If anything, the death of former Australian Prime Minister Gough Whitlam last week proves that writing obituaries is an art. It is about separating fact from fiction, reality from mythology, and then drawing conclusions about the individual’s contribution to society. In the case of Whitlam it was made doubly difficult because of his large personality and enduring legacy for Australia, and the fact that the Whitlam myth has exceeded both.

The task is made even harder nearly 40 years after the heady events of the 1970s. Most journalists summing up Whitlam’s career were either very young when he was Prime Minister or not even born. Your correspondent was just 11 when Whitlam was elected Prime Minister and 14 when Governor General Sir John Kerr sacked him in 1975. My memories of the period are of hyperbolic TV news reports and talk in the school playground that there would be blood in the streets over what became known as “The Dismissal”.

Whitlam was possibly Australia’s most divisive leader. To those on the Left of Australian politics he was a hero, the messiah who returned Labor to power after 23 years in the political wilderness and who brought vision writ large to the Prime Ministership. To those on the Right he was a villain who nearly bankrupted the nation with big spending plans and poor economic management skills, and who almost indebted the nation to shady international business interests. To those on the Left he was Australia’s best Prime Minister; to those on the Right he was its worst.

But what will history show?

Whitlam undoubtedly did many good things. Getting Australia out of the Vietnam War, opening relations with China (ahead of Nixon and the US), passing the Anti-Racial Discrimination Act, and paving the way for the recognition of Aboriginal land rights.

But it is not clear these achievements can be called great.

Whitlam was reflecting the mood of his times rather than leading them. The tide had already turned in global thinking on many of these issues. The 1968 and 1972 US Presidential elections were fought on the issues of civil rights and ending the Vietnam War. Nixon commenced negotiations to end the war in Vietnam soon after taking office in 1969, and Nixon’s emissary Henry Kissinger was paving the way to recognise China when Whitlam visited Beijing in 1972. Whitlam beat Nixon to the punch on both issues because Australia’s involvement in Vietnam and its relations with China and Taiwan were less complicated.

So too, racial discrimination as government policy was on its way out before Whitlam became Prime Minister. Harold Holt’s Coalition Government had started to dismantle the White Australia policy that had excluded non-Europeans from migrating to the nation, and the Liberal Party was the first Australian political party to place an Indigenous Australian (Neville Bonner) into the Senate in 1971. Recognition of Aboriginal land rights was inevitable – though it might have taken a few years longer had Whitlam not been Prime Minister.

Whitlam was part of a broader tide, not the tide.

On the negative side of the ledger Whitlam had created the slide into welfarism and the culture of entitlement in Australia that successive governments, Labor and Coalition, have struggled to turn back. While Whitlam created a healthcare safety net in Medibank, the precursor to Medicare, it has now become a form of middle class welfare allowing all Australians, regardless of their means, to obtain free medical treatment at rising cost to the State. Similarly, free university education has meant that less well-off Australians whose children are unlikely, for the most part, to attend universities subsidise the university educations of children from middle and upper class families. Labor and Coalition Governments have been hard pressed to wind back these measures since.

Whitlam and his government’s great sins were the lack of economic nous and poor financial management skills. His Government had inherited an Australia of rising wealth (“The Lucky Country”) and had expected increasing tax revenues from rising farming and mining incomes to fund his programs into perpetuity. But he had no plan to deal with flagging economic fortunes. As tax revenues fell and inflation rose his programs became untenable. He and his ministers then attempted to secure finance from overseas (ie, Arab oil) interests via a shady Pakistani businessman, Tirath Khemlani. Worse still, in what became known as the Loans Affair, Whitlam and his ministers had attempted to do so by ignoring standard procedure and not declaring their plans to the Australian Treasury. In the US such duplicity would have been grounds to impeach a President.

This was no one-off aberration. Whitlam and then Labor Party Secretary David Combe dallied with obtaining loans of $500,000 from the Iraqi Ba’ath Party to pay the ALP’s mounting political campaign debts. Combe later attributed this “act of madness” to the financial pressures on them at the time. Bob Hawke, the then Labor Party President who chaired an internal Party inquiry into the “Iraqi Gift Affair”, as it became known, condemned Whitlam and the others involved for “grave errors of judgment.”

The recognition of China and withdrawal from the Vietnam War, notwithstanding, Gough Whitlam was bereft of morality on the international stage. He turned a blind eye to Indonesia’s invasion of East Timor. Whitlam’s motivation for not supporting East Timor’s independence following the withdrawal of Portugal from its colony has never been clearly explained by him. Furthermore, Whitlam recognised the Soviet Union’s occupations of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania as legitimate in what can only be described as realpolitik policy of the highest order given that the USSR’s brutality over conquered colonies was no secret by the 1970s.

So what’s the final judgment on Whitlam and his government to be? At the time of Whitlam’s dismissal on 11 November 1975 he called on his supporters to “maintain the rage”. Yet at the election held just one month later the Coalition was elected into power with large majorities in both houses of Parliament following a 6.5 per cent swing against Labor. Australian voters were tired of poor economic management and the string of political scandals that marked Whitlam’s Prime Ministership.

Interestingly, the left-leaning Fairfax Media ran a poll last week to see who has been the best Prime Minister of Australia during the past 40 years. Tellingly, Whitlam has been polling second with around 21 per cent of the vote; John Howard is overwhelmingly regarded as the best Prime Minister of the period with more than 60 per cent of the vote. But that probably says more about the age of the internet users taking part in the online poll than the leadership qualities of either Prime Minister. Most of those voting were probably very young or not even born in the 1970s. Perhaps Whitlam’s showing reflects how all the positive eulogising by journalists who also were not around in the 1970s has influenced the new generation of Australians.

It would be interesting to see what results a similar poll a year from now will yield.

Alistair Nicholas is a public affairs professional who works with Australia’s federal and state governments. 

Based in Sydney, Australia, Alistair Nicholas is an internationally experienced business and communications consultant who has advised multinational corporations and national and state governments on a...