By Humphrey McQueen
[HMcQ: Following are three pieces written for the Bulletin in 1999-2000. The Bulletin commissioned and paid for this obituary in 2,000 but it died first (sic).]
Rumours no longer exaggerated: an obit for Gough
The passing of Edward Gough Whitlam signifies more than the death of one man. Whitlam is the only Labor prime minister whose name became an –ism, an endowment which continues to evoke veneration and loathing. He will wish to be remembered for his policies, the theme of this reflection.
Federal Treasurer Peter Costello boasts that he has lead the economy to recovery from “the damage [that] began in 1972 with the Whitlam Government” Costello had reacted to the debauching of Australia’s credit rating by the Whitlam ministry’s attempt to borrow billions from unlovely vendors. Minerals and Energy Minister, Rex Connor, defended those deals to buy back the farm with a line of verse: “Give me men to match my vision”.
Whitlam had restored vision to public life after the decline of Menzies cabinets into domestic and international senescence, followed by muddles and false starts under Holt, Gorton and McMahon. For good or ill, twenty-[???] years after Whitlam resigned from parliament, his name is linked to initiatives in every area of administration. The currency of terms such as “agenda setting” and “the mandate” testify to his energies. Typical of this activism, his major publication, The Whitlam Government, 1972-1975 (1985), was not a volume of memoirs, but a thematic analysis under nineteen policy headings. Because the Whitlam legacy has been blurred on every side by false attributions and by forgetting, the measure of the man must be plumbed through a survey of his initiatives in those domains.
“A principal part of my duty”, he wrote, has been “to place issues of importance … on the agenda of my Party and the agenda of this nation”. Along with R. J. Hawke as ACTU advocate and D. A. Dunstan as attorney-general in South Australia, Whitlam represented the generation of graduates who turned the labour movement from its rural and manufacturing origins towards the tertiary sector.
A determination “to crash through” derived from impatience at the logjam of reforms after 23 years in opposition. “The program” that Whitlam delivered in the Blacktown Civic Centre on 13 November 1972 would have been more secure had he won in 1969. Instead, his reputation as a economic manager is abysmal, bearing the opprobrium of grappling with world recession from 1974, after oil prices skyrocketed in October 1973. Its warning signs had flashed from the late 1960s when the international monetary system had ceased to function before. The Coalition government had made the situation here worse by failing to revalue our dollar. To suppose that the economy would have had no problems had William McMahon won in 1972 is to deny the domestic and international forces that erupted after 1973.
In opposition, Whitlam had assumed that the post-war boom would continue, allowing him to fund the program without raising tax rates. In this expectation, he was not following Keynes who had favoured additional government spending to counter contractions by corporate investors. In as much as Whitlam had thought about these matters, he was among the multitude who extrapolated Keynes’s tactic into a licence to spend on good causes, irrespective of the pace of economic activity.
Australia did not face a low level of investments so much as their misdirection. A 1974-75 inquiry into manufacturing documented how chronic inefficiencies from fragmented plants, punitive taxes and inappropriate accounting had left firms vulnerable to the Coalition’s fuelling of inflation during 1971-72, well before the oil price hikes. Whitlam’s tome ignored those findings because he had little interest in manufacturing and because they ran counter to his conversion to tariff cuts as a panacea. No one explained to him that an appreciating dollar was stripping factories of that protection.
This economic illiteracy confirms the accusation by his advisor, Dr H. C. Coombs, that he suffered from the lawyer’s belief that the enactment of legislation altered the real world. Yet as prime minister, Whitlam recognised that Acts of Parliament could be frustrated by a hostile or dispirited bureaucracy. The Labor government inherited a public service divided in its prejudices and enthusiasms. Although he categorised the Department of Immigration as irretrievably racist, he never lost his trust in the neutrality of the civil service on the model of his father who had been Commonwealth solicitor-general.
By April 1974, Coombs had convinced Whitlam to set up a Royal Commission on Government Administration to cope with the fiscal crisis confronting welfare states. If greater efficiency could be won from public services despite static real expenditures, welfare objectives might be sustained. Since 1975, that prospect has lost out, first to razor gangs and then to outsourcing and privatisation as Whitlam’s ALP successors dissociated themselves from his largesse. R. J. Hawke got Gough out of the way in 1983 by dispatching him to Paris as ambassador to UNESCO. On that eunuch’s couch, he could not generate invidious comparisons.
This switch on economic policy is clear from the altered meaning of the word “reform”. Under Whitlam, “reform” required governmental involvement to advance social equality for gender, generations and regions, as well as class. Under Hawke and Keating, ‘reform’ meant economic rationalism with the sell-off of government instrumentalities, de-regulation of the financial sector, self-regulation for corporations, the slackening of controls on overseas ownership and a diminution of workplace safeguards. The slashing of tariffs was the one area where Hawke and Keating were faithful to a Whitlam initiative.
Typically, he opened The Whitlam Government with an account of International Affairs, which occupied a fifth of the volume, more than twice the next longest chapter, no less tellingly devoted to The Law. Those domains were linked because he deployed the foreign affairs power in the constitution to expand Commonwealth activity. Moreover, international relations was the domain where he could act without passing a law through a hostile Senate. Like Dr Evatt, Whitlam might have been more successful as joint Foreign Minister and Attorney-General than as prime minister. In that case, and again like Evatt, he would have been vigorous in endeavouring to subvert his leader.
Whitlam formed his foreign policies during a time when Australia’s security partnership was the South-East Asian Treaty Organisation, a ramshackle of colonial powers and regional dictatorships. His reappraisal coincided with the Nixon-Kissinger redirection of US containment in Asia, notably the decision to recognise Maotse-tung’s “bandits” as the government of China. The White House was less pleased with Whitlam’s willingness to consider the Soviet Union as just another state with legitimate interests around the globe.
Whitlam’s view of the world was remote from the skepticism voiced by anti-Vietnam activists about Washington’s virtue, or reliability as an ally. After he won the Labor leadership following the electoral debacle of 1966, he argued that Australian regulars had to stay in Vietnam in order to help the US extricate itself from that quagmire. He is often credited with withdrawing the conscripts, yet all but a handful of professional advisors had been back since 1971. Whitlam did not disturb the US spy bases here until the weeks leading up to his dismissal when he outed a CIA controller at Pine Gap, near Alice Springs.
From the 1940s, Whitlam’s support for nationalist revolutions had committed him to Indonesia, first against the Dutch over West Irian, and later in Portuguese Timor. That second decision remains the canker for those most anxious to admire him. Typically, he has never apologised. His masterly inactivity in regard to Timor contrasted with his drive not to be beaten by Portugal into the dishonour of being the world’s last colonial overlord. “If history were to obliterate the whole of my public career”, Whitlam wrote, “save my contribution to the independence of a democratic PNG, I should rest content”.
On the domestic front, none of Whitlam’s redirections of policy had more potential for transforming the Australian way of life than his integration of policies for cities, housing and transport. To that end he created the Department of Urban and Regional Development (DURD), which rivaled Treasury as a source of advice on investment and employment. In similar vein, he later merged Immigration with Labour, tying population with employment.
Elected in 1952 for Werriwa in Sydney’s south-west, Whitlam had lived with the hardship of suburbs short on basic services. Daily life at 32 Albert street, Cabramatta, stiffened his suspicion that an affluent society could be equitable only through public utilities, whether libraries or sewerage. Those experiences stimulated his preference for Local over State government, twisting a new strand into Labor’s tilting the federal compact towards Canberra.
Paralleling Whitlam’s emphasis on the suburbs was his attempt to relieve pressure on the capital cities by decentralisation. Albury-Wodonga became the first regional growth centre. Location has kept those twin cities expanding, but with fewer of the amenities envisaged in 1973. Whitlam’s urban consciousness lingers in the 2001 agreement between the State governments to install a single local government across the border. He had lost enthusiasm for developing the North until his neglect immediately after Cyclone Tracy made him over-compensate by blundering into the reconstruction of Darwin.
Although Cabramatta has become “Little Saigon”, multi-culturalism appeared in The Whitlam Government only where a Liberal minister for Immigration, Billie Snedden, had opposed its assumptions in 1969. When Whitlam’s first Minister for Immigration, Al Grassby, proposed a “new slogan for Australia” it was the cumbersome phrase “unity in diversity”. The association of Grassby with multi-culturalism came during the five years he served as Community Relations Commissioner under Fraser who used the tag to attract the ethnic vote, just as Whitlam boasted he had done.
Earlier Labor leaders, notably Dr Evatt, had personal commitments to the arts, yet culture had remained an electoral asset for the Liberals until Whitlam. Menzies associated the middle class – his “forgotten people” – with the life of the mind “which marks us off from the beast”. In 1975, the 85-year old Sydney North Shore painter Grace Crowley told a journalist: “We were all too superior for Labor, but Labor I vote for now”. The swing within the arts community came with a fresh wave of practitioners as well from an enlarged audience, both dramatised in David Williamson’s Don’s Party (1971). Establishment of the Australia Council with what now looks like lavish funding, and the 1973 purchase of Jackson Pollock’s “Blue Poles”, consolidated that enthusiasm. In retirement, the Whitlams became opening-night fixtures.
Whitlam’s pouring of earth into the hands of Gurindji elder, Vincent Lingari, inscribed land rights as a distinguishing mark of his administration. Yet his government did not override Queensland’s Bjelke-Petersen on Aboriginal matters, a sign of the ALP’s continuing reluctance to use the powers authorised by the 1967 referendum to make special laws.
Medibank-cum-Medicare remains the most approved of the Whitlam legacies, one which has been tampered with but which would be electoral suicide to abolish in favour of the voluntary schemes and charity so beloved by Howard. Three aspects of Whitlam’s initiative, however, are nowadays overlooked. First, the Commonwealth takeover of hospital funding is a dead letter. Secondly, Medibank marginalised the community health centres proposed by the caucus committee of medicos who thought public and preventive approaches more beneficial than the guaranteeing of doctors’ incomes. Thirdly, the levy was a flat-rate impost on income taxes, which are themselves calculated after deducting expenses and other dodges. The levy has become part of the drift away from policies based on “needs”.
In another unintended retreat from equality, Whitlam abolished tertiary education fees, against the advice of his Minister for Education, Kim Beazley senior, who had benefited from the West Australian system that Whitlam cited as his model. This contradiction of Labor’s “needs” program sparked little criticism because, according to Beazley, “the beneficiaries were the most articulate and influential sectors”. Beazley snr had wanted more Commonwealth scholarships for lower income groups. That removal of fees brought little change to the class composition of tertiary enrollments, though it helped older women to graduate. The fee abolition also cleared the way under Hawke’s rationalism to HECS charges.
Whitlam displayed a Menziesian attachment to middle-class presumptions when he illustrated his vision of equality: “I want every kid to have a desk, with a lamp, and his own room to study”. Trained to value equality before the law, as in one vote one value, he pursued equality of opportunities more than of outcomes. Hence, the need for affirmative action for women to redress the social circumstances that lie beneath injustices surprised him. His socialism required a larger public sector, never a reallocation of wealth.
Reacting against the defeat of the 1944 referendum to extend Commonwealth powers, RAAF navigator Whitlam had projected a career in politics. In opposition, he campaigned to modernise the Constitution. He brought himself to nation-wide prominence within the Labor movement through his 1957 Chifley Memorial Lecture, The Constitution versus Labor. He argued that for as long as the courts ruled nationalisation to be unconstitutional, the ALP’s Socialist Objective could form no part of its electoral program. The ALP has since moved so far from even the watered-down Democratic Socialism adopted in 1957 that the Party’s fixation throughout the 1950s on Court rulings against nationalisation (Section 92) now seems pre-Copernican. Yet in the late 1980s, the High Court restored the words “trade and commerce between the States shall be absolutely free” to the founders’ limited intent of banning imposts on inter-State tariffs. One bar to nationalisation was thus being lowered while the ALP was moving towards the sell-off of people’s bank.
In place of nationalisation, Whitlam breathed life into governmental enterprises through tied grants to the States (Section 96). He also reinstated the Inter-State Commission (Section 101), to adjudicate and administer trade and commerce – as it could now do over competition policy, through it is part of no party’s agenda.
Republicanism is one area where there has been no retreat from “The Program” because, as Whitlam confessed, he “did not become committed to the Australian republic” until the reserve powers of the crown injured his own prospects. Instead, he had prided himself on his punctiliousness in regard to Royal Style and Titles, treating the Windsors “as if they were his equals”. How paradoxical then that a parliamentarian so respectful of procedural niceties should be laid low by a big-C Conservative disregard for constitutional conventions. The dismissal on 11 November 1975 initiated the Citizens for Democracy on their campaign to rewrite the Constitution. At the 1999 referendum, both minimalists and direct-electionists overlooked the need to deprive the Senate of its power to block supply and to remove the reserve powers of the head of state, whether as president or governor-general.
“More matter, less art” Whitlam told his speechwriters. Had he drafted those addresses himself, the texts would have been as distinguished, if not more so. The arts of oratory were essential to his legacy. Times have been a changing. In the early 1970s, journalists were aspiring enough to revel in Whitlam’s historical analogies – “Tiberius with a telephone” for McMahon’s conniving – and an arcane vocabulary – “balletomaniac” for Jim Killen’s alarm about KGB agents pirouetting among the touring Bolshoi dancers. The Whitlam legacy will continue to shrink as fewer get his jokes.
Whitlam quoted Machiavelli to disparage those of his followers who were lukewarm in defending “a new order of things”. That charge could never be made against his leadership. In defeat and disgrace, Whitlam remained an interventionist. Trying to lead the opposition again between 1975 and 1977, he proposed reforms which would not require huge outlays. In 1985, he foresaw that if Labor were not the “great party of Australian reform” it would be a nothing.
WHITLAM 11 November 1975
Omnium consensu capax imperii nisi imperasset. Much as Edward Gough Whitlam would have prided himself on being able to translate Tacitus’s remark that everyone had thought Servius Sulpicius Galba (c.3BC-69AD) possessed the makings of an emperor until he ascended the throne, the Whitlam vanity would have been affronted by any suggestion that the same judgement applied to him. Success at parliamentary politics requires an immunity to self-reflection. The Whitlam wit could be self-mocking, never self-deprecating. Hauteur outdistanced grandeur.
Among true believers, the Whitlam reputation was secured by his dismissal on 11 November 1975, to survive even his involvement with a scheme to finance the ALP’s 1975 campaign by borrowing from the Iraqis. Thereafter – apart from East Timor – Whitlam kept to the high ground so successfully that by the mid-1980s his arrival at operas-in-the-park would be greeted by a standing ovation.
The Whitlam conviction that he was “destined to lead’ was not shaken by three failed attempts to be elected to public office before winning a federal seat in 1952. His advancement came through the numbers game. Hence, evaluation of his career must attend to his wheeler-dealing as well as to the afflatus. In 1968, the Whitlam arrogance crossed the auguries of his increasing eminence. By supporting Brian Harradine, now senator, as a Tasmanian delegate to the ALP’s Federal executive, Whitlam provoked a leadership spill during which several of his votaries in caucus switched to Jim Cairns to remind Gough that the Labor party was not his fiefdom. In 1970, he allied himself with erstwhile enemies to dislodge the ALP’s Victorian Central Executive.
At the polling booths, Whitlam’s triumph was to gain seventeen-seats in 1969. Far from demolishing the hapless Billy McMahon in 1972, Whitlam fell just short of a majority of the primary votes. His government was returned in 1974 with a reduced majority and no improvement in its Senate numbers, despite buying off one senator with an ambassadorship. Vanquished in 1975, he mounted another verbally coruscating campaign in 1977, to achieve Labor’s lowest percentage of the primary vote since 1931. Stepping aside as leader, he took another world tour before retiring from the parliament.
When Whitlam had canvassed for the deputy-leadership of the parliamentary Labor Party in early 1960, his caucus critics mocked him as “the young brolga”, or as “white-tie-and-tails”. The characteristics that offended the old guard on the right and left were making Whitlam the hope of younger activists, those offspring of the working class who had embarked on higher education and were seeking a Labor leader to express their professionalism in a tone of voice flattering to their aspirations, matching the Menzies vowels and cadences.
Whitllam did not take the lead against White Australia, where the left-wing Victorian front-bencher Dr Jim Cairns risked expulsion from the Labor Party in 1960 by associating with the then explosive proposal for annual quotas of a few hundred non-European immigrants.
Whitlam, however, did chance his leadership by supporting state aid to church schools. He sought an end to the sectarianism that had soiled our public life for more than a century, and, as an agnostic, hoped to rescue the poor from a cash-strapped Catholic system which, by providing a third-rate education, was piling ignorance on superstition. He bent some rules to get there and, on technical grounds, merited the March 1966 motion to expel him.
Later in 1966, Whitlam spiked the guns of his leader, Arthur Calwell, who was calling for the “immediate and unconditional withdrawal” of Australian forces from Vietnam. Whitlam doubted the timing, a malleability which the media magnified to deepen Labor’s defeat. Once elected leader himself in 1967, Whitlam favoured the presence of Australian troops in order to draw Washington towards a negotiated settlement. Despite this temporising, Whitlam would collect the credit for the withdrawal although by the time he came to office in December 1972 only a handful of advisers remained. The last conscript had come home fourteen months before.
Yet, the indulgences granted to Whitlam during the autumn of his life were not just another case of our not knowing what a good thing he had been until we saw those who came after. He merited praise for carrying his vision of a modern Australia into practice. Indeed, the most widespread complaint about the Whitlam governments was their doing too much too quickly. He came to office three years too late. That delay intensified his determination to make up for the time lost by the Coalition, whether through Country Party sectionalism in the economy, or under DLP blackmail, via its allocation of second preferences, over foreign policy and social issues.
Once in office, Whitlam recognised that the mainland of China had been governed by the Communists since 1949.
He accelerated the Liberals’ belated endorsement of the de-colonisation of Papua New Guinea. He had escaped from the national delusion about “developing the North” into an innovatory focus on urban development, spurred by his representing an unsewered and unsealed electorate in Sydney’s western. He welcomed the women’s movement, supporting the equal pay case and placing the Office of the Status of Women under his direction. Establishment of the Australia Council rescued promotion of the arts from the hydra-headed planning that the Coalition had applied in setting up a Department of the Environment, Aborigines and the Arts. Under his government, each had its own ministry, and – for a time – were not disparaged as bush, boongs and bludgers.
In granting Land Rights to the Gurindji in 1975, he poured soil into the hands of Vincent Lingari but let the application of comparable laws to Queensland slip through his fingers by not daring to use the constitutional powers gained at the 1967 referendum to override premier Bjelke-Peterson.
The funding of social reforms from bracket creep in the income tax rates had been possible before the first oil price shock in 1973 exposed a fiscal crisis in the welfare state. An era of feckless spending had closed around the world. Whitlam again lost followers in caucus. In addition, his failure to return from overseas after the Darwin cyclone on Christmas Eve 1974 contrasted with the warmth displayed there by deputy prime minister Cairns. After an ore carrier knocked down Hobart’s main bridge in January 1975, Whitlam declared that there could be no protection against incompetent masters. Cartoonists depicted the prime minister on the bridge of his own floundering ship of state.
When the editor and economist T. M. Fitzgerald delivered the 1977 John Curtin Memorial Lecture, he identified two qualities essential in a successful Labor leader. One is fellowship; the other an appreciation that, once the economy goes awry, little else can be put to rights. Whitlam, he implied, possessed neither attribute.
Whitlam never comprehended the economy as a system, though he presumably knew that BHP made steel. He was not alone in his incompetence. He accepted the 25 per cent across-the-board reduction in tariffs in mid-1973 on the advice of academics who had not recognised that an appreciating Australian dollar was making a cut of that size. Stung by attacks on his economic illiteracy, he defended himself by pointing out that he had developed Section 96 of the Constitution so that he could spend even more. This boast confirmed Dr Coombs’s view that Whitlam suffered from the lawyer’s disease that “you pass a law and you make the world different”.
Whitlam’s parliamentary skills were rhetorical more than tactical. A nincompoop such as Fred Daly could make the running around the House. The Whitlam delight in flaying Malcolm Fraser at question time in the weeks during which the Coalition blocked supply in October-November 1975 stimulated the Whitlam faith in the transforming power of his eloquence. The Whitlam conviction that his opponents, in both the ALP and the Coalition, were small-minded or troglodyte, fed his hubris. As he drove to Yarralumla around noon on Tuesday, 11 November, he knew that he had Fraser beat.
Whitlam then neglected to alert Labor’s Senate leaders to his sacking, so that they unwittingly voted supply for Fraser’s caretaker administration. Instead of warning his ministers, he sped home to consume a huge steak. One source of this confusion of appetites was that, from the mid-1960s, Whitlam had competed for attention with Labor’s Senate leader, Lionel Murphy. Whitlam’s blind spot over Senate powers on that crucial afternoon came after he had blinded himself with envy.
Later that day he called on his followers to maintain a rage that he had not himself demonstrated at the moment of his dismissal. That restraint must have puzzled the jjournalist who had observed that Whitlam “did not become angry unless he was hurt personally”. Why, then, did he not swear at Kerr, or even raise his voice, let alone punch him on the nose? He had, after all, thrown a glass of water over the Minister for External Affairs, Paul Hasluck, in the House of Representatives a decade earlier. How many other powerful men would be so docile upon being sacked by someone to whom they had given a sinecure? In pondering Whitlam’s personality and politics, that non-blow is as elemental a clue as any cur that did not yelp. Shock and grief set in soon after, leaving him sleepless until the weekend of the 15-16th November. Meanwhile, his platform speeches went over and over the minutiae of the eleventh as if seeking a way to talk himself out of reality. Marks of depression manifested themselves throughout 1976.
An Athenian would have seen the Whitlam sacking as the gods’ retribution for his sacrifice of the Timorese, an impiety which forever blighted his rehabilitation. Yet, in the sweep of his fifty-five years in public life, his support for Jakarta’s oppression was just one more area in which he failed to keep up with events. From the late 1940s until the early 1960s, he had supported Indonesia’s struggles against Dutch colonialism, picturing himself as progressive in contrast to Calwell’s stirring the racist possum against Indonesian ambitions. In 1974, when East Timorese claimed independence from Portugal, Whitlam continued to view Indonesia through the prism of his own anti-colonialist past rather than through Jakarta’s militarised present.
The impatience of a colossus with the scraps of a once mighty kingdom contributed to his support for the takeover of East Timor by its much larger neighbour was. His prejudice about size had led him into the electorally dumb recognition of the Soviet incorporation of the three Baltic states.
This passion to tidy up the world parallelled a centralist mentality in domestic politics. The Whitlam identification of social equality with growth in Canberra’s bureaucracy is the least attractive part of his legacy. He pushed for a centralised Medibank in preference to community health centres, the option favoured by the five medical practitioners in caucus. That the small may be beautiful formed no part of his make-up.
Whitlam improved the draft speeches prepared for him, adding both art and matter. Reporting his public addresses and asides allowed journalists to feel as clever as he, as well stocked with Latin tags or historical analogies, and as encompassing in their minds as this talking encyclopaedia. Age wearied his audiences as he grew to resemble the disgraced English politician Sir Charles Dilke, of whom an earlier Australian prime minister, Alfred Deakin, had quipped: “Knowledge was his forte and omniscience his foible.” To celebrate the centenary of the foundation of the Labor Party in 1891, Whitlam bemused his Balmain listeners by lecturing them for over an hour on the joys of standardising rail gauges.
Hawke’s dispatch of Whitlam to Paris as ambassador to UNESCO elevated him to an office commensurate with his talents, and provided the retraining scheme needed for his final career as a guide through antique lands.
Bulletin, November 2000
1974 election – second best?
‘If that other lot win, I’m not going back’, one of my fellow Australian travellers decided as we perched on top of the Pyramid of the Moon, looking down the Avenue of the Dead, outside Mexico City on 22 May 1974.
That other lot were the Liberal and Country Parties. What my friend feared was that, in a poll held four days earlier, the Coalition had defeated the first Labor government in twenty-three years, though the outcome would remain unclear for the worst part of that week.
The ALP was returned, but with a slight drop in its support and with a majority in the House of five, down from nine. Among the casualties was Immigration Minister Al Grassby who had been defeated by issues that festered until One Nation.
Control of the Senate eluded both sides, which was fair enough since a scheme to deliver a majority to Labor had been the trigger for a double dissolution instead of only the half Senate poll that was due. Queensland DLP Senator Vince Gair was unhappy that his party had removed him as leader. Gough Whitlam took pity on this Labor rat and appointed him Ambassador to Eire. Gair’s resignation meant that Queensland would have to elect six Senators, and not five, making it easier for Labor to gain an extra seat there.
Or so it seemed until that ‘Bible-bashing bastard’ Bjelke-Petersen issued the writs for the half-Senate election before the spherical Senator Gair could roll himself out of a Coalition beer-and-prawn night along the corridor to the Senate President’s suite to tender his resignation. Labor lost both credibility and the chance to pick up that extra place. The Coalition seized on ‘bribery and corruption’ to block supply. Whitlam crashed through by securing a double dissolution. Gair’s party lost all its Senate places and, after twenty years, disappeared as a political force.
The only person who did not accept that he had lost anything was opposition leader Bill Snedden who declared ‘we were not defeated’, prompting the wits to remark that he just come second. No mockers appeared on the Labor side where May 18 was another famous victory, not as memorable as 2 December 1972 yet confirmation that the Whitlam government possessed ‘a certain grandeur’.
Or so it also seemed. Before another fifteen months had passed, more calamities than enough had befallen the party, the government and the people to prompt commentators to wonder whether Labor might have done better to have run second.
‘What if?’ is not idle when speculation illuminates the significance of what did happen. Federal politics has its crop of occasions about which to propose ‘what if?’. What if the ALP candidate for Moreton in 1961 had been called Donnell instead of O’Donnell and so had garnered the donkey votes to topple Menzies? How would the Ming Dynasty appear today? And would prime minister Calwell have sent regulars into Vietnam?
The closest parallel to May 1974 was the landslide to Labor in the 1929 snap poll. What if the non-Labor government had run its full term to 1931? The Tories would have carried the opprobrium from the Great Depression, bringing Labor to office in 1931 as the cure, not scourging it in the wilderness as a scapegoat.
When we ask ‘what if Whitlam had lost in ’74?’, we know for certain that several things would not have happened.
At the level of personalities, we can be pretty sure that Snedden would not have appointed John Kerr Governor-General, and positive that Lionel Murphy would not have gone onto the High Court. Jim Cairns might not have employed Juni Morosi and R. J. Hawke would have sought another route to the Lodge. And, of course, Ambassador Gair would have had his credentials withdrawn and thus not been able to make so many impressions on the bottoms of colleens, as complained of in a confidential report to Foreign Affairs.
Another clear casualty of a Coalition victory would have been passage at the Joint Sitting of both Houses in July of the Bills that Whitlam had used to secure a double dissolution. Medibank would have been still-born.
Above all, Labor would not have presided over the end of full employment. The Loans Affair would not have clear-felled the cabinet before culminating in the ‘reprehensible circumstances’ that Malcolm Fraser went looking for to justify blocking Supply again in October 1975.
Stretching the scenario further, it is reasonable to assume that the electorate would then have blamed the Coalition government for the death of the lucky country during 1975 and swung back to the ALP at elections late in 1976 or early 1977.
That interregnum should have let Whitlam hone the managerial skills of his shadow ministers, in particular, cutting the cabinet back from twenty-seven to a dozen. Caucus would meanwhile have absorbed the idea of a fiscal crisis of the state, learned to tailor reform to an era of economic restraint and no longer expected that the income growth to supply tax revenues for big-spending programs. Instead,
Labor leaders had to learn from their 1974-75 debacle, returning to office in 1983 determined to target welfare expenditures and to lower taxes.
Whitlam’s return as prime minister in 1977 would have left him with the reputation of just another technocrat guiding capitalism, not as the betrayed hero. In 1979, the party might have shamed him out of recognising Indonesia’s incorporation of East Timor.
Without Kerr’s Coup, when would a Republican movement have got going?
The effects on the Liberal-Country Party of not coming second would have been as petty and profound as those in Labor’s ranks.
Even with the authority of the prime ministership, Snedden was never going to best Whitlam in the parliament or Malcolm Fraser in the cabinet and party rooms. The leadership contests that had bedevilled the Liberals since before Holt was lost at sea would have erupted as Snedden tried to steer a derailing economy, with Fraser and Andrew Peacock scheming against him and each other. Without a Whitlam administration to beat up, Bjelke-Petersen might never have fancied himself as prime minister.
The Liberals would also have had to cope with Country Party demands over the value of the currency. In those days, the government set the exchange rate within the parameters of the balance of payments. The last years of the Coalition had been torn by brawls over revaluation. Too high a dollar made farm exports less competitive. When I bought travellers cheques for Mexico in April 1974, the Australian dollar was at its all time high against the US dollar. Two of ours would buy three of theirs, the inverse of today’s rates. A Coalition cabinet might have split at once over the pace and extent of devaluation.
Most significantly, the Coalition government would not have been burdened with what John Howard identified as ‘the extent to which the pre-election trauma of 1975 imposed a sense of unease, illegitimacy and hesitancy on a government election with a record majority’. Whether the Coalition would have used its clear conscience to deregulate the banks, float the dollar, end central wage-fixing, privatise Telecom and slash protection between 1974 and 1977 is unlikely.
The Coalition and our country have paid a price for blaming the economic collapse on Whitlam, socialism, scandals and incompetence. No matter how ignorant or ill-conceived were Labor’s economic policies, they merely compounded the problems; they could not cause them. Billy McMahon’s retaining the prime ministership in 1972 would not have rescued the world’s monetary regime or averted the oil price shock.
For as long as the Dow Jones glides towards infinity and the Japanese keep hiding their losses, John Howard will not wish that he had come second. [PN: Note that this was written in 1999-2000