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Gough Whitlam with very faint praise

By Peter Bowden - posted Thursday, 30 October 2014


The press, almost to excess, have farewelled Gough Whitlam over the past two weeks. Even the current government has praised the man who, it is widely acknowledged, "changed the face of Australia." Tony Abbott was especially fulsome. In the House of Representatives condolence motion last week, he stated: "In every sense, Gough Whitlam was a giant figure in this Parliament and in our public life. He was only prime minister for three years – three tumultuous years – but those years changed our nation and, in one way or another, set the tone for so much that has followed. Whether you were for him or against him, it was his vision that drove our politics then and which still echoes through our public life four decades on."

The morning that Gough died the Australian reported that "Politicians from across the divide have heaped praise on Gough Whitlam, describing the former prime minister as a "visionary" leader who spurred both progressives and conservatives into public life." 

The Leader of the House, Christopher Pyne, said: " In fact, to many in the non-Labor side of politics, as is clear by this debate so far and from what I'm sure is to come, he is a hero to many".

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Amanda Vanstone, a minister in the former Howard government, recently tried to cash in on this multiplicity in eulogies about our former Prime Minister. "Why Whitlam and Thatcher are two of a kind" she wrote for the Fairfax Press – the Age and the Sydney Morning Herald- on October 27

The thought that Gough Whitlam and Margaret Thatcher had anything in common made the article near mandatory reading. It turns out however, that the article is not a eulogy. It uses Gough to promote the conservative side of politics; and to downplay Gough Whitlam's contributions.

"Maggie lasted a lot longer, achieved a lot more in different ways" she tells us in the opening paragraph, before tackling Whitlam: "Gough, on the other hand, became a train wreck, but left with the affection of many which only appears to have grown over time."

He is a myth, she continues:

Clearly Gough's perfection did not lie in management of the economy. Many of his reformist policies were well intentioned but substantively flawed. Even so, they have been written into the mythology of Whitlam. Take the introduction of free university. It was meant to change the socio-economic make-up of university graduates. It didn't. That Robert Menzies had earlier presided over the biggest expansion in higher education is conveniently overlooked.

I did not know that Menzies had presided over the biggest expansion in higher education in Australia. Those who have praised Whitlam for introducing free university education in Australia should have been better informed.

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Vanstone then unleashes a statement which is highly debatable: "As Labor subsequently realised, it (free education) was an untenable policy if you wanted to expand access to higher education." The reasoning behind this statement is a little difficult to follow, but it would seem that if you are planning to go to university, you would go anyway. Free education would not change anything. I do have to disagree. I as a young student had just enrolled in night school when I learned that I had won a scholarship. Near free education enabled me to go to university. There are many who would not have a university education at all if it were not for Gough Whitlam.

As Louise Luscombe's letter to the Herald said a few days ago "Gough Whitlam changed my life. I was a housebound mother of four young children in the mid-1970s. His policies on women allowed me not only to return to university to become a teacher but paid me for doing so."

Vanstone's eulogy in fact turns out to be condemnation of the Labor side of politics: "Of course the major political beneficiary of Whitlam was the Labor Party itself. Before he got hold of them they were genuine dinosaurs," she tells us. "The Liberals had guaranteed places for women in all the electorate committees and on the federal executive. Not so Labor. Labor was truly a blokey, male-dominated, socially conservative club".

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About the Author

Peter Bowden is an author, researcher and ethicist. He was formerly Coordinator of the MBA Program at Monash University and Professor of Administrative Studies at Manchester University. He is currently a member of the Australian Business Ethics Network , working on business, institutional, and personal ethics.

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