Gough Whitlam is remembered more for the agony of the dismissal than for the many great achievements his government wrought in a mere three years, writes Mungo MacCallum.
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.
And it is for this breadth of vision, for the unquenchable optimism of his ambition, that Australia’s 21st 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.
Legend in his own lifetime
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 devil figure they used to warn budding politicians of the awful fate that awaits those who succumb to overreaching ambition. 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 have 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 universities, Aboriginal land rights, the Australian Assistance Plan, and the promotion of the arts as a national objective, have been axed or abandoned 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, the high interest rates and the burgeoning unemployment of the latter half of Whitlam’s turbulent administration were not entirely his fault; the twin oil price shocks of the early seventies 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 the 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.
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 and Gillard – have had to live under the shadow of what has become demonised as the shadow of Whitlam’s economic irresponsibility: the idea since refined into the great conservative lie that, irrespective of whatever else happens, Labor is not really to be trusted with your money.
This doleful refrain repeated at every election since 1975, is the one the Tories would like to see engraved on Whitlam’s tomb: they would prefer to see the kind 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. The mantra makes perfect political sense and it John Howard four elections and even put Tony Abbott, a man thought to be unelectable, into the Lodge.
And yet, and yet. Somehow the grandeur of Whitlam lingers on, even among the under 30s, the generation that has only heard the stories and never experienced the high-wire 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 was often misunderstood.
In retrospect it is easy to see how: on one celebrated occasion the Director of the Australian National Gallery, Betty Churcher, informed Whitlam of a plan – fortunately kyboshed – which would have made 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 it 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. And if the snobs didn’t get the joke, that was their tough luck.
Gough and Mungo
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 at that stage I was not 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 in 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.
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 the smug backwater from the Menzies years into a model for the rest of the world. In those days the idea that Australia could take any kind of leading role beyond sport was breathtaking, yet Whitlam seemed to find it entirely possible if a meticulously prepared program of public education and overdue social change could be carried out – and, as he outlined it all 35 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 – and as with Menzies, fools often had a bit of trouble with him, too – he was not some kind of intellectual snob; he was genuinely interested and concerned about people, not just en masse, but as individuals.
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; 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.
For his part Whitlam seemed pleased to welcome on board another class traitor, especially one who was both a scion of the Wentworth dynasty and a godson of Guy Harriott, the arch-Tory editor of the Sydney Morning Herald. The fact that I could recognise most of his classical allusions, even the ones in Latin, probably helped too.
By the end of 1969 it was clear that not only was the party machine desperately in need of modernisation, but that it would be very hard for Whitlam to win an election unless this could be achieved.
Even so, he ran it desperately close. The swing to Labor in 1969 was almost seven percent and the party won 17 seats – for a wondrous half hour or so it appeared that Labor had actually won, a prospect that filled the more level-headed with monetary dread.
Well before the election of 1972 the Labor party had been dragged, at least temporarily, into the second half of the 20th century. The old Labor policies, including the pledge of nationalisation which Whitlam described as the Old Testament, had been superseded by The Program – the New Testament. Whitlam became even more dominant in parliament now that the erratic Gorton had been replaced by the clearly ludicrous Billy McMahon,and the public mood became more cheerful; for better or worse, even the most rusted on conservatives accepted that their team had finally run out of puff, and at least a couple of years – no one really thought it would be more than that – on the opposition benches were needed to regroup.
The election itself was almost an anti-climax; well before polling day it was clear that the electorate had finally embraced Labor’s slogan “It’s Time” and was ready to break the habit of a lifetime and ditch the Tories in favour of – well, what? No one was quite sure, but the sense of anticipation and even relief was palpable. My mathematical background had got me into the Whitlam bunker at Campbelltown to help with the numbers; the majority were ready to declare victory almost as soon as the count began, but remembering 1969, I insisted in waiting until at lest the first figures from Western Australia — two hours behind the eastern states – came in. But very soon after , I was able to declare: “Right, we can send the white smoke up the chimney now.” Right on cue, Graham Freudenberg responded: “Habemus Papam.” And in a blaze of euphoria and cheap champagne, the new order was upon us.
In those early days there was a huge welling of enthusiasm, not only among Labor supporters but among the general public, who believed that indeed it had been time, and were eager to give the new boys (in those days there were no girls on the front bench) a fair go. And at least no one could say that the new government was a dull affair: for some weeks the major papers carried a regular front page panel with the heading ‘What the government did yesterday’, which usually ran to several paragraphs.
Instant decisions ranged from the momentous (the ending of conscription and the diplomatic recognition of China) to the homely (the removal of sales tax on contraceptives within the ACT). Most of the new ministers had some pet project they were keen to push through as quickly as possible; the Attorney General, Lionel Murphy in particular had a formidable schedule of reform much of which was to prove highly controversial. At the end of the first year Whitlam read into Hansard a list of the major achievements of the government to date; it took nearly half an hour. Whitlam called the list Apologia Pro Mia Vita.
Despite the hectic pace he was determined to remain at the centre of it all, and took on a workload which was initially awesome, but which ultimately proved to be unmanageable. The most striking feature was his insistence that he should be not only Prime Minister but also Minister for Foreign Affairs, two jobs each of which was full-time under any circumstances, but under The Program became what would now be called 24/7 positions.
This, of course, was one of the problems; in many ways his drive and personality tended to make the whole administration look like a one-man band. Even today people refer simply to the Whitlam government – seldom if ever to the Whitlam Labor government. Even his enemies acknowledged that he was by far the best thing the party had going for it. When some advisers, keen to see him involved more with the general public, began by making this point, Whitlam replied wearily that he was well aware of it and would they please stop wasting his time. The days of wooing the voters were now over: the urgent task was to implement as much as possible of The Program in the weeks that were left.
This did not stop him enjoying the perks of office, the main one being overseas travel. To the dismay of the somewhat Philistine press gallery who accompanied him, Whitlam preferred to spend his time stamping around art galleries and archaeological sites rather than attending major sporting events or just drinking poolside in luxury hotels, as was the Prime Ministerial tradition. It was this interest in culture that got him tagged with the line about being a tourist prime minister; in a similar way a contribution to the welfare of war orphans in Africa was translated by the critics as giving money to overseas terrorists.
His nemesis, Malcolm Fraser, who had toppled the previous leader Billy Snedden, successfully portrayed Whitlam’s breadth of vision as an indication of hubris, a sign that he was out of touch with the everyday concerns of Australians; and in a time of high and apparently intractable unemployment, of rising inflation and interest rates, there was enough truth in the accusation to start the tide running against the government. Exhilaration turned to desperation.
Some ministers resigned to grab the spoils of victory while they were still available. Others, hopelessly out of their depth and faced with a frequently hostile public service, became victims of their own incompetence. Whitlam was forced to sack two of the most senior, Jim Cairns and Rex Connor, for the crime of misleading parliament. His firmness in doing so showed a credible devotion to principle (and one which today would be seen as absurd) but added to the public impression of a government in chaos, an impression further reinforced by revelations of an attempt to borrow billions of petrodollars through channels which were at best unorthodox and at worst clandestine. There was even a pseudo-sex scandal involving Cairns’s principal advisor, a woman named Juni Morosi.
It did not help that Whitlam, while personally behaving impeccably as things went from bad to worse to impossible, remained preoccupied with the big picture: during the height of one crisis he dismayed his colleagues by musing that what he needed was some really big new project, something on the scale of the Suez Canal. By the time a drastic ministerial reshuffle and a final hard-line budget started to get things back on the rails it was far too late; the government was clearly doomed. But Fraser couldn’t wait: he blocked supply and the Governor-General Sir John Kerr dismissed the government, forcing an election in which Whitlam, for all his bravado, never had a hope. He clung to the leadership for another two years until another crushing electoral defeat compelled him to resign.
But the fact of his dismissal had an unexpected consequence. He would always have been remembered as the finest parliamentarian of his era, the man who brought the Labor Party back from 23 years in the wilderness, whose great, if ultimately flawed, program changed the structure of Australia and inspired a generation with a renewed belief in the possibility of rational, visionary reform within the parliamentary system. But Fraser and Kerr made him more than that: a political martyr, a heroic and tragic figure of Shakespearean proportions.
The left, which had once doubted him, now embraced him as a secular saint. Even his failures and misjudgements – it was revealed that as well as the disastrous miscalculation of the petrodollar affair Whitlam had been involved in a plan to restore Labor’s finances through a loan from the Iraqi Baath Party – failed to crack the image. Whitlam himself thrived on it, taking the job of Australia’s ambassador to UNESCO.
He became a fixture at opening nights and at political funerals. It should have been faintly bathetic, but instead every appearance seemed to increase his stature and his place in public affection. When lists were drawn up of Australia’s living national treasures, the name of Edward Gough Whitlam was invariably towards the top.
Edited extract from The Whitlam Mob, by Mungo MacCallum, published by Penguin.