many productive achievements, such as establishing the embryo National Gallery, Australia Council, Film School, Film Commission and so on as statutory authorities with the necessary funding. Gough was an outstanding intellect and personality with flaws when it came to judging people, economic policy, and patience. He had a wonderful self-deprecating wit, which many took literally, so misunderstanding him He was straight down the line proper in his adherence to the law and the conventions (except for the authorisation of the Loans business where he recklessly erred). He did not receive a fair go from the Opposition, being forced into an election after only eighteen months. It has been little noted that the 1974 election improved his position in the Senate. (From memory, it was 30 Senators to each side). The blocking of Supply could not have occurred except that one Labor Senator died and another was appointed to the High Court. The respective conservative premiers played funny beggars in not replacing these Senators with real ALP people, setting the scene for what followed.
    It certainly was time in 1972 after 23 years of dominance by one party – unhealthy in my view. Gough did provide many lasting improvements in universal health, women’s opportunities, the arts but many of the schemes were fatally flawed, including ‘free’ university education, ill-thought-through land rights, muddled multiculturalism and so on. Gough knew his political history and he was determined to crash through or crash. He did both.

  • John BENNETT says:

    You have summed Gough up very well – great promise but somehow somethings fell off the rails. The one lasting action he took was to stop Appeals to the Privy Council, an odious thing if there ever was one.

    He will be remembered by many, but sometimes for the wrong reasons.

  • Gus says:

    The central point of Whitlam’s political career will forever be his sacking by Kerr, and the political situation that led to it. Not unlike what’s happening in the US today, our greatest problem is that we have no simple mechanism to sack Obama. There is impeachment, of course, but it must be followed by a Senate Trial, where 2/3rd of senators must agree on a verdict–this is politically impossible. In retrospect, we should have stayed with the British Empire.

  • margaret says:

    From the woman on the street – after watching the memorial service yesterday I’m proud that Australia had someone of Gough Whitlam’s calibre and reforming zeal and I’m fonder of him than ever. He was truly a GOOD man. I was a young mother with two children not yet school age so not really in a position to do many of the things that opened up for women at that time but I’m so glad for those that had their lives changed and enhanced – even no-fault divorce was a breakthrough.

  • JohnG says:

    Whitlam may have been all that you say in your article, but all that was wrong with Whitlam and his regime lingers like the memory of a bad toothache. First I recall the catastrophic financial mismanagement that brought us some of the highest home loan rates in Australian history. Secondly, as someone working in the Department of Defence I recall his grossly unwise decisions in pulling out Australian monitoring facilities in Asia, and like Nelson putting his telescope to a blind eye when it came to East Timor. Whitlam was a product of the Australian Left movement that poisoned Labor for years in the political arena. Unfortunately we cannot blame him for bequething upon us the many years of Malcolm “Mr Do Nothing” Fraser, who with a staggering majority in government achieved little in repairing the damage done by Whitlam and his cohort.

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