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The passing of Gough Whitlam

By Don Aitkin - posted Wednesday, 22 October 2014


I wrote about Gough last year, when he turned 97, and I don't want to repeat any of that. He was the most interesting politician I met, and he and Bob Menzies, for somewhat similar reasons, have been the two most powerful Australian politicians of my time. He didn't quite get to 100 years, and thereby receive the Queen's telegram, but he did have a long innings, of which the last few years were not at all his most enjoyable.

The tributes are pouring in, and they tell a similar story. He made us conscious of who we were as a nation, and what we might be and become. He did important things in every sphere of public life - the status of women and of indigenous Australians, the arts, education, and often for the first time. He left office in the most dramatic way, and he never had a second experience of that role. He was gifted with a powerful intellect and an extraordinary memory. Someone is bound to say, again, that 'he bestrode Australian politics like a colossus'. He was indeed a larger-than-life figure. I would accept a lot of that.

I was not an unqualified admirer, but I knew him over forty years, once interviewed him at length, and encountered him on scores of occasions. He did not enjoy criticism from someone like me, 21 years his junior, who wrote a weekly column in the National Times. And he loved to score off others, sometimes when it really was not to his advantage to do so. I got my share of it.

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Barry Cohen collected two books' worth of stories about Gough, and many of them are really funny, though the subject chided Cohen for saying that he was funny, preferring 'witty' or 'epigrammatic'. To be called funny, he reproved Cohen, made him sound like a clown. And Cohen makes an important point that Gough liked to send himself up, recognising that he would never be able to put down the widely accepted view of him as arrogant or elitist. In his own tribute in The Australian Cohen says that he once asked Gough how he would handle his Maker, when the dreaded Day of Judgment arrived. "You can be sure of one thing," Whitlam intoned. "I shall treat him as an equal."

Two important points are likely to be missed in all the celebration of what was indeed an important life for all of us. The first is that there was no great tide of popular feeling that swept him into office in 1972. Labor enjoyed a small swing of 2.6 per cent and, when all the votes had been counted, had a majority of nine seats in the new Parliament. And yet Whitlam had bested the former Coalition Prime Minister, Billy McMahon, on almost every occasion, the tide had turned on the war in Vietnam, in Labor's favour, Whitlam had gone to China and met Chou En-Lai, the Premier, while the Coalition Ministry was full of rancour and Ministers were as bad as their PM in telling all to a friendly journalist.

In truth, Labor was not desperately popular in the 1970s, despite the 1972 electoral victory, and did not really regain its wartime popularity until the Hawke years in the 1980s, and the demise of the DLP. The turbulence of the Whitlam period did not help, though the fault did not always lie with the Leader.

The second thing to remember is that Whitlam in power was able to build on what others had started. He is credited with empowering the Australian film industry, for example. But previous Coalition Ministers and Prime Ministers had already begun to stimulate Australian film-making and film-financing. Same with the arts. Same with Aboriginal people. Same with multiculturalism. Same with the status of women.

There is a strong thread of continuity in our politics, and it is rare for anyone in Parliament to be able to do something for the very first time. Even Whitlam's 25 per cent tariff cuts had their genesis in the tireless work of people like Bert Kelly MP, who had been preaching to the unconverted in the Liberal and Country Parties (let alone Labor) for twenty years about the need to expose Australian industry to real competition, and to remove the warm but stifling blanket of protection.

In 1973 the Whitlam Government lowered the voting age from 21 to 18, but it is fair to note that Western Australia, South Australia and New South Wales had already done so, and the meaning of 'adult' had already become anomalous, since one could marry, be called up for military service, and be tried as an adult under Australian criminal law. Once again, this was a change that was plainly coming.

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Most people see the National Health Scheme as a Labor initiative, and there is a certain amount of truth in the claim. But the first National Health Scheme was set up in 1956, almost twenty years earlier, when Sir Earle Page was the Minister for Health in the Menzies-Fadden Government - and Page had tried to set up an even more ambitious scheme in 1939, when a Minister in the Lyons Government. Whitlam's was an improvement, and an important improvement, too. But it was not a beginning.

He was always referred to by his staff and close associates, when he was the leader of the Parliamentary Labor Party, as 'Leader'. That usage grated on me a bit, and I asked one of them one day whether she was aware of the German translation of the word. She wasn't, and was displeased when I told her that it was 'der Fuehrer'. He was certainly 'Leader' in substance and style, and just as certainly wasn't 'der Fuehrer'.

Nonetheless Whitlam was a powerful force in persuasion and rhetoric when he took up an issue, and he knew well enough how important it is to claim credit for initiatives, even when the reality, years later, is much less impressive. Great in frame and in vision, Gough Whitlam has had no real counterpart in our politics. I would have liked him to have another term in office after that dreadful defeat (for him) of December 1975, when Labor's strength in the House of Representatives was almost cut in half. I think he would have entered on a second term in a much tougher and more chastened frame of mind, and the outcomes possibly a lot surer.

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About the Author

Don Aitkin has been an academic and vice-chancellor. His latest book, Moving On, was published in 2016.

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