Australian politics, society & culture

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Tuesday, 21st October 2014

Edward Gough Whitlam, 1916-2014

Prime minister for only three years, Gough Whitlam's legacy is legendary. Universal health insurance; multiculturalism; diplomatic relations with China; no-fault divorce and the Family Court; Aboriginal land rights; the Racial Discrimination Act; environmental and consumer protection; Blue Poles; outer-suburban sewering; and 'Advance Australia Fair' are still cogs in the national framework. Free education was revolutionary, but ultimately too expensive. His Royal Commission into Human Relationships was world-unique, and represented a high point in the faith in social democratic governments to solve social problems and protect the most vulnerable.

"It's time", the Whitlamites sang in 1972, and in the end, timing is everything. Whitlam's social democratic "Program" coincided with a OPEC-sparked world recession and a rapid loss of faith among policymakers in the role of governments, especially big-spending ones. We credit the Hawke-Keating governments with the pro-market "modernisation" of the Australian economy, but it was the Whitlam government's 25 per cent tariff cuts in 1973 which ushered in the new era.

After crashing through, Whitlam crashed. No government has since come to office with a "Program" of such broad reform, and Labor's fear of being seen as "economically irresponsible" still constrains its ambitions. Paul Keating may have learned politics from Jack Lang, but his experience on Whitlam's front bench during the loans affair helped encourage his own economic orthodoxy.

But now, nearly 40 years since the Dismissal, Australian public life is so nasty that Malcolm Fraser – formerly "Kerr's cur" – is more Green than blue-blood, and is now politically much closer to Whitlam than he is to his former party. And just as he did during his (free) university career, Tony Abbott came to the prime ministership still railing against the Whitlam legacy. His campaign from opposition framed Rudd and Gillard as the Whitlams of their time. They weren't, but the carbon price would have sat with the best of Whitlam's Program.

Whitlam made tremendous errors of judgement. But in the end, Whitlam's legacy is informed by his expansive vision for the nation. The possibility of that vision is what is most missed.

Russell Marks
Politicoz Editor

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Whitlam's time

The best of the rolling coverage of the events and tributes following Gough Whitlam's death this morning can be found at Fairfax and the Guardian.

Former Labor leaders Julia Gillard (Guardian) and Mark Latham (Australian) have penned tributes, as has Race Mathews (Guardian) and the Conversation has a number of 'experts' assess Whitlam's legacy. Thea Hayes (Drum) was there when Whitlam poured soil into Vincent Lingiari's hands at Wave Hill.

The Guardian is running an archive piece from 11 November 1975, and News.com.au has an excellent comparison of the Whitlam legacy and the Abbott government's program. Michelle Grattan at the Conversation compares the first years of Australian prime ministers from Whitlam to Abbott.

Coalition mates on the MRT

Scott Morrison appears to have made two overtly political appointments – one a former staffer in Tony Abbott's office, the other a one-time Liberal candidate – to the Migration Review Tribunal, the body which reviews departmental decisions to not grant protection visas to asylum seeker applicants (Guardian).

And Fairfax reports that the annual cost of Australia's offshore detention centres has hit $1 billion.

Biffo poll

The Labor Party has received an unexpected bounce in the latest Newspoll (Guardian), though the Australian emphasises the fact that Tony Abbott's threat to shirtfront Vladimir Putin went down well among 63 per cent of respondents.

Supermarket monsters

Barnaby Joyce's cabinet-approved agriculture Green Paper signalled more dams and more protections for farmers in their dealings with the supermarket giants (Australian).

In the Business Spectator, Cliona O'Dowd analyses the ACCC's pursuit of Coles.

Teachers on 457s

A Fairfax exclusive this morning reports that foreign teachers are being employed on 457 visas despite a "growing glut of unemployed Australian teaching graduates".