December 2014 – January 2015

The Nation Reviewed

Whitlam’s ghost

By Don Watson
Illustration
Remembering Gough Whitlam puts modern Labor to shame

Gough Whitlam had just died, and on the ABC TV program The Drum John Hewson and Craig Emerson were offering us their thoughts. During his time as leader of the Liberal Party 20 years ago, Hewson was a febrile embodiment of everything that Whitlam wasn’t. On this night, though, he sounded like not only a much more rounded and thoughtful liberal than he used to be but also someone more rounded and thoughtful than almost anyone on either side of the present parliament, and someone with more of what might make a good prime minister. It makes you wonder who was advising him when as leader of the Opposition he said so many peculiar things: about the passing of the Native Title Act being a day of shame for Australia, and that preppy stuff about Paul Keating and the Queen, and Bob Carr being a doubtful character because he hadn’t sired children. Come to think of it, Tony Abbott was advising him.

Later in the show, Peter Carey joined the conversation by video link from another city. The decorated novelist was spruiking his new book, which refloats the old left contention that the Americans had a hand in Whitlam’s downfall.

Hewson, who is hardly the sort to accept this version of events, was nonetheless polite and willing to listen. Perhaps he was acknowledging that a novel is primarily a work of the imagination, and even those set in a well-known historical territory might, under various pretexts and guises, describe imagined worlds. Fiction writers don’t need proof of anything. We could kiss goodbye to at least half the literary canon if they did. And as it would only be fair to demand the same of politicians, journalists, lobbyists, think tanks and religions, very soon the entire polity might consist of Gerard Henderson and his dog.

That Dr Emerson, a minister in the Rudd and Gillard governments, would not buy the CIA conspiracy idea was no less to be expected. Hardly anyone buys it these days. The evidence was paper-thin to begin with and grew thinner as the rage faded and reality bit. Of course, until recently there was no evidence that the governor-general was secretly talking to a justice of the High Court months before he dismissed the prime minister. But even if we were to learn one day that he was also talking to the US ambassador, it would be no proof of a conspiracy. The main argument against the Marshall Green–CIA theory is less the lack of evidence of a conspiracy than the absence of any need for one. The conspiracy of the lawyers was sufficient, along with the usual suspects in any story: incompetence, misjudgement, bastardry, hubris, vanity.

Such comforting calculations seemed far from Emerson’s mind. On hearing the words “American” and “conspiracy”, he charged like a heffalump possessed. Not that he really connected with the victim, but amid all the snorting and blurting and trampling, the poor novelist had no hope of putting his case, much less of explaining its finer points. Of what the book’s conspiracy consisted we would not be permitted to hear. If he had even circumstantial evidence, we were not to hear it. “And what’s the title of your book?” Carey at last managed to exclaim. And there it ended, with the novelist pained and bewildered, Hewson a little embarrassed, and Emerson like Inspector Clouseau upon forcibly apprehending an innocent cleaning lady.

Singularly cranky as Emerson’s performance was, it had something in common with other recent ALP turns: the hammering of the Greens at the 2012 NSW conference, for instance, or the equally brutal, orchestrated dumping on Kevin Rudd when the party’s leaders felt it necessary to squash him once and for all. It must be a bit like this to watch a massacre or a show trial: it’s less a question of the rightness of the cause or the guilt of the accused and more one of the taste it leaves in the observer’s mouth. You watched these things and hoped that no young people with ideals were listening, no one of any calibre who had been thinking about joining the Labor Party or running for parliament and serving their country through politics – another Gough Whitlam, for example. You watched and wanted to say, as your mother used to, “Listen to yourselves!”

Or listen to Gough Whitlam. Whitlam knew about the need to let blood. No Australian politician before him did more of the hard but necessary things, and none has since: to make the ALP relevant again, defeat opponents, reshape opinion, win elections, redirect and refashion the country, and by his example attract people of the kind that, when he’d gone, would not only defend what he did but do big things themselves. It’s not his fault or theirs if now we wonder whether some of the things they did made life outside politics and public service so much more attractive than life in them, with the result that fewer folk with something approaching Whitlam’s combination of brains, breadth, wit and conviction come to the party, and among those who do, few stay for very long. Whitlam was as ruthless as any successful politician is bound to be, but in the midst of dirty business he practised his Ciceronian wit and happy facility for arcane allusion. The comrades might have been bemused by this eccentricity, but they were also entertained, which can count for a lot in a leader. Language and history were the foundations of his authority. Imagine that.

Just why the murmur of American conspiracy should trigger such an unbecoming frenzy in an astute representative of modern Labor is anybody’s guess. Perhaps he’d had a rough day or hay fever – Sudafed can make you strange sometimes. Or was it Oedipal rage? A sublimated fear of any deviation from the official version of the Dismissal because it might expose the guilt in unworthy heirs? Was he repressing the dangerous thought that Whitlam never shared some primary tenets of modern Labor’s world view, including its avid (some might say craven) pro-Americanism? Did he hear “conspiracy” as Labor’s conspiracy against the father – and take to his subconscious with a ballpein hammer?

Now we’re being silly, of course. This is the dear old Dismissal, not Sophocles or The Manchurian Candidate. Still, it is possible that Labor does carry a sort of burden of betrayal from those days. How could they escape it, working in the shadow of the man’s eloquence, his patrician gaze, the talismanic magic of his Latin: hanging on to the rage and tugging their forelocks, even as they shared the Tory conspirators’ estimation of his economic ignorance and managerial incompetence, and took comfort and drew strength from it; even as their mission was to prove they had outgrown and bettered him?

“Boy, when you’re dead, they really fix you up,” as Holden Caulfield said. But they fix themselves up too. There’s not much that can be done about the rankest hypocrites. The Tories who attended Whitlam’s memorial service might have been implacable and conniving enemies of the man and everything he stood for, yet there they were joining in the songs and laughter and telling the cameras he was a fine fellow. Booing them is not the answer: there’d never be a funeral without protracted bouts of it and they’d probably have to drop a couple of the prayers. No, swallowing hypocrisy is one of the little sacrifices we make for the dead.

And really the Tories are not where the story is. The story is always with the heirs. Have they kept the faith? Lived according to the example the “old white man” laid down? Have they honoured his spirit as well as his name? Probably very few in the first ten rows could swear they had. At funerals and the like, the biggest secrets are stirring in those sitting closest to the dead.

Whatever the reason for it, including the possibility that Emerson merely wanted to keep our attention on Whitlam’s great legacy, throttling a distinguished novelist on the ABC was hardly keeping the faith. But that seemed less the point than the one implicit in both the TV program and the memorial service, where no one from the modern generation of Labor spoke. The point was that Gough Whitlam could not exist in modern Labor or modern politics. Ideological differences are just a part of it. The man was too eloquent, too erudite, too civilised to fit. Now crassness rules. We have message, not speech. If you want speech, get Noel Pearson or Cate Blanchett or one of the party’s “elder statesmen”, John Faulkner or Graham Freudenberg, to do the talking for you. Failing that, John Hewson.

By the way, the title of Peter Carey’s novel is Amnesia.

Don Watson

Don Watson is an award-winning author. His books include The Passion of Private White, Death Sentence: The Decay of Public Language, Recollections of a Bleeding Heart: A Portrait of Paul Keating PM, The Bush and Watsonia, a collection of his writing.

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