Gough Whitlam: Australia’s Attlee

by David Ward

Australia mourns the passing of one of its Prime Ministers this week, with the death of Gough Whitlam. Chiefly remembered in Britain for the 1975 constitutional crisis, he was an iconic figure not just for the Australian Labor Party but for the nation itself. A radical proponent of change, passionate about culture, and with a ready wit in parliament. One old right winger chided him “I am a Country member”, “I remember” Whitlam shot back.

The wartime Labor administration of John Curtice had perhaps proved the ALP capable of governing, but with 23 unbroken years of rule by the centre right Liberal-Country coalition Gough’s election was a defining moment in Australian left wing politics. He was in many ways Australia’s Attlee: elected with a nationwide sense of optimism and of the possible. In three years he changed the face of a nation and his achievements stand on their own merit.

In foreign affairs the end of conscription for Vietnam and release of prisoners who had refused to fight was a huge contemporary issue, which formed part of his 1969 campaign. He also opened relations with China, a step towards an independent foreign policy and away from one of Empire and Commonwealth. Made, of course, against the backdrop of UK entry to the EEC in 1973.

But it was in domestic politics he effected most change. Free higher education opened a new future for many. Medicare took the first steps towards comprehensive free healthcare in Australia. Motorways were built between state capitals for the first time and rail links vastly improved.

Whitlam understood the power of culture to forge a nation and its identity. An Australian version of Britain’s Arts Council, the Australia Council, was made a statutory body with great reserves of funding to end the migration of talented creatives to the UK or US. It allowed an artistic renaissance for Australia, complemented by his commissioning of the country’s national anthem, Advance Australia Fair. The playing of which he attached as a condition to being the first PM to attend an Australian ‘soccer’ match.

On civil liberties Gough began a Royal Commission on Aboriginal Land Rights. A landmark change allowing a beginning of the healing of still recent scars, notably an inquiry which the Fraser administration felt it necessary to implement. Almost his first act was to reopen a trial to allow equal pay for women, and appoint a female judge to it. A proponent of the right to choose he countered a heckler with “Let me make quite clear that I am for abortion and, in your case Sir, we should make it retrospective.”

In many ways the prime charge against Whitlam could be trying to achieve so much so quickly. The pace of change was an important factor in the Coalition controlled senate blocking his supply bills, which led to the 1975 crisis. Especially against the challenging economic problems brought on by the mid-1970s oil crises and unexpected consequences for certain industries from his policies of wage increase and tariff reductions.

Instead the hopes of the left were mired in controversy, brinkmanship, and the untimely demise of a long worked for administration. The parallels with the fate of Kevin Rudd are obvious enough, even if circumstances differ. Certainly brinkmanship  and personality played a part in both. Whitlam’s refusal of compromise solutions put to him by the Governor-General must have influenced Kerr’s decision to end his administration and ask Malcolm Fraser to call a new election. ‘The first time the burglar has been appointed as caretaker’, Whitlam observed.

In that 1975 campaign Whitlam’s focus on the rage he and his core vote felt at his sacking proved costly. Most voters were concerned with the state of the economy and blamed the ALP for global financial challenges. A situation UK Labour supporters will be familiar with.

Fraser’s return as PM with the largest ever majority and a 6.5% swing against Whitlam allowed him to water down his proposals for universal healthcare, which Australians have never fully enjoyed. His Treasurer, John Howard, would go further as Prime Minister.

The impression that he was sacked by a self-interested elite persists for some as a watershed moment where left wing ideas were somehow killed off. As Gough himself said,  ‘the punters know that the horse named Morality rarely gets past the post, whereas the nag named Self-interest always runs a good race.’ Labor has of course enjoyed victories since, though no government has sought to emulate his ambition.

In many ways the scale of Whitlam’s legacy is encapsulated in the 90s success of Australian indie rock band The Whitlams. As the singer Tim Freedman has said, “Most people when they name a band have to imbue this meaningless phrase with meaning, with me it was the other way around, the band got meaning from his name.”

David Ward is a member of Streatham CLP, and the only non-Australian in his immediate family.

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