The Politics    Wednesday, November 11, 2015

It’s time (to move on)

By Michael Lucy

It’s time (to move on)
Whitlam outside Parliament House after being dismissed. (Photo: National Library of Australia)
The Dismissal has fascinated us for too long

Forty years ago today, the governor-general kicked out the elected government. We haven’t stopped talking about it yet. To one school of thought, John Kerr saved the country from the reckless mismanagement of Gough Whitlam; to another Whitlam was a victim of Malcolm Fraser’s machinations and Kerr’s malfeasance. Afterward the martyred Whitlam grew to legendary stature in his post-political life; Fraser underwent a late leftward conversion; and Kerr lived out his years in shame.

Why has the Dismissal (the capital D is obligatory) continued to fascinate us? Is it because, as Paul Kelly and Troy Bramston argue in their new book, it was “the most dramatic event in Australia’s political history”? It certainly was dramatic, by all accounts, and Australia’s political history – compared to America’s, say, with its civil wars and assassinations – has been relatively sedate. And while we’ve grown more used to prime ministers copping the boot since 1975, never again has the governor-general intervened.

But is this enough to justify the acres of coverage the anniversary gets every year? The new discoveries of minutiae rarely provide much insight, and the unresolved questions will likely always remain unresolved – they are mainly about who knew of Kerr’s intention to dismiss Whitlam before they should have (popular candidates are Fraser, the Queen and the CIA). Does anyone really want to know the untold story of the physical footage of a speech that Whitlam gave?

Is it perhaps just another symptom of the barely diminished stranglehold of the Baby Boomers on our culture? The oldest of the Boomers were pushing 30 at the time of the dismissal, the youngest in their early teens (depending on where you draw the line). Still to various degrees in their formative years, in other words: as Tony Abbott, who had just turned 18 and thought Kerr did nothing wrong, told Kelly and Bramston, he “got caught up in the whole thing”. (Twenty-one-year-old Malcolm Turnbull, on the other hand, was quite angry.) When I was a kid in the ’80s it was certainly a live issue for my parents, both then members of the ALP. Whitlam’s injunction to “maintain the rage” was not forgotten.

A third view is that the catastrophe of the Dismissal led Labor to the “Hawke-Keating reform era” beloved of centrists everywhere. (Side note: wait ten years and it’ll be the Hawke-Keating-Howard era, followed by the Rudd-Gillard-Abbott era.) That’s certainly the celebratory position taken by the Financial Review. Turnbull today also drew the lesson that “the Australian people vote on the question of economic management”. The sacking of Whitlam was the defeat of a certain idea of the left; talk to old lefties, betrayed by Hawke and Keating’s love of markets, and you sometimes feel they believe that if only someone could go back and strangle Kerr in his cradle we’d be living in a socialist utopia instead of this neoliberal wasteland.

Maybe it’s just that looking backwards is easier than looking forwards. If we look backwards we can dissect the issues of constitutional power, the clashing personalities, the mistakes and scheming that led to the event. Perhaps, as Michelle Grattan says, we can learn some lessons for next time we have the republic debate. (Though if we haven’t learnt them by now, it’s not clear why we will in the future.)

But if we look forwards, what do we see? An uncertain void. The likely political problems of the coming decades – the retreat of government from the provision of services while it advances on surveillance and control; rising inequality and corporate power; climate change and its fallout casting a grim pall over everything – can seem insurmountable, and won’t be solved by a different balance of powers. Neither Labor nor Liberal parties seem prepared to address them with the required seriousness, if at all. Looking back 40 years won’t tell us what to do next.

When Whitlam was about 80, he came to speak at my high school. Probably some of the political kids invited him. I was an indifferent student who skipped assembly as often as not, but I felt some obligation to turn up for the great man. I don’t remember what he talked about when he took to the stage, but he towered and boomed, he called us comrades and for half an hour he kept a hall of a thousand or more surly teens in his grasp. For a while it seemed like the real thing, like the idea of a leader with a vision and a gift might mean something. I remember thinking that this was what people meant when they said someone was larger than life.

Then his confidence faltered; a look of confusion came over his face for a moment as the thread of the argument slipped from his grasp. His words kept coming without pause, but the animating intelligence had gone from them. You could see him casting around for a quick way to end it, and after throwing out filler for a few minutes he brought the speech to an abrupt but plausible conclusion. He looked relieved to sit down.


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Michael Lucy

Michael Lucy is a writer based in Melbourne.


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