The Grand Old Man of Australian politics, former Labor Prime Minister Gough Whitlam, passed away today at the age of 98. He led Australia for only three turbulent years, from 1972 to 1975, but he became the best-loved of all Australian politicians in his retirement.
Everything about Whitlam was paradoxical. He was a 6-foot, 4-inch patrician, but he was a loyal member of the Australian Labor Party. He was a classical scholar who would break out into Latin epigrams but one of his achievements was ensuring that his working class electorate was sewered. He entered office with a grand ideas for reform, but knew little about economics. He presided over the introduction of no-fault divorce, but he was married to his first love, Margaret, for nearly 70 years and had four high-achieving children. His opponents alleged that he left the economy in a shambles, but they did little to unravel his innovations.
Whitlam was elected on December 3, 1972 on the slogan “It’s Time”. The conservative side of politics had been in power for 23 long years and he was eager, almost frantic, to change Australia.
In short order, the new government abolished conscription and the death penalty, created free universal health care and free tertiary education, abolished the sales tax on contraception, banned South African teams from competing in Australia because of apartheid, changed the national anthem from “God Save the Queen” to “Advance Australia Fair”, spent lavishly on modern art and ended Australia’s participation in the Vietnam War.
After an early election in 1974 the government began to strike trouble. Inflation, government spending and unemployment were all growing. Some of Whitlam’s ministers made appalling mistakes – like trying to organise loans to bypass Senate approval through a shady Pakistani businessman.
The Opposition, under the Liberal leader Malcolm Fraser, played tough-guy politics and used its control of the Senate to deny Supply, starving the government of money. The country was slowly moving towards a crisis. Suddenly the Governor-General, Sir John Kerr, did something utterly unprecedented in Australian politics. He dismissed Whitlam and appointed Fraser as caretaker Prime Minister, tasked with leading the country into an election.
Whitlam, of course, was apoplectic that he had been stabbed in the back and dethroned. “Well may we say ‘God save the Queen’, because nothing will save the Governor-General!” he said in a legendary speech from the steps of Parliament. “Maintain your rage and enthusiasm for the campaign for the election now to be held and until polling day,” he told his supporters.
But the electorate had had enough. There was no blood in the streets. Instead there was a massive swing to the conservatives and the Labor Party crashed. Whitlam held on the leadership for a while, but retired from Parliament in 1978.
In the years after the Dismissal, as his exit from government became known, he mellowed and even became reconciled with Fraser (who had slowly shifted to more progressive positions on many social issues), but never to Kerr. As he wound down, he bore the infirmities of increasing age with grace and good humour.
After 40 years, what strikes me about the Whitlam government is the naivite of its idealism, its sheer incompetence in some areas and its lack of originality. Australians expected an antipodean JFK, but they got a wittier Jimmy Carter.
Whitlam and his colleagues took office with a lust for change – which was clearly needed – but without a vision for transformation. As a result, it entrenched welfare state solutions imported from the Britain and the United States. It took a realpolitik view of Communism, and sought a rapprochement with China.
Many of the changes were healthy and long-overdue: an end to the White Australia policy and land rights for Aborigines, for instance. But most of them were not carefully thought out. Aborigines still live in ghastly poverty.
No-fault divorce was adopted because it was part of the cookie-cutter progressive agenda. It has been a disaster for the Australian family. Whitlam turned a blind eye when Indonesia invaded East Timor, unleashing a blood bath in which tens of thousands died. He recognised the Soviet Union’s annexation of the Baltic States of Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia, a cynical and unnecessary betrayal of oppressed peoples.
Australian flags are flying at half-mast and newspapers are full of praise from friend and foe: “a giant”, “a legend”, “a source of inspiration”. Forty years after the dust settled on his legacy, Whitlam should be remembered as a genial, generous charismatic politician – but not as a great statesman.
Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet