I wasn’t even born when Edward Gough Whitlam and his Labor government were elected. I wasn’t even three when he was dismissed. Yet news of his passing fills me with immense sadness. Why should I feel such sadness for a man whose political life was over by the time I started school? And why should anyone born after the mid 80s care either? What’s the big deal about this Whitlam dude anyway? Let me try and explain.
Once upon a time, national politics wasn’t the focus-group-driven three-word-slogan circus it often appears to be nowadays. This was a generation before the 24 hour news cycle, and light years before the rise of social media. For politicians to be successful in this era, they needed to have substance. They needed to cut through. They needed to have a vision of a better future, a plan for how to get there, and the ability to communicate all of this to the people. They needed to be positive and optimistic. They needed to persuade and convince. They needed to inspire. Gough was all this.
When the Whitlam government was elected in December 1972, Australia had had the same shade of government for 23 years. During the last seven years of this period, political change occurred at a glacial pace. Parts of Australia were quite comfortable with nothing happening, but other parts of the country were crying out for a better deal from their national government. Why wasn’t there a change of government earlier? There are too many reasons to mention, quite possibly including inertia. And let’s be honest, the Labor party was a bit of a rabble for most of the ‘50s and ‘60s. Gough changed that. He reformed his party and made Labor electable again.
At the start of the Whitlam era, brief though it was, we were an outpost of a fragmented and declining Empire. By the time it ended, we were truly Australian for the first time. We could be confident and proud on the world stage in terms of the arts, business, and sport. We could openly champion and export our own culture. We shed ‘God Save The Queen’ in favour of our own anthem, and our national identity was rejuvenated with ideas of multiculturalism, internationalism and equal opportunity at its core. This isn’t to say the Whitlam government dragged an inert Australia into this mindset; the country itself was also changing. For a brief period, it was a positive, symbiotic political relationship between the people and their government.
When you have a change of government after 23 years, obviously the new government is going to want to get on with the job. After the 1972 election, Whitlam knew Labor had won, but some of the seats were too close to call so he couldn’t call a Caucus meeting to have a Cabinet elected. Anxious to get going, he and the Deputy leader were sworn in as a two-man government, administering all portfolios between them. Policies changed unbelievably quickly during this period of the two-week ‘Duumvirate’ government: Australia withdrew from the Vietnam conflict and anti-conscriptionists who had been gaoled were immediately released, major grants for the arts were announced, diplomatic relations with China started to be re-established, contraceptives became easier to buy, we changed the way we voted on key resolutions before the UN General Assembly, and racially selected sporting teams (i.e. those from South Africa) were banned from entering Australia. This might not seem like much now, but at the time, these changes were significant.
Whitlam was Prime Minister for slightly under three years. During this time, funding for schools was significantly increased and the model was updated to ensure greater fairness, university fees were abolished (yes, completely abolished), and Legal Aid was established for those unable to pay. The outer suburbs of Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne were sewered. (My parents’ house in Blacktown, in the outer suburbs of Sydney, still retains the pre-Whitlam backyard outhouse where the dunny can used to sit. It’s like a museum.) Attention was given to developing higher quality cities and infrastructure – not just the State capitals, but regional centres. Indigenous land rights were recognised for the first time, and a Department for Aboriginal Affairs was created with Cabinet status. The arts were truly recognised for the first time by a national government. A National Gallery was commissioned to house Australian and international art, and Jackson Pollock’s ‘Blue Poles’ was purchased to adorn it. Legal appeals to the Privy Council were abolished, as were Royal honours (knights and dames). The last remnants of the White Australia policy were repealed, and immigration was significantly reformed and expanded. Homosexuality was decriminalised. Equal pay for men and women was legislated, and the world’s first Department for Women’s Affairs was created. His government introduced the Trade Practices Act, the foundation of consumer protection now administered by the ACCC. Welfare payments for single mothers were commenced and no-fault divorce was introduced. His government outlawed racial discrimination and the voting age was lowered from 21 to 18. Some of these things were quite radical, even confrontationalist at the time, but we don’t think twice about them nowadays. But such lofty, ambitious aims didn’t just magically appear. They had to be fought for.
And then there’s the crowning glory, Medibank. (It’s called Medicare now but this is because the Fraser government abolished the scheme, but the Hawke government brought it back in pretty much its original form, under a different name.) Universal health care based on need, which we all collectively pay for through income taxes. Next time you go to the GP and get free medical attention, or next time you see a specialist and only pay the ‘gap’, think of Gough. This is an example of visionary policy that has not only stood the test of time, but has been built upon recently with the NDIS.
However, the Whitlam era was far from perfect. There were political scandals and difficulties with maintaining order over his own party. There were also significant problems with the economy, and for those Labor faithful who’d waited two decades for a Labor government only to see unemployment rise, there was a sense of betrayal. By early 1975 both Whitlam and the opposition knew that Whitlam would most likely lose an election. But his government had only just been elected to a second term in mid 1974, so the next election wasn’t due until mid 1977. So how did it all unravel at the end of 1975? An early election was engineered.
Rex Connor was Whitlam’s Minister for Minerals and Energy. He wanted to develop the Australian mining industry under Australian public ownership. To do this, he needed to borrow huge amounts of money. There was this guy called Khemlani, a Pakistani financier, who had been introduced to Connor and promised he could get the cash. Cabinet authorised Connor to borrow the money if Khemlani could get it. The opposition saw this as scandalous, and after months of empty promises, Cabinet eventually revoked Connor’s authority to deal with Khemlani. However, Connor continued dealing with Khemlani in secret.
During 1975, the complexion of the Senate changed. A long-standing tacit agreement between parties – a Constitutional ‘convention’ – had been that when a ‘casual vacancy’ arises in the Senate, State premiers will appoint someone from the same party, so the balance of the Senate is unaffected. Two Labor ‘casual vacancies’ arose in 1975, one in NSW and one in Queensland, and both vacancies were filled contrary to this convention – that is, the premiers of NSW and Queensland appointed non-Labor Senators to replace Labor ones. The Senate had been ‘stacked’. It couldn’t block the government’s legislation beforehand, but it could now if it wanted to, and there was nothing the voters of NSW or Queensland could do about it until the next Senate election.
Whitlam, when he found out Connor had continued dealing with Khemlani without authority, demanded his resignation. Connor’s resignation wasn’t the first from the Whitlam cabinet, but for Malcolm Fraser, leader of the opposition, it was the last straw. He now believed the government was out of control, and felt justified in doing whatever was required to force an early election. He instructed the ‘stacked’ Senate, which the opposition now controlled, to defer debate on the Budget, until the government agreed to an election. Thus began the brinksmanship. Whitlam didn’t want to call an election, but the Senate didn’t pass the Budget, his government would eventually run out of money.
Sounds like something from a political soap opera, right? Fraser’s argument was that the Senate was justified in withholding public money from a corrupt and incompetent government in order to force them to the polls. Whitlam’s argument was that his government had been elected – twice, in 18 months – to govern in the interests of all Australians. He also argued that the House of Representatives – the People’s House –should always have primacy over the Senate, and should always determine the complexion of the government and how it is funded. This is what *should* have occurred under the political theory of responsible government we inherited from Westminster (in England, the Lords cannot force the Commons to an election over the Budget), but in 1975, things blew off-course.
On November 11, 1975, a twice elected Prime Minister and his government were removed from office at the stroke of the vice-regal pen. Whitlam had no warning, no chance to change his strategy – it was an ambush. Both houses were dissolved that afternoon by Royal proclamation, and an election was called. The fundamental reason was that a government that cannot get its Budget through the Parliament could not govern. That the substance of the Budget was never an issue was proven by the fact that the Senate, once it knew the government had been dismissed, passed it immediately without amendment, then adjourned itself. In the election that followed a month later, Whitlam was smashed. He stayed as leader of the opposition for another full term of Parliament (imagine *that* nowadays), but when Labor was rejected again in the election of late 1977, he resigned from Parliament.
It’s true that I was too young to remember the Whitlam era in real time, but I’m definitely old enough to know and how I and many others benefited from his achievements in office. And so, on the day he passed away, I caught the bus to Old Parliament House (yes I live in Canberra) and walked past the flags at half mast to pay my respects in the People’s House he championed so passionately. And I realised the reason I feel sad about the loss of a man whose political life was effectively over by the time I started school is because his government changed the way we thought about education. And health. And the arts. And our relationships with the indigenous, and with people from other nations. He changed the way we thought about our world, our society, our politics, and each other. He changed the way we thought about our future, about what was possible.
And I feel sad about the way this man, who could have made bucketloads of cash as a QC but chose instead to spend his life trying to improve our country and ourselves, and had so much energy and wisdom and encouragement to give, was cut down in his prime by what looks in hindsight to be nothing more than political opportunism. I think about what Australia might have looked like if he’d been given more time and space to lead, especially since the Fraser government which followed slowed the pace of our progress and unwound a number of Whitlam’s policies, and maybe Australia missed an opportunity to truly excel. So I’m sad for Whitlam’s passing, but I’m also sad for us.
Few Australians have ever had so much of an impact and made such a difference, not only in their own time, but in the times of those still to come. We won’t see his like again.