Australian Politics

The view from Billinudgel

Gough Whitlam, 1916-2014

Gough Whitlam may have taken great delight in designing his own funeral arrangements – or at least a self-mocking fantasy version of them. But the pleasure of reciting his epitaph rested with a colleague, the acerbic New South Wales premier Neville Wran, although in all probability it was penned by the great speechwriter Graham Freudenberg, who acted as an amanuensis to both men.

As Wran put it, ‘It was said of Caesar Augustus that he found a Rome of brick and left it of marble. It can be said of Gough Whitlam that he found Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane unsewered, and left them fully flushed.’ It was a line that delighted the elder statesman, whose epic visions – national, international and, some believed, interplanetary – had their origins in a firmly grounded policy of improving the quality of life: he began with the outhouse, and reached for the sky.

It is for this breadth of vision, for the unquenchable optimism of his ambition, that Australia’s twenty-first prime minister will be best remembered. He spent less than three years in office – less than a full constitutional term, although he won two elections in the process. But in Australian history his name outshines most of his predecessors; only Menzies and perhaps Deakin among the conservatives and Curtin and Chifley on the Labor side are similarly household names.

Edward Gough Whitlam truly became a legend in his own lifetime. But it was a different legend to different audiences. Most of the left saw him as a flawed genius and a political martyr well on the way to beatification, if not canonisation. The right regarded him as a monstrous aberration, a devilish warning to budding politicians of the awful fate that awaits those who overreach. All, however, acknowledged that he was the dominant figure of his times, a giant who bestrode the parliament in a way that few had done before him and none has approached since.

His achievements – the now legendary Program – were many and radical. Some, like Medicare (son of Medibank), consumer protection laws, the Family Court and of course the sewering of the outer suburbs, have endured. Others, like free university degrees, Aboriginal land rights, the Australian Assistance Plan (a scheme of grants to kick-start overdue projects in disadvantaged electorates) and the promotion of the arts as a national objective, have been axed, abandoned or severely watered down by his successors. But few would deny that the fall-out from the great social explosion of the Whitlam years is still spreading: Whitlam remains one of our few leaders who can be truly said to have changed Australia – not just for the brief period of his administration, but forever.

But change brings with it instability and insecurity, and the dark side of Whitlam’s legacy is that the cost of trying to implement a grand political and social vision is now seen to be unacceptably high. The runaway inflation, high interest rates and burgeoning unemployment of the latter half of Whitlam’s turbulent administration were not entirely his fault; the twin oil-price shocks of the early ’70s caught every government in the world by surprise, and all, with the possible exception of the Japanese, failed to provide an adequate response. But Whitlam seemed unwilling even to try: when he did make a grand economic gesture in the form of an across-the-board tariff cut, the cure, in the short term, turned out to be worse than the disease.

Economics was never his strong suit; it was something for others to worry about while he got on with implementing The Program. The trouble was that none of his colleagues knew very much either, and they were highly suspicious of the better-informed Treasury officials, most of whom they saw as leftover conservatives dedicated to subverting The Program.

As was his wont, Whitlam was determined to crash through or crash, and while there may be argument about how effective he was in terms of implementing his own policy, there can be no doubt that the economy suffered collateral damage in the process, damage which was ultimately to prove fatal to the government. Thus, all his successors in the Labor leadership – Hayden, Hawke, Keating, Beazley, Crean, Latham, Rudd, Gillard and Shorten – have had to live under the shadow of Whitlam’s supposed economic irresponsibility. The idea has since been refined into the great conservative lie that, whatever else happens, Labor is never really to be trusted with your money.

This doleful refrain, repeated at every election since 1975, is what the Tories would like to see engraved on Whitlam’s tomb: they would prefer to see his brand of carefree exuberance, the daring and ambition of those years, buried and forgotten. If people must have aspirations, let them confine them to their own backyards: let them wish for bigger cars, more prestigious schools, perhaps a holiday home.

Let them not dream of making real changes to society, let alone to the world; the upheavals can be too great, the triumphs too destabilising, the disappointments too crushing. Let them remain relaxed and comfortable, but just a little fearful of those who would shake their complacency. This mantra makes perfect political sense; it won John Howard four elections and even put Tony Abbott, a man once thought to be unelectable, into the Lodge.

And yet, and yet. Somehow the grandeur of Whitlam lingers on, even among the under-forties, the generation that has only heard the stories and never experienced the highwire act that was the reality. Somehow this unlikely figure, the Canberra-reared son of a public servant, the physically awkward, pedantic, legalistic, frequently self-righteous, often maddening and at times just plain boring preacher of reform, has become part of the Australian pantheon.

In part, of course, it is because he made his own myths. Much of what the public saw as Whitlam’s bombast was in fact a somewhat clumsy attempt at self-deprecation. Like King Canute, he thrived on flattery but did not take it too seriously, and his attempts to put his flatterers in their place were often misunderstood.

In retrospect it is easy to see how. On one celebrated occasion, the director of the National Gallery of Australia, Betty Churcher, informed Whitlam of a plan – fortunately kyboshed – to make him appear to walk across water to the opening of an exhibition. ‘Comrade,’ Whitlam replied, ‘that would not have been possible – the stigmata have not yet healed.’ His fans found this hilarious but it confirmed the worst fears of his critics. Here was Whitlam literally challenging the Almighty. But of course he wasn’t: Whitlam, though an agnostic, once described himself as a fellow traveller with Christianity and was a great respecter of religious belief. Rather than blaspheming, he was thumbing his nose, yet again, at the pretension, the pomposity and the hypocrisy of an establishment which all too frequently, in his view, failed to distinguish between God and Mammon. If the snobs didn’t get the joke, that was their tough luck.

But he was certainly no prude; indeed, there were times when he could be positively prurient. I treasure the memory of a VIP flight in 1970, which was diverted from Melbourne to Hobart by bad weather. The travelling press corps was seriously miffed; most of us had already made more or less sybaritic arrangements for the forthcoming evening, instead of which we were now to be deposited in the bleak south. The prospect was made worse by the memory of a former Whitlam visit, during which the Labor leader had been accosted by an eager young reporter with the demand: ‘Mr Whitlam, tell us what you will do for Tasmania.’ Whitlam had replied with devastating honesty: ‘What can I do for Tasmania – what can anybody do for Tasmania? I mean, the place is fucked.’ There was a feeling that a return visit might not be entirely welcome. But this time Whitlam had words of optimism. ‘There’s one thing about Tasmania,’ he reassured us. ‘With all that inbreeding, there’s always a chance of a bit of double-headed fellatio.’ The trip was made.

I first met Gough Whitlam in 1969, shortly after I arrived in Canberra. I had seen him in action often enough, and been impressed by his oratory and his knowledge, but like many on the left I was not yet entirely sure where he stood on the key issues of the time, especially the war in Vietnam. As the heir to Arthur Calwell’s noble but doomed anti-war crusade of 1966, Whitlam, while clearly determined to negotiate Australia’s way out of the mess to our north, seemed to me not to have the same fire in his belly.

Although he had only been opposition leader for two years, he had already survived a challenge from the charismatic king of the streets, Jim Cairns (masterminded, oddly, by the man who claimed to be Whitlam’s greatest admirer, Phillip Adams), and was clearly distrusted by some in his own party, notably the leader of the New South Wales Left, Lionel Murphy, with whom I felt considerable rapport.

Moreover, he was supported by the New South Wales Right, which even in those days was pretty awful. I realised later that the perception that Whitlam was on the right of the party, like the idea that Calwell was on the left, was no more than an accident of geography. Whitlam, the internationalist free-thinker, was bound to his dominant state faction, just as Calwell, the conservative Catholic advocate of White Australia, was bound to his. But at the time I was inclined to be suspicious of the smooth-talking lawyer who, like me, had benefited (or otherwise) from a cosseted childhood and a privileged education.

Our first meeting changed my mind completely; I was won over to lifelong Whitlamolatry. In place of the sinister manipulator I had half-expected, I found an amiable, funny and rather shy man desperately eager to explain his plans to transform Australia from the smug backwater of the Menzies years into a model for the rest of the world. In those days, the idea that Australia could take a leading role in any field other than sport was breathtaking, yet Whitlam seemed to believe that it was entirely possible, provided a meticulously prepared program of public education and overdue social change could be carried out – and, listening to him outline it thirty-five years ago, there seemed no good reason why it should not. Certainly, in the rapidly changing times of the late ’60s, it was a cause worth embracing, and embrace it I did.

But I also embraced the man himself. While Whitlam, like Menzies, did not suffer fools gladly, he was not an intellectual snob; he was genuinely interested and concerned about people, not just en masse but as individuals. He took a personal interest in their affairs. When two opposition staffers married in Canberra in 1972, Whitlam interrupted a frantically busy election schedule to fly from Sydney to attend the ceremony. It was winter and Canberra airport was fogbound for several hours; his VIP aircraft could not land, but rather than return to Sydney, Whitlam waited until the weather cleared and made a belated appearance at the reception.

He became a secular godparent to one of my daughters, invited my extended family to the Lodge for a head-wetting, and maintained an interest in her welfare thereafter. He kept in touch with a huge round of colleagues, acquaintances and their families and was constantly performing small acts of kindness, although these too were frequently misconstrued by cynics. Once, after he had paid a private hospital visit to the child of a colleague, he was greatly distressed when an enemy put it about that he was just chasing an extra vote in caucus. The fact was much simpler: the boy had asked to meet his hero, and Whitlam, being a kind and generous human being, had obliged.

He was both a humanitarian and a humanist; he truly believed that if people were told the truth, were shown the possibilities for their future and given a genuine choice, they would behave sensibly, decently and even altruistically. In spite of repeated disappointments, he never lost that faith in people. It was this above all that made him such an attractive human being.

*This is an edited extract of Mungo MacCallum’s The Whitlam Mob, published by Black Inc

Mungo MacCallum

Mungo MacCallum was a political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy. Much of his work can be found here: The View from Billinudgel.

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