by Humphrey McQueen
This article is the last of the three articles about the “Whitlam Era” that the author has given permission to republish.
The passing of Edward Gough Whitlam signifies more than the death of one man. Whitlam is the only Labor prime minister whose name became an –ism, an endowment which continues to evoke veneration and loathing. He will wish to be remember for his policies, the theme of this reflection.
Federal Treasurer Peter Costello boasts that he has lead the economy to recovery from “the damage [that] began in 1972 with the Whitlam Government” Costello had reacted to the debauching of Australia’s credit rating by the Whitlam ministry’s attempt to borrow billions from unlovely vendors. Minerals and Energy Minister, Rex Connor, defended those deals to buy back the farm with a line of verse: “Give me men to match my vision”.
Whitlam had restored vision to public life after the decline of Menzies cabinets into domestic and international senescence, followed by muddles and false starts under Holt, Gorton and McMahon. For good or ill, twenty-[???] years after Whitlam resigned from parliament, his name is linked to initiatives in every area of administration. The currency of terms such as “agenda setting” and “the mandate” testify to his energies. Typical of this activism, his major publication, The Whitlam Government, 1972-1975 (1985), was not a volume of memoirs, but a thematic analysis under nineteen policy headings. Because the Whitlam legacy has been blurred on every side by false attributions and by forgetting, the measure of the man must be plumbed through a survey of his initiatives in those domains.
“A principal part of my duty”, he wrote, has been “to place issues of importance … on the agenda of my Party and the agenda of this nation”. Along with R. J. Hawke as ACTU advocate and D. A. Dunstan as attorney-general in South Australia, Whitlam represented the generation of graduates who turned the labour movement from its rural and manufacturing origins towards the tertiary sector.
A determination “to crash through” derived from impatience at the logjam of reforms after 23 years in opposition. “The program” that Whitlam delivered in the Blacktown Civic Centre on 13 November 1972 would have been more secure had he won in 1969. Instead, his reputation as a economic manager is abysmal, bearing the opprobrium of grappling with world recession from 1974, after oil prices skyrocketed in October 1973. Its warning signs had flashed from the late 1960s when the international monetary system had ceased to function before. The Coalition government had made the situation here worse by failing to revalue our dollar. To suppose that the economy would have had no problems had William McMahon won in 1972 is to deny the domestic and international forces that erupted after 1973.
In opposition, Whitlam had assumed that the post-war boom would continue, allowing him to fund the program without raising tax rates. In this expectation, he was not following Keynes who had favoured additional government spending to counter contractions by corporate investors. In as much as Whitlam had thought about these matters, he was among the multitude who extrapolated Keynes’s tactic into a licence to spend on good causes, irrespective of the pace of economic activity.
Australia did not face a low level of investments so much as their misdirection. A 1974-75 inquiry into manufacturing documented how chronic inefficiencies from fragmented plants, punitive taxes and inappropriate accounting had left firms vulnerable to the Coalition’s fuelling of inflation during 1971-72, well before the oil price hikes. Whitlam’s tome ignored those findings because he had little interest in manufacturing and because they ran counter to his conversion to tariff cuts as a panacea. No one explained to him that an appreciating dollar was stripping factories of that protection.
This economic illiteracy confirms the accusation by his advisor, Dr H. C. Coombs, that he suffered from the lawyer’s belief that the enactment of legislation altered the real world. Yet as prime minister, Whitlam recognised that Acts of Parliament could be frustrated by a hostile or dispirited bureaucracy. The Labor government inherited a public service divided in its prejudices and enthusiasms. Although he categorised the Department of Immigration as irretrievably racist, he never lost his trust in the neutrality of the civil service on the model of his father who had been Commonwealth solicitor-general.
By April 1974, Coombs had convinced Whitlam to set up a Royal Commission on Government Administration to cope with the fiscal crisis confronting welfare states. If greater efficiency could be won from public services despite static real expenditures, welfare objectives might be sustained. Since 1975, that prospect has lost out, first to razor gangs and then to outsourcing and privatisation as Whitlam’s ALP successors dissociated themselves from his largesse. R. J. Hawke got Gough out of the way in 1983 by dispatching him to Paris as ambassador to UNESCO. On that eunuch’s couch, he could not generate invidious comparisons.
This switch on economic policy is clear from the altered meaning of the word “reform”. Under Whitlam, “reform” required governmental involvement to advance social equality for gender, generations and regions, as well as class. Under Hawke and Keating, ‘reform’ meant economic rationalism with the sell-off of government instrumentalities, de-regulation of the financial sector, self-regulation for corporations, the slackening of controls on overseas ownership and a diminution of workplace safeguards. The slashing of tariffs was the one area where Hawke and Keating were faithful to a Whitlam initiative.
Typically, he opened The Whitlam Government with an account of International Affairs, which occupied a fifth of the volume, more than twice the next longest chapter, no less tellingly devoted to The Law. Those domains were linked because he deployed the foreign affairs power in the constitution to expand Commonwealth activity. Moreover, international relations was the domain where he could act without passing a law through a hostile Senate. Like Dr Evatt, Whitlam might have been more successful as joint Foreign Minister and Attorney-General than as prime minister. In that case, and again like Evatt, he would have been vigorous in endeavouring to subvert his leader.
Whitlam formed his foreign policies during a time when Australia’s security partnership was the South-East Asian Treaty Organisation, a ramshackle of colonial powers and regional dictatorships. His reappraisal coincided with the Nixon-Kissinger redirection of US containment in Asia, notably the decision to recognise Maotse-tung’s “bandits” as the government of China. The White House was less pleased with Whitlam’s willingness to consider the Soviet Union as just another state with legitimate interests around the globe.
Whitlam’s view of the world was remote from the skepticism voiced by anti-Vietnam activists about Washington’s virtue, or reliability as an ally. After he won the Labor leadership following the electoral debacle of 1966, he argued that Australian regulars had to stay in Vietnam in order to help the US extricate itself from that quagmire. He is often credited with withdrawing the conscripts, yet all but a handful of professional advisors had been back since 1971. Whitlam did not disturb the US spy bases here until the weeks leading up to his dismissal when he outed a CIA controller at Pine Gap, near Alice Springs.
From the 1940s, Whitlam’s support for nationalist revolutions had committed him to Indonesia, first against the Dutch over West Irian, and later in Portuguese Timor. That second decision remains the canker for those most anxious to admire him. Typically, he has never apologised. His masterly inactivity in regard to Timor contrasted with his drive not to be beaten by Portugal into the dishonour of being the world’s last colonial overlord. “If history were to obliterate the whole of my public career”, Whitlam wrote, “save my contribution to the independence of a democratic PNG, I should rest content”.
On the domestic front, none of Whitlam’s redirections of policy had more potential for transforming the Australian way of life than his integration of policies for cities, housing and transport. To that end he created the Department of Urban and Regional Development (DURD), which rivaled Treasury as a source of advice on investment and employment. In similar vein, he later merged Immigration with Labour, tying population with employment.
Elected in 1952 for Werriwa in Sydney’s south-west, Whitlam had lived with the hardship of suburbs short on basic services. Daily life at 32 Albert street, Cabramatta, stiffened his suspicion that an affluent society could be equitable only through public utilities, whether libraries or sewerage. Those experiences stimulated his preference for Local over State government, twisting a new strand into Labor’s tilting the federal compact towards Canberra.
Paralleling Whitlam’s emphasis on the suburbs was his attempt to relieve pressure on the capital cities by decentralisation. Albury-Wodonga became the first regional growth centre. Location has kept those twin cities expanding, but with fewer of the amenities envisaged in 1973. Whitlam’s urban consciousness lingers in the 2001 agreement between the State governments to install a single local government across the border. He had lost enthusiasm for developing the North until his neglect immediately after Cyclone Tracy made him over-compensate by blundering into the reconstruction of Darwin.
Although Cabramatta has become “Little Saigon”, multi-culturalism appeared in The Whitlam Government only where a Liberal minister for Immigration, Billie Snedden, had opposed its assumptions in 1969. When Whitlam’s first Minister for Immigration, Al Grassby, proposed a “new slogan for Australia” it was the cumbersome phrase “unity in diversity”. The association of Grassby with multi-culturalism came during the five years he served as Community Relations Commissioner under Fraser who used the tag to attract the ethnic vote, just as Whitlam boasted he had done.
Earlier Labor leaders, notably Dr Evatt, had personal commitments to the arts, yet culture had remained an electoral asset for the Liberals until Whitlam. Menzies associated the middle class – his “forgotten people” – with the life of the mind “which marks us off from the beast”. In 1975, the 85-year old Sydney North Shore painter Grace Crowley told a journalist: “We were all too superior for Labor, but Labor I vote for now”. The swing within the arts community came with a fresh wave of practitioners as well from an enlarged audience, both dramatised in David Williamson’s Don’s Party (1971). Establishment of the Australia Council with what now looks like lavish funding, and the 1973 purchase of Jackson Pollock’s “Blue Poles”, consolidated that enthusiasm. In retirement, the Whitlams became opening-night fixtures.
Whitlam’s pouring of earth into the hands of Gurindji elder, Vincent Lingari, inscribed land rights as a distinguishing mark of his administration. Yet his government did not override Queensland’s Bjelke-Petersen on Aboriginal matters, a sign of the ALP’s continuing reluctance to use the powers authorised by the 1967 referendum to make special laws.
Medibank-cum-Medicare remains the most approved of the Whitlam legacies, one which has been tampered with but which would be electoral suicide to abolish in favour of the voluntary schemes and charity so beloved by Howard. Three aspects of Whitlam’s initiative, however, are nowadays overlooked. First, the Commonwealth takeover of hospital funding is a dead letter. Secondly, Medibank marginalised the community health centres proposed by the caucus committee of medicos who thought public and preventive approaches more beneficial than the guaranteeing of doctors’ incomes. Thirdly, the levy was a flat-rate impost on income taxes, which are themselves calculated after deducting expenses and other dodges. The levy has become part of the drift away from policies based on “needs”.
In another unintended retreat from equality, Whitlam abolished tertiary education fees, against the advice of his Minister for Education, Kim Beazley senior, who had benefited from the West Australian system that Whitlam cited as his model. This contradiction of Labor’s “needs” program sparked little criticism because, according to Beazley, “the beneficiaries were the most articulate and influential sectors”. Beazley snr had wanted more Commonwealth scholarships for lower income groups. That removal of fees brought little change to the class composition of tertiary enrollments, though it helped older women to graduate. The fee abolition also cleared the way under Hawke’s rationalism to HECS charges.
Whitlam displayed a Menziesian attachment to middle-class presumptions when he illustrated his vision of equality: “I want every kid to have a desk, with a lamp, and his own room to study”. Trained to value equality before the law, as in one vote one value, he pursued equality of opportunities more than of outcomes. Hence, the need for affirmative action for women to redress the social circumstances that lie beneath injustices surprised him. His socialism required a larger public sector, never a reallocation of wealth.
Reacting against the defeat of the 1944 referendum to extend Commonwealth powers, RAAF navigator Whitlam had projected a career in politics. In opposition, he campaigned to modernise the Constitution. He brought himself to nation-wide prominence within the Labor movement through his 1957 Chifley Memorial Lecture, The Constitution versus Labor. He argued that for as long as the courts ruled nationalisation to be unconstitutional, the ALP’s Socialist Objective could form no part of its electoral program. The ALP has since moved so far from even the watered-down Democratic Socialism adopted in 1957 that the Party’s fixation throughout the 1950s on Court rulings against nationalisation (Section 92) now seems pre-Copernican. Yet in the late 1980s, the High Court restored the words “trade and commerce between the States shall be absolutely free” to the founders’ limited intent of banning imposts on inter-State tariffs. One bar to nationalisation was thus being lowered while the ALP was moving towards the sell-off of people’s bank.
In place of nationalisation, Whitlam breathed life into governmental enterprises through tied grants to the States (Section 96). He also reinstated the Inter-State Commission (Section 101), to adjudicate and administer trade and commerce – as it could now do over competition policy, through it is part of no party’s agenda.
Republicanism is one area where there has been no retreat from “The Program” because, as Whitlam confessed, he “did not become committed to the Australian republic” until the reserve powers of the crown injured his own prospects. Instead, he had prided himself on his punctiliousness in regard to Royal Style and Titles, treating the Windsors “as if they were his equals”. How paradoxical then that a parliamentarian so respectful of procedural niceties should be laid low by a big-C Conservative disregard for constitutional conventions. The dismissal on 11 November 1975 initiated the Citizens for Democracy on their campaign to rewrite the Constitution. At the 1999 referendum, both minimalists and direct-electionists overlooked the need to deprive the Senate of its power to block supply and to remove the reserve powers of the head of state, whether as president or governor-general.
“More matter, less art” Whitlam told his speechwriters. Had he drafted those addresses himself, the texts would have been as distinguished, if not more so. The arts of oratory were essential to his legacy. Times have been a changing. In the early 1970s, journalists were aspiring enough to revel in Whitlam’s historical analogies – “Tiberius with a telephone” for McMahon’s conniving – and an arcane vocabulary – “balletomaniac” for Jim Killen’s alarm about KGB agents pirouetting among the touring Bolshoi dancers. The Whitlam legacy will continue to shrink as fewer get his jokes.
Whitlam quoted Machiavelli to disparage those of his followers who were lukewarm in defending “a new order of things”. That charge could never be made against his leadership. In defeat and disgrace, Whitlam remained an interventionist. Trying to lead the opposition again between 1975 and 1977, he proposed reforms which would not require huge outlays. In 1985, he foresaw that if Labor were not the “great party of Australian reform” it would be a nothing.