Launch of Volume II of Gough Whitlam’s Biography
Gough Whitlam - His Time by Jenny Hocking
Museum of Sydney
28 August 2012
Gough Whitlam - His Time by Jenny Hocking
Museum of Sydney
28 August 2012
It is nearly four years since I launched Volume I of this important biography of E.G. Whitlam.
I am honoured to have been asked by the author, Jenny Hocking, to today launch Volume II.
Much has changed in Australian politics since then.
Just as many things have not.
The essential narrative of Australian politics has remained much the same for more than a century: Labor in government the party of progressive economic, social and environmental reform, and of Australia’s place in the region and the world.
The conservatives in government, invariably the absence of a coherent policy program of their own, instead committed purely to the demolition of Labor’s reform program.
We in government have sought to build the house that we call the Australian nation.
The conservatives’ energies instead dedicated to tearing the house down.
Our ambition in office to prepare Australia for its future.
Their ambition in office.... well, just to be in office.
A bit like a bad re-run of Peter Sellers’ “Being There”.
Because this has remained the central organising principle for the conservative political project for much of the century: being in office essentially for the purpose of being in office.
And to this end, one of the great constants of conservative politics has remained their utter ruthlessness in obtaining and sustaining political power.
Which brings us to the important subject before us today – the Government of E.G. Whitlam (1972 – 1975).
It is quite a shocking thing to read afresh the absolute political brutality of the dismissal.
No conservative Edwardian manners on display here.
No acknowledgement of political or constitutional precedent, notwithstanding the fact that the entire conservative enterprise rests on an appeal to political and constitutional precedent.
No. Just a simple, naked lunge for political power when the opportunity presented itself.
And not for the purpose of implementing any long-conceived conservative policy project.
But simply because power belonged to the conservatives because in the conservative world-view that was the natural order of things – almost the product of natural law.
There were barely any achievements to speak of at all.
For those who may doubt this proposition, a cursory examination of the policy achievements of the conservative government between 1975 and 1983 is proof positive.
There were barely any achievements to speak of.
Which brings me to the central point I wish to argue today in launching this important work.
Namely, that down to this day, there is an absolute fault-line between our respective political traditions’ approach to the central task of politics itself.
For all our faults, we in the Labor tradition, the party of the reforming centre of Australian politics, engage deeply in the core task of our policy platform, the costing of our policies, the complex process of transition to government and in the execution of our reform mandate once elected.
Our conservative opponents regard the core business of politics as a demolition derby, with the central task of de-legitimising and destroying Labor.
Rather than preparing, costing and implementing an alternative conservative project for the country.
And all along, animating this deep division in the Australian political psyche and culture are two radically different political alchemies.
The conservatives calling forth the deep emotions of anxiety, fear and anger.
Ourselves, while not exactly angels resplendent in celestial white, by instinct, by inclination and by tradition, nonetheless driven to call forth the better angels of our nature.
What we call the politics of hope.
Whereas the conservatives engage relentlessly in the politics of fear.
Fear of debt when in Australia’s case there inno rational case for fear at all given our relative global performance.
Fear of foreigners.
Fear of change itself, even when change is necessary for us to negotiate a global future full of relentless change.
It is from these deep and enduring principles that the daily politics of our nation proceeds.
Let us look carefully at the Whitlam record.
Let us look carefully at his reform of the Party.
Let us look carefully at the preparation of his policy platform.
And let us look carefully at his meticulous arrangements for a transition to government.
And then the legislative record of the government itself.
These are well documented in the volume we are launching today.
In fact it is in Jenny Hocking’s first volume that we read of Whitlam’s courageous efforts to reform and modernise the Party which had not won an electoral victory since 1946.
Whitlam’s policy speech of 1972 outlined a detailed three year plan of action which we are told Kim Beazley Senior dubbed “The New Testament”.
Beazley, forever the theologian, by contrast dubbed the formal party platform as “The Old Testament”.
A neat theological distinction underlining continuity but pointing to a brand new message for a brand new day.
Then there was Wilenski’s “meticulous paper” on transition to government.
His further paper on the restructure of the Commonwealth Public Service which, in structure itself had changed little since the days of Chifley, laying the foundations for what was to become the Coombs Royal Commission.
While Whitlam himself, the son of a federal public servant, by instinct and by experience reflected his respect for the independence of the Commonwealth Public Service, elected to support the continuity of the senior public service mandarinate he inherited from his predecessors.
A combination of continuity and change which in face belies much of the criticism of Whitlam’s approach to the process of public administration.
And there then, of course, followed the relentless pace of legislative and administrative action of the government itself.
It is a remarkable thing that by the time of Whitlam’s election, the government of the Commonwealth had only changed as a result of national elections on seven previous occasions since federation.
And only one of these occasions was within Whitlam’s own political experience – the conservative victory of 1949.
A change of federal government at elections therefore remains a relatively rare thing in this country.
Therefore, the policy program brought to our national elections is of particular significance.
Whitlam’s was a most formidable record of domestic policy reform:
- The bold decision of a 25 per cent across the board tariff cut, which we are told Whitlam described to “a sceptical New South Wales Chamber of Manufacturers” as evidence of the first genuine free enterprise government in 23 years;
- The introduction of consumer protection laws against restrictive trade practices;
- The support for the equal pay case for women;
- The introduction of Australia’s first universal health insurance scheme funded by a 1.25 per cent surcharge in income tax;
- The introduction of the Schools Commission Bill to underpin needs-based funding for Australian Schools following the Karmel report;
- The abolition of tertiary fees, and the introduction of a tertiary education assistance scheme, in order to deal with what Whitlam described as the absolute scandal of only four per cent of government school year 12 completions going on to university, compared with 15 per cent for private schools;
- The introduction of the Racial Discrimination Act;
- Australia’s first land rights legislation;
- The amendment to the migration act to remove the racist provision that remarkably still required Aboriginal Australians to obtain permission to leave Australia;
- The abolition of conscription and the cessation of prosecution and imprisonment of draft resisters;
- The formal embrace of multiculturalism as official government policy;
- The removal of the last elements of the White Australia policy by the removal of privileges reserved for British white immigrants on the one hand and the removal of discriminatory practices against non-white and non-British immigrants on the other;
- The exclusion of all racially selected sporting teams from Australia;
- The introduction of the Family Law Act, the creation of the office of women, sensational for the times, a lifting of the ban on advertising contraceptives and the appointment of a women’s policy adviser – the latter resulting in what Hocking delightfully describes as “A national outbreak of small man syndrome”;
- The creation of an Australian honours system;
- The creation of the Australia Council;
- The commissioning of the National Gallery of Australia;
- The establishment of the Australian Film and Television School;
- And (most radically) the opening in 1974 of the FM radio band.
Forty years later, it is easy to forget what Australia was actually like prior to the election of the Whitlam Government.
Before 1972 Australia was an inward looking, by and large Anglo-Saxon monoculture suffering from an acute case of an international cultural cringe – sexist, in some parts racist, marching confidently towards 19th century future.
After 1972, despite the conservative reaction of 1975, Australia had become a confident, internationally engaged multi-culture, celebrating its diversity and carving out its independent place in the region and the world.
The genie simply could not be put back in the bottle and the core principle at stake in all this was that politics, properly conducted, really does matter in determining the future of people’s cultures and their countries.
And then there is Whitlam’s record on foreign policy.
- The recognition of China;
- The signing of the Nara Treaty with Japan;
- The immediate withdrawal of all remaining troops from Vietnam;
- The signing of the international covenants on Civil and Political Rights; on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
- The independence of Papua New Guinea;
- The closure of the Rhodesian Information Service in Sydney to the howls of protest of that conservative luminary Sir Robert Askin;
- The Government’s success in obtaining an interim injunction on the French nuclear testing in the Pacific at the International Court of Justice (the first successful interlocutory injunction in ICJ history).
In one of Whitlam’s most memorable remarks on Australia’s new identity in the world, he said:
“If anything came to an end on December 2... it was the demeaning of Australia in the eyes of the world as the country our predecessors had represented it to be: insignificant, racist, militarist, sycophantic, a timid and unworthy creature of the great powers to whom it had surrendered its identity”
Finally, there was Whitlam’s legendary commitment to electoral reform and the government providing the vote to 18 to 21 year olds at a time when you could be conscripted and sent to war, but unable to vote at elections for the government which conscripted you.
And then his efforts to enshrine what we now regard as the unremarkable principle of one-vote-one-value for all federal electorates, in contrast to the previous system which saw Country Party seats of 45,000 electors and metropolitan Labor electorates of 72,000 electors.
It should never be forgotten that one of the brutal political reasons underpinning the conservative campaign to demolish and destroy Whitlam was their fear (particularly from the National-Country Party) that basic electoral justice would erode their monopoly on power.
Of course the Whitlam program ran headlong into the great global economic inflationary pressures which greeted his first year in office, brought about in large part by the massive oil price hike in 1973/74 – and the truth is Whitlam failed to calibrate his detailed policy reform program against external economic realities over which neither he, his treasury, or his government had any control.
All the governments, including the one I was honoured to lead, have faced this challenge with varying degrees of success.
But against the conventional conservative critique of this part of the Whitlam record, Hocking reminds us of another inconvenient truth that should be borne in mind.
Before the 1972 election, the Secretary of the Treasury Sir Frederick Wheeler had presented McMahon with revised forward estimates on Commonwealth expenditures under the McMahon government that would see the highest percentage rate increase in government outlays in memory.
And that was before McMahon’s high spending election commitments in the 1972 campaign.
So much so that, by January 1973, with Whitlam less than one month in office, Wheeler was predicting a record deficit of just under a billion dollars, in a booming economy and with mounting inflation,
So the proposition that Whitlam inherited sound public finances from the conservatives is open to significant challenge, causing us to reflect on events just over a decade later when Hawke and Keating inherited an even greater deficit from the preceding conservative government of Fraser and Howard.
Nonetheless the overall point is this, notwithstanding the major challenges of global macroeconomic policy which dogged the Whitlam Government throughout its term, and to which the government failed to calibrate its program, the breadth of the enduring reform agenda of this government remains to this day.
Of course the Whitlam Government is both a tale of triumph and a tale of tragedy.
Neither Whitlam, nor any of his successors, are deserving of hagiography.
But whatever might be concluded about the failings of his government, there is little disagreement that there was nothing in the performance of the Whitlam Government that warranted the unconstitutional actions taken by the conservatives to bring down his government.
As Hocking starkly observes on page 61 of her book:
“If the government’s sole political strategy was to implement its program, the Opposition’s was equally simple and singular – to use its numbers in the Senate to remove the Whitlam Government. Nor was there any secrecy in the Opposition’s political strategy, it was plainly set out by its leader in the Senate... in his address in reply to the Governor General’s speech, (The Leader of the Opposition in the Senate) Senator Withers articulated this uncomplicated process: deny the legitimacy of the Whitlam Government, deny the reality of its election victory, deny the mandate and use the powers of the senate to remove what he considered an abhorrent government: ‘the Senate may well be called upon to protect the national interest by exercising its undoubted constitutional rights and powers’ ”
And let’s never forget this was in early 1973, just after the election of the Whitlam Government before anybody had heard of the Loans Affair.
Withers argued that the electorate was “unaware” of the implications of its decision in the 1972, and further more that the election result was “temporary electoral insanity”.
Withers further argued that the concept of an electoral mandate was “dishonest”, this sounds more like the table banter or high Tory grandees during the time of Queen Victoria reflecting on the poor judgement of the lower orders.
But no, this was the conservative leader in the Australian Senate in the 1970s.
Hocking also recounts the extraordinary story of the Governor of Western Australia, Sir Douglas Kendrew, who outlined to a somewhat shocked Governor General Sir Paul Hasluck that he had been in private discussions with the leader of the WA Opposition, Sir Charles Court, about his strategy to have supply to the newly elected Labor government rejected in the WA upper house, thereby forcing an election; and then having newly appointed WA conservative government, act with other non-Labor state governments to bring the Whitlam government down.
Forty years later this is extraordinary stuff to read.
But as we saw later with the decision by the conservative government in Queensland of Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen to change the numbers in the Senate by appointing Albert Patrick Field to replace the late Senator Burt Milliner, these were not simply idle conservative speculations over whiskeys and sodas in a gentleman’s club. They actually did it.
In one of the most impressive sections of Hocking’s book, she analyses the concerted conservative strategy to de-legitimise the Whitlam Government in order to create a sufficient climate of crisis to either force the government to the polls or, as indeed it turned out, to induce the Governor General who replaced Hasluck, Sir John Kerr, to dismiss the government.
To quote Hocking once again:
“Illegitimacy became the prism through which the normal activities of government – from appointments to policies – were seen... this was more than just a difference in political tone or a disagreement over policy: it was a different vocabulary altogether, one that effectively closed normal political debate, as arguments over policy options, differences between the parties and over specific government decisions were reduced to claims of illegitimacy. A linguistic continuum emerged from self interest to incompetence, from impropriety to corruption and even criminality.”
Of course all this comes very much from the universal conservative playbook.
Not just then. But now as well.
Not just in Australia. But also abroad.
But for the Whitlam Government, of course the rest is simply history.
There has been much debate in recent days about who were the precise dramatis personae in the events leading to the dismissal on 11 November 1975.
But the simple stark truth remains:
- The conservative opposition by and large manufactured a climate of unresolvable political crisis’ in late 1975;
- Second, on this basis they moved to block supply;
- Third, they refused to allow the matter to come to a vote in the Senate, knowing that their own numbers would buckle;
- Fourth, the proper constitutional course was for the matter to be resolved through a half senate election which was due by June 1976 in any case;
- But fifth, they could not allow such an election to occur given that a recent High Court decision had made it lawful to elect two senators each from the two territories and the likelihood that this in itself would break the Senate impasse on supply.
Hocking quotes Paul Kelly’s acute observation at the time when he wrote:
“there is no more specious argument than the claim that the Senate has an obligation to force an unpopular government to the polls – all governments at one time or another are unpopular. This approach simply ensures that unless a government has full control of both houses... it will be struck down at its weak point and denied the traditional three to four year term fundamental to sound government in most countries.”
So what does all of this have to say to those of us involved in the mire of Australian politics today?
Quite a lot actually.
As I noted at the beginning of my remarks today, there are certain continuities that run through the veins of our national political discourse.
When the Australian Labor Government was elected in 2007 it was elected on the basis of a clear program of policy reform including:
- A new approach to productivity driven by new large scale investment in skills and infrastructure including a National Broadband Network;
- An Education Revolution;
- Health and Hospitals Reform;
- An Apology to Indigenous Australians;
- The ratification of Kyoto;
- A renewable energy target of 20 per cent;
- A price on carbon;
- The abolition of WorkChoices (for which there had been no mandate at all for the previous government);
- And a new and active foreign policy in our region and the world.
The government under Prime Minister Gillard continues to implement a program of reform today, including a National Disability Insurance Scheme of far reaching importance for our people.
And since the very month of the government’s election at the end of 2007, we have had to weather the worst global economic crisis since the great depression: successfully avoiding recession and mass unemployment.
The normal business of government is hard.
The business of a reforming government is even harder.
Add to that a global economic crisis and it becomes harder again.
But contrast, however, this approach to that of our conservative opponents.
Both the 2007 and 2010 conservative election campaigns were simply attempted demolition derbies against the Labor Party.
In 2007 this was designed to mask the fact that the Howard government had become the highest taxing government in Australia’s history, interest rates were at record highs and an ideologically driven WorkChoices regime that was squeezing the life out of Australian families.
And it you ask anyone today what Mr Abbott’s program for election was for the 2010 election, we would all still be scratching our heads.
Remember, the conservatives refused to submit their policies which they put forward at the 2010 election to any formal costings process.
And for the next election, they already start, by their own admission, with a 70 billion black hole.
We have never seen any evidence of a transition to government process.
Nor has there been any alternative policy program (other than the reintroduction of WorkChoices as Mr Howard in part argued earlier this week).
No, there is none of that.
Mr Abbott’s entire program, in the tradition of his conservative predecessors, is simply driven by a campaign of delegitimisation of Labor.
Opposing everything, proposing nothing.
And to do everything possible to secure government by whatever it takes.
And as one of the independents reminded us recently, Mr Abbott is willing to obtain political power at any price.
And beneath all this, Mr Abbott would hope that he would be taken on trust.
Notwithstanding the fact that Mr Abbott is the most extreme right wing leader in his party’s history.
Notwithstanding the fact that he has neither the temperament nor the policies to occupy the highest office of this country – the Office of Prime Minister.
And that is why I believe Tony Abbott is entirely beatable at the next election because increasingly the Australian people see what it may mean to take a conservative leader such as him on trust.
And the good people of Queensland are discovering this as we speak.
I commend Jenny Hocking on her book.
These two volumes have been a labour of love over many years now.
I commend their subject – Edward Gough Whitlam for all that he has given his country.
Just as we all commend (and lament the passing of) his life partner Margaret who has equally been an inspiration to us all.
On all reasonable measures Australia is a better place for their lives and their life’s work.