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Thanks for the confidence, Gough

By Tim Harcourt - posted Monday, 27 October 2014

“Where were you when Gough was sacked?” This of course refers to Remembrance Day, 11 November, 1975, when the elected prime minister Gough Whitlam was sacked by Governor-General Sir John Kerr in cahoots with the leader of the Opposition, Malcolm Fraser.

For Australians, it’s a bit like the question, “Where were you when Kennedy was shot?” Of course I mean US President John Fitzgerald Kennedy (JFK), when he was shot in Dallas on 22 November, 1963, but apparently in Melbourne where Graham Kennedy hosted the very popular TV program “In Melbourne Tonight” the news “Kennedy is shot” caused some viewers to reply: “Well I guess that gives Bert Newton his big chance.”

On the day of what is now known as “The Dismissal”, I was at Cubs. After all I was 10. And I was so angry about Gough being sacked, I said to the Akela we should take down the portrait of the Queen and put one up of Gough Whitlam in her place. Gough said “maintain the rage” and my father had spoken at a protest rally that day, so as 10-year-old, this was my response to the call.


But while Gough said to maintain the rage, after the elections defeats of ‘75 and ‘77 the ALP did actually get down to some serious policy work – particularly in economics – with the Committee of Inquiry chaired by John Button. So by the time Labor returned to office in 1983 with Bob Hawke, we had the Prices and Incomes Accord with economic management at the centre of the Hawke Government. There was a trained economist in Hawke, another in his fellow ACTU research officer in Cabinet Ralph Willis, and an energetic reforming treasurer by the name of Paul Keating. And the rest is history.

Of course Gough had a very successful post prime ministerial career and I had the opportunity to work with him as part of the Whitlam lectures series for Trade Union Education Foundation (TUEF) particularly with his work on China and the Asia Pacific region. It was a great honour and it was also hilarious being Gough’s chaperone around various cities. He would often enter the gentlemen’s bathroom, approach the urinal, and when the occupants said “my god it’s Gough” he’d say “make way for the great man” with heavy irony. Also when he met someone who had migrated to Australia, and if they came from anywhere Spain, Greece, Italy, Chile or China, he’d know all about the history of their home village, their surname, and so on, which delighted them (and amazed me).

However, I have a confession to make. As an economist albeit from family of true believers I was firmly in the camp of “Gough doesn’t know any economics and that’s why he lost".

‘What Gough knows about economics…’

Several Labor leaning economists – mainly from Adelaide – my father Geoff Harcourt, Eric Russell (father of Don Russell), Barry Hughes and Philip Bentley all tried in the late sixties and early seventies to get Gough interested in economics. Geoff, who was the economist on the ALP Committee of Inquiry, found Bill Hayden as a trained economist much easier to work with.


Former prime ministers Bob Hawke and Gough Whitlam in 2001. Julian Smith/AAP


Of course, Gough did have Fred Gruen (father of the distinguished economists David and Nick Gruen) as an adviser, but his focus was clearly elsewhere. In fact, when I interviewed Bob Hawke about this period he said to me: “What Gough knows about economics you could write on the back of a postage stamp and still have some room to spare.” Hawke as ACTU and ALP President had wanted Gough to focus more on economics, and just before the 1972 election, at the ALP federal executive, he said: “Gough… you’re going to do some great things in government in the social welfare area and internationally… but your government will live or die on how you handle the economy.”

Gough didn’t have the passion for economic management that he had in other areas of “the programme” like foreign policy, social reform, education, the status of women, indigenous affairs and the arts and it showed in areas of macroeconomic management (although this was true of all OECD governments after the OPEC Oil shock and true of the Fraser-Howard years too as they struggled with the recession of their period of office). Gough did have some microeconomic policy achievements in anti-competition reform, and productivity boosting reforms in the labour market by implementing equal pay for women and increasing opportunity in education.

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This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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About the Author

Tim Harcourt is the JW Nevile Fellow in Economics at the UNSW Business School, Sydney, Australia. He is also the author-host of The Airport Economist.

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