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Whitlam was a giant cut down in his prime

By Peter Coates - posted Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Whitlam lived long, but his early dismissal destroyed him politically. He contributed greatly to society long after his political career. An ordinary Labor Party and born to rule conservatives did him in.

Born in 1916, Whitlam started life in industrious privilege. He was moved with his public service family to Canberra in the late 1920s - a bush capital full of flies following sheep. His dad rose to the lofty heights of Commonwealth Crown Solicitor - with much involvement in human rights. Whitlam’s patrician education at private schools and Sydney University culminated in degrees in Arts and Law. This was interrupted by service in the Air Force against the Japanese. During World War Two Whitlam also became active in Labor Party causes. He completed his law degree then entered the Bar in 1947. He became a successful lawyer, unsuccessful council candidate, but a national quiz champion twice in 1948 and 1949.

Whitlam succeeded in being elected to Federal Parliament 62 years ago, representing the seat of Werriwa, in 1952. He became Deputy Leader of the Labor Party 54 years ago in 1960. Then in 1967 he became Labor Party Leader, the new replacing the old Arthur Calwell.


Gough brought much hope of the 1960s into 1970s Australia - an Australia retarded by the very ordinary Coalition Prime Ministers who followed Menzies. Whitlam’s final success in the 1972 Federal Election probably owed much to the new-style campaign spirit of It’s Time. With little help from his party and largely in the first “100 days” Whitlam brought in progressive changes in Aboriginal rights, woman’s rights to work after marriage, free university education, stopped conscription (national service) while removing Australia from Vietnam, ended capital punishment, introduced universal health care and built relations with China.

With too much help from his party colleagues the gloss wore off. The forces that kept Labor out of office from 1949 to 1972 were still strong enough to pull Labor down in 1975. These forces included personal rivalries, disunity between Labor factions and idealism over pragmatism. Whitlam’s problems largely came in Cs and the occasional K. There were the idealistic embarrassments of Rex Connor who sought to nationalise resources on easy money promised, but never delivered, by Khemlani. Jim Cairns had grand financial plans partly destroyed by the 1973 oil crisis. Cairns as Treasurer, was also hit by the Loans Affair, the rundown of the economy and perhaps junketing with Junie. Al Grassby provided a distraction of colour in multiculturalism and menswear.

Finally there was Labor man, turned aristocrat, the Governor-General, Sir John Kerr - a Whitlam appointee forever damned for sacking the Whitlam Government. Whitlam was forced to operate with a hung Parliament with a Coalition Opposition majority in the Senate. The Coalition managed to block the money supply making a bad government unworkable. The sacking by Kerr on Remembrance Day 1975 led to Whitlam’s famous Dismissal Speech on the steps of Old Parliament House. But there was a comic monkey of democracy that day - who for a few seconds staid the hands of several political tossers - Shakespeare a la Gunston. The little Aussie bleeder was actually there, not photo-shopped in.

The circumstances of the Constitutional Crisis, that was the Dismissal, remain contentious. However it was Whitlam’s action in accepting the Dismissal, rather than his words on the steps, that speak loudest.

Too many forget that a month after the Dismissal a General Election was held, on December 13, 1975, which was a landslide victory for Fraser and resounding rejection of Whitlam’s Labor rule. The people spoke. Whitlam remained Labor leader until the 1977 Federal Election, which he also lost badly. The time of hope of Whitlam’s first 100 days never returned.

Whitlam’s withdrawal from political life in 1977 after such a short time leading the nation built the Whitlam legend. He did not hang around like a bad smell of spilt beer gone sticky.


Besides serious things true statesman should be remembered for their comic timing. Whitlam was better than most. Whitlam once recalled his timely interjection in Parliament on a quiet day: “Sir Winton Turnbull [who represented a large rural electorate] was raving and ranting on the adjournment and shouted: "I am a Country member". [Whitlam] interjected "I remember". [Turnbull] could not understand why, for the first time in all the years he had been speaking in the House, there was instant and loud applause from both sides.”

Labor identities, some infamous, over the next few days will preach that they were closer than brothers to Whitlam. Some will profit from biographies and repeatedly say “I” and me” on talkshows. But Whitlam belongs to us. We remember what we want to remember unguided by our political “betters”.

Though It’s Time is becoming over-played there’s no better goodbye.

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About the Author

Peter Coates has been writing articles on military, security and international relations issues since 2006. In 2014 he completed a Master’s Degree in International Relations, with a high distinction average. His website is Submarine Matters.

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