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Whitlam and the ‘70s – never before, never again?

Monday, 3 November 2014  | Paul Tyson

Gough Whitlam was a very unusual Australian leader: he had imagination, initiative, asked first order questions, thought outside of the box, and did things that were unprecedented. In short, he was an anomaly to the abiding Australian commitment to political caution, a stance which only trusts ‘safe hands’ with institutional power. Unsurprisingly, the political anomaly that was Gough did not last long: Whitlam was Prime Minister for less than three years, and he was decisively rejected by the Australian people after the constitutional crisis of 1975.

Despite his short life in office, many legacies of Gough’s government are still with us today. His Family Law reforms were gladly received by the ‘60s generation that sought greater autonomy for women and a much easier legal dissolution of marriage. These reforms were seen as corrosive of the family by many conservative Christians, yet these changes in law followed rather than led the demographic collapse of church attendance and the impact of the sexual revolution on Australian society.  Whitlam’s legacy includes a raft of other long standing progressive initiatives, such as: Aboriginal land reform; anti-racial-discrimination legislation; equal pay for women; free legal aid; dismantling the White Australia Policy. Foreign policy too was radically re-thought. In keeping with a widespread disgust with napalm and US war atrocities, Australia withdrew from Vietnam in the early ‘70s. The Left at that time also expressed strong misgivings about the Mutually Assured Destruction logic of the nuclear arms race between the superpowers. So the Whitlam government established diplomatic relations with Communist China and took active steps to promote autonomy from the US and its cold war agendas in our region. Yet the two most daring and enduring initiatives Gough brought in were free health care and free university education for all Australians. The fact that remnants of both of these initiatives are still with us, despite every government since Hawke diminishing one or another aspect of these common wealth initiatives, shows just how much radical reform Gough actually managed to do in a short amount of time.

Gough’s term was a time when fundamental progressive change – change for peace, for women, against racism, against violent imperialism, and for the lifting of the entire society by providing genuinely egalitarian access to health care and educational opportunity – seemed possible, and Gough was our leader for such change. However, the nation did not prove willing to follow through with the implementation of such change, nor was the nation willing to show any sustained commitment to our own independence and initiative.

Gough was an anomalous Australian leader, yet the times and political climate of the 1970s were also very different to what they are today. By the late 1980s, arch rivals Whitlam and Fraser increasingly found themselves fighting common causes, and both became increasingly alienated from the style, ideological vacuity and reductively pragmatic machinery of the political parties they had once led. It seems that not only the leaders, but the political ethos of the nation in the 1970s was unusual in light of what went before and what came afterwards.

Consider, for example, the policy initiatives related to Vietnamese refugees in the mid to late 1970s. At that time, neither the Coalition nor the ALP played the race card. Fear of an “Asian invasion” is a long standing Australian reflex which politicians prior to and after the 1970s have often appealed to in order to gain electoral support. But it seems that some things were more important to our 1970s politicians than easy electoral success. In the 1970s, there was a certain moral compass guiding refugee policy initiatives that was embedded in the universal humanitarian ethos of the Geneva Convention. Such humanitarian commitments are now starkly absent on both sides of Australian politics.

Certainly Gough’s politics was a progressive rupture with the Menzies era. Gough actively differentiated himself from the conservative, royalist, Cold-War-supporting, white Australia, respectably Christian politics that he replaced. Yet both Whitlam and Fraser showed strong continuity with the post-war era’s dedication to nation building, and with the socialist and liberal political ideals of their respective parties. In this regard they also show continuity with the religious affiliations undergirding Australia’s political heritage. The Catholic and Methodist roots of the workers movement in the ALP, the Protestant roots of established finance and respectable morality in Conservative politics, and the Non-Conformist suspicion of power within Liberal politics were recognizable, if transformed, in Whitlam and Fraser. Yet after the 1970s, nation building became obsolete and political concerns that were ideologically continuous with the traditional characteristic of the Australian political spectrum were replaced with the merely pragmatic imperatives of relentless economic reform.

The 1970s were characterized by political leaders of clear ideological and firm humanitarian fibre. For this reason the politics of that era was grounded in clearly differentiated political ideologies. Indeed, I often find myself wondering what two party politics could really mean within a liberal democratic system of governance if there are not clear ideological alternatives expressed for voters to choose between. This question arises because today, voters can no longer expect anything much in the way of political differentiation between what the two dominant party ‘brands’ of the same basic product in economic management offer us. We can vote for the red ties or the blue ties; both will be asking us to give them a mandate for very similar economic reforms. What has happened to the quality of our politicians and to politics itself since the 1970s?

There are interesting reasons why things have changed so dramatically in the very fabric of Australian politics over the past 40 years. This change started in 1971. The unemployment and stagflation that plagued the 70s were primarily a function of international forces over which the Australian governments had no control. Nixon’s abandonment of the gold standard and the oil price shocks played havoc with our economy. The post-war boom unravelled globally in the 1970s as the US switched from being the surplus economy that undergirded reconstruction and the cold war, to being a deficit economy pushing us all into a new era of international corporate capitalism and financial magic which we now call the global economy. Whitlam and Fraser were lags into the new global era from the old post-war era. At least, that is what they became after Hawke and Keating. Following Regan and Thatcher as we did in the 1980s, socialist, liberal and conservative political ideologies simply became redundant. Politicians remade themselves as fiscal engineers situating our economy to respond to global necessities (over which we have no control) so as to ensure maximum private wealth advancement, always at the cost of public wealth. Does politics mean anything political, anything directed towards the common good of the polity, in such a context?

Gough is dead. Of the former politicians of his era, only Fraser now survives as a prominent voice in public life. Fraser’s voice on foreign policy and asylum seekers is eminently sensible and characterised by political commitments and a moral fibre the likes of which is entirely missing from our major parties now. For this reason Fraser’s voice reaches us from an alien political universe – a universe in which a genuinely imaginative risk taker like Gough had a place. I doubt very much that we shall see leaders of their calibre in Australian politics again in my life time. The time for change came, we gave it some sort of a crack, and it passed. We are now firmly back to business as usual in the imperial outlands of Oz.

Paul Tyson, October 2014.


Jim Rawson
November 3, 2014, 9:50PM
Thank you Paul for your analysis. It pointed out a lot of the positive side of the equation. However, there were significant downsides. For example, the size of the public sector grew enormously. That came with significant costs that we are still lumbered with today
Ian Hore-Lacy
November 4, 2014, 8:30PM
There has certainly been a learning curve since Gough, and the Hawke-Keating years showed the welcome effect of this. There is no point in dwelling on Gough's many negatives, such as his stupid policy on premature PNG independence, except perhaps to counter prevailing hagiography. He was a great man in many ways.
Paul's words "Politicians remade themselves as fiscal engineers situating our economy to respond to global necessities (over which we have no control) so as to ensure maximum private wealth advancement, always at the cost of public wealth." bear consideration in respect to Wayne Swan's disastrous stewardship (with impact on public wealth) and Rupert Murdoch's comments (more broadly) to G20 ministers in October. How can we revert to more emphasis on the public good?
November 14, 2014, 11:32PM
A very interesting piece. But in the rush to lionise Gough Whitlam, I fear that a number of important facts have been overlooked:

* Contrary to the article's assertion, the Whitlam government did not abolish the White Australia Policy. True, it swept away the last vestiges of the policy, and took further steps to remove race as a factor in Australia's migration policies. However, it was the previous (Liberal) governments that were largely responsible for its de-legitimisation and dismantling. Moreover, as the ALP reduced overall migration during its time in office, its reforms had little effect on the make-up of migration to Australia.

* Contrary to the implication of the article (which is a little ambiguous on this point, to be sure), the Whitlam government did not brings the troops home from Vietnam. In fact, most Australian troops were home by 1971 - prior to the election of the ALP. A small contingent of military advisers remained, as did some Australian soldiers guarding the embassy in Saigon. But Australia's military presence in Indochina had been largely wound down by 1972.

* Against the article's implication that Gough Whitlam - and the 1970s generally - exhibited a different attitude towards refugees, it should be noted that in 1975, when masses of Vietnamese people were fleeing that country's communist dictatorship, Whitlam told his cabinet that he was "not having hundreds of f###### Vietnamese Balts coming into this country." This has been documented by several people, including a former Whitlam minister, Clyde Cameron. By "Balts", Whitlam meant anti-communists (paralleling an earlier wave of anti-communist migration from the Baltic states). I'm not sure what this says about the Whitlam government's "moral compass".

* Although the article claims that "easy electoral success" was not a feature of the 1970s (and the Whitlam government specifically) - thereby implying a noble reliance on principles and ideals - I'm not sure how this "squares" with the ALP's decision to try and borrow $500,000 from Iraq's Baathist government in order to finance its election campaign. Whitlam and others met with representatives from the government in Sydney of that year in a failed bid to secure the money. At the time, Saddam Hussein was vice-president of Iraq.

I think these facts constitute an important counter-balance to the tenor and argument of the article.
November 17, 2014, 12:25PM
A clarification regarding the last point above: Whitlam et. al. attempted to borrow the money from the Iraqi government in 1975, I believe.

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