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Book Review: Not all hope is lost for Australia's modern Labor Party

By Tristan Ewins - posted Friday, 16 January 2004

As Jenny Hocking and Colleen Lewis argue in Whitlam and Modern Labor - It's Time Again a landmark title from Circa publishing, to dismiss Whitlamism as mere nostalgia fails to recognize that it is not a yearning for the past but a concern for the present which causes progressive thinkers to look to the “brief outbreak of social democracy” from 1972 to 1975 in search of inspiration. Comprising twenty-one chapters from a host of progressive public figures and thinkers, this book provides in-depth analyses of the Whitlam government and its relevance for contemporary political debate, examining the policies of the ALP past and present, and ultimately advocating an end to the narrow, uninspired pragmatism that has gripped that party for far too long.

Provision of legal aid, equal opportunity and equal pay for women; introduction of universal public health care via Medibank; removal of censorship; establishment of the Racial Discrimination Act and ambitious urban and regional development programs as well as the release of conscientious objectors; free tertiary education; radical expansion of public education funding and participation; the Disadvantaged Schools Program, an official commitment to full employment, women’s health programs and shelters, school dental services: the list of Whitlam achievements is truly staggering when compared with the timidity of today’s Labor Party.

And yet, as Nathan Hollier notes, “there is a special desire to control interpretations of the period” - a tendency among some to be dismissive of the Whitlam years. By this reckoning the “hegemonic neo-liberal interpretation” is effectively enforced through the mass media, resulting in a managed exclusion of policy alternatives from public dialogue. Tim Rowse observes that leading opinion-makers such as Paul Kelly equate modernity with hard-liberal political economy, lambasting all opponents of the current neo-liberal orthodoxy as “sentimental traditionalists”. Andrew Scott reflects how during the Hawke years in the Cabinet room the worst insult was to be referred to as an “unreconstructed Whitlamite”.


Caricatures that equate “Whitlamism” (and thus social democracy) with economic irresponsibility and incompetence, however, pointedly ignore the context in which this government operated: a slowing of the world economy with the end of the long boom compounded by the first “oil shock”, and unrelenting opposition to a comprehensive prices and incomes policy. As opposed to those like Kelly who played such an important role in legitimizing Hawke’s and Keating’s conversion to "neo-liberalism with a human face", contributors to this title insist that an alternative modernity remains possible - one not characterized by an almost total closure of the political field. The construction of an artificial binary opposition between “modernisation” and “tradition” serves only to obscure the real political and moral choices facing policy makers today.

Whitlam himself, who has contributed a frank evaluation of his government’s achievements as part of this expansive collection, is scathing of the situation whereby “free universities [were] abandoned by a Labor government”. Scott, meanwhile, is particularly despairing of the surrender of the Whitlam legacy by subsequent Labor governments and oppositions, noting the insatiable pursuit of privatization - even against existing ALP platforms. He notes a propensity for modern Labor to “opt out” of the tax debate with the relinquishment of any real commitment to a progressive, fair and equitable taxation system. With an ALP that is “scared either to tax or spend”, Labor might well be able to tinker around the edges in health and education, but there is little hope of a qualitative alternative - of extending or consolidating the welfare state and the social wage in any significant way. Gwen Gray reflects the feeling of many progressive Australian thinkers and activists, confessing her fear that, in light of the ALP’s support for the Coalition’s tax-funded private health insurance rebate, it is not possible to be confident that Medicare will survive.

For Carmen Lawrence, the condition of modern Labor is heart-breaking. As the outspoken Labor MP relates, “[Technocratic] and incremental social change is not enough to make [one] get out of bed in the morning – I’m certainly finding it harder and harder.” Notably, Lawrence traces the relatively radical tenor of the Whitlam years to “the explosion of the mass movement against the Vietnam War and the upsurge of student radicalism in the late 1960s”. Lawrence’s sentiments are reinforced by Hollier’s conclusion that the real downfall of Labor has been, “an intellectual and organizational failure to … effectively suffuse its principles throughout society”. This, in turn, raises the question of whether the popular support base for a genuine social democratic agenda can be mobilized through force of collective will or - more pessimistically - whether it was only the radicalising experience of Vietnam which provided the opportunity for Labor under Whitlam. The role of the radical Cairns in providing the relativities within Labor that allowed Whitlam’s agenda to emerge as “mainstream” also should not be underestimated.

Perhaps the last say is best given to Whitlam himself, who once declared: “We must not all fall into the defeatism that accepts that the Australian electorate is so naturally conservative that it will never accept real reform or genuine change.”

As the ALP National Conference approaches, all concerned factions and interests would do well to keep these words in mind. What is more, Latham, who views himself as a Whitlam protégé, would be well advised to consider how he might extend as well as preserve the legacy of his mentor. The Whitlamite legacy of the social wage can only be preserved and improved by maintaining and even expanding government revenue as a proportion of GDP while simultaneously reforming the structure of the tax mix, in the interests of equality and distributive justice. Left interests whose support was crucial in elevating Latham to the leadership need to press this point home as firmly as possible, ensuring a clear and unequivocal commitment to these objectives in the Party platform.

Although reflecting a deep dissatisfaction with modern Labor, this title is underscored by a resilient optimism - an optimism for which the cause of democratic socialism is not yet irretrievably lost; and for which courageous leadership from within Labor may lead to the day when we can declare, once again, “It’s Time”.

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A shorter version of this article recently appeared in The Canberra Times.

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About the Author

Tristan Ewins has a PhD and is a freelance writer, qualified teacher and social commentator based in Melbourne, Australia. He is also a long-time member of the Socialist Left of the Australian Labor Party (ALP). He blogs at Left Focus, ALP Socialist Left Forum and the Movement for a Democratic Mixed Economy.

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