July 2011


Gough Whitlam

By Lindsay Tanner
Whitlam in 1973. © George Lippmann/Fairfax Photos

Gough Whitlam at 95

Gough Whitlam is 95 this month. No other Australian politician has ascended into the realms of mythology quite like Gough has. For those of us over 50, the echoes of the great dramas of 1972–75 still reverberate strongly. In a land where prosperity and complacency often deliver mundane politics, the Whitlam government was an extraordinary symphony of soaring violins, crashing cymbals and thundering tubas. Like many others of my generation, in political terms I am a child of Whitlam who matured under Bob Hawke and Paul Keating. The imprint of the Whitlam vision and spirit has lingered.

Many books have been written about the political drama of the Whitlam years, particularly the government’s ultimate dismissal by Governor-General Sir John Kerr on 11 November 1975. Yet the actual content of the government’s initiatives also warrants serious analysis. There has been a great deal of subsequent commentary about specific issues, but few serious studies of the government itself have been produced. Whitlam’s own book, The Whitlam Government 1972–1975 (1985), is an exhaustive if slightly partisan account, but more needs to be written.

The government’s record has been clouded by the intense demonisation that followed in the wake of its dismissal. Conscious of the enormity of the constitutional atrocity they had engineered, conservatives went to extraordinary lengths to sully the Whitlam government’s legacy, as if to justify their misuse of the Senate and the dismissal with a plea of self-defence. It has worked up to a point: many now regard the Whitlam government as a byword for incompetence and economic mismanagement. Thankfully, though, not all have been taken in by this rewriting of history.

Since World War II, the western world has experienced several profound structural shifts: the historic compromise between socialism and capitalism in the postwar period that led to the creation of social security systems, the social revolution of the ’60s and the economic revolution of the ’80s. In Australia all of these structural changes were ushered in by Labor governments. The Chifley government laid the foundations for the modern social democratic state. The Whitlam government managed the social transformation driven by the emerging baby boom generation, and implemented some changes that had eluded Chifley, such as Medibank. The Hawke and Keating governments drove the internationalisation and liberalisation of the Australian economy, and introduced some social reforms that eluded Whitlam, such as native title and child support.

Many enduring social structures in Australia are products of the Whitlam era: the Trade Practices Act 1974, no-fault divorce and the Family Law Act 1975, the Australia Council, the Federal Court, the Order of Australia, federal legal aid, the Racial Discrimination Act 1975, needs-based schools funding, Medicare and the Law Reform Commission. The abolition of conscription, student financial assistance, FM radio, the Heritage Commission, non-discriminatory immigration rules, community health clinics, paid maternity leave for public servants, lowering the minimum voting age to 18 years, fair electoral boundaries and Senate representation for the Territories are also all part of the Whitlam legacy. Most of these initiatives were resisted bitterly but later accepted by the Liberal Party; some were initiated by Whitlam and implemented by Fraser, such as the creation of the Federal Court; others, such as Medibank, were dismantled by the conservatives and reintroduced by subsequent Labor governments.

It is amazing to reflect on the extent to which the contours of our contemporary society were shaped by the Whitlam government. The landmark social justice campaigns of the ’60s for Indigenous people, equal rights for women, universal health insurance, fair schools funding, access to justice, support for artistic endeavour, fair electoral laws, elimination of racial discrimination and genuine independence from British institutions all came to some form of fruition during Whitlam’s time in office. Some of these struggles continued, of course, and much has happened since 1975. Subsequent governments built on the achievements of the Whitlam era. There has been some backtracking and rethinking. Yet the ideas framework put in place in the early ’70s has proved remarkably durable.

Whitlam and his government changed the way we think about ourselves. The curse of sleepy mediocrity and colonial dependency, so mercilessly flayed in 1964 by Donald Horne in The Lucky Country, was cast aside. Outdated social attitudes were brutally confronted. The tribal conservatism of the ’50s that had been slowly eroded by prolonged prosperity was unable to withstand this concerted assault. The Australia in which Indigenous people were seen as subhuman, women were second-class citizens, censorship of artistic work was commonplace, nature was solely for exploitation, electoral laws were rigged and community leaders were rewarded with knighthoods was relegated to the history books.

Whitlam has described his government’s transformation of education as its “most enduring single achievement”. As one of the first group of students who benefited from the abolition of university fees and the creation of the Tertiary Education Assistance Scheme, I am tempted to agree. Australia’s education system, long geared to a world of physical labour and limited learning, had not kept pace with changes in the production process and society.

Whitlam’s economic legacy is more mixed but nothing like the shambles that is claimed by conservatives. Coming to office at the tail end of a prolonged boom, his government was caught largely unawares by the first oil shock, and the global stagflation that flowed from the American decision to fund the Vietnam War by borrowing. It made serious mistakes, such as allowing wage inflation to take off in 1974. It initiated some important economic reforms, such as the 25% tariff cut, the creation of the Industries Assistance Commission, creating Australia Post and Telecom to replace the old Postmaster-General’s Department, taking over some state railways, and investing in urban and regional development. The Expenditure Review Committee, which occupied so much of my attention as a minister, was established by the Whitlam government. Whitlam’s budget management was, contrary to Liberal Party mythology, relatively unadventurous, producing one surplus and two deficits, the latter of which was unfairly demonised by the conservatives. The official historical table for Commonwealth debt published by Treasury shows that the Australian government had zero net debt throughout the time Whitlam was in office. 

The government did undertake some misconceived initiatives, such as a 10% tax surcharge on unearned income and the national development initiatives championed by the Minister for Minerals and Energy Rex Connor: its amateurish attempts to borrow huge sums for national development ultimately came to nothing and did enormous political damage. A referendum to give the Commonwealth power to regulate prices and incomes failed in December 1973, but this provided no alibi for the surge in inflation the following year.

The real crime of the Whitlam government in the eyes of the conservatives was its redistributive expansion of the public sector. Whitlam used income-tax bracket creep driven by high inflation to finance a major increase in the size and scope of the public sector. The better-off paid higher taxes and struggled to maintain the value of their savings; the less well-off got substantial improvements in government services and had little in savings to worry about. The true economic significance of the Whitlam government was its expansion of the role of the state, which subsequent governments slowed but did not reverse. Malcolm Fraser promised to introduce tax indexation at the 1975 election but the partial indexation he introduced in office didn’t last long. He did restructure the income tax scales to favour higher income earners, though the scale of this reform was relatively modest.

The conservatives were successful in blocking some of Whitlam’s fundamental initiatives, such as the national superannuation and national compensation bills, which were among the 21 major bills blocked in the Senate and later portrayed as destroying freedom in Australia. The occupational superannuation system introduced by the Hawke government in the ’80s was a compromise on the original Whitlam plan. Reform of Australia’s ramshackle, inequitable system of injury and disability compensation is still yet to happen.

The Whitlam government’s repositioning of Australia internationally, particularly its recognition of mainland China, is widely acknowledged. Its mistakes, such as recognition of Soviet hegemony over the Baltic states and support for an Indonesian takeover of East Timor, are also very well known. It is often overlooked, though, just how amazingly turbulent this period of world history was.

In the 1972–75 period, the world saw communist victories in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, the collapse of military dictatorships in Spain, Portugal and Greece, the Watergate scandal and the resignation of United States President Richard Nixon, a brutal right-wing coup in Chile, the Turkish invasion of Cyprus, the Yom Kippur War and the ensuing Arab oil embargo, and two inconclusive elections in Britain in one year. It was a period with left-wing forces on the march all around the world but also with a harsh right-wing reaction already brewing. With the addition of domestic political turbulence caused by the conservatives twice blocking supply in the Senate and forcing elections within 18 months, it is remarkable how much the Whitlam government actually got done.

The Whitlam government was often amateurish, and generally naive about the strength of the social and political forces arrayed against it, and occasionally misguided on crucial issues. Yet the true test of its significance lies in the resilience of so many of the fundamental changes it made.

In my first speech in parliament in 1993, I paid tribute to Gough Whitlam as the person who had first inspired me, a kid from East Gippsland, to embrace politics and the Labor Party. My hero worship of the mid ’70s is much more nuanced now, but I still cleave to the progressive ideals that drove the Whitlam phenomenon, if not to all the details. In 1985 I attended a book signing by Gough at Myer in Lonsdale Street, Melbourne. After it was over, as Whitlam was getting into his car, he was surrounded by several hundred people chanting, “We want Gough.” It was a bizarre spectacle at the centre of the CBD on a normal working day a decade after Whitlam lost power. But it tells you an enormous amount about the enduring spirit ignited by Whitlam in those intoxicating days of the early ’70s, and the inability of unrelenting conservative vilification to destroy the enduring legacy of a profoundly important political leader. For all its flaws, the Whitlam government truly shaped modern Australia.

Lindsay Tanner
Lindsay Tanner retired from his position as the federal minister for finance in 2010 after a long career with the ALP. He is the author of several books, including Sideshow: Dumbing Down Democracy.

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