Gough Whitlam wasn’t merely a key figure in Labor history — as you’ll hear constantly in the next few days — but a critical figure in the emergence of modern Australian politics.

The black-and-white footage of politics of the 1960s and 1970s disguises how different politics was then, particularly on the Labor side, in a party still healing from an ideological split that helped keep the party out of power for a generation. This was a left-wing party in a time of the Soviet Union and the Cold War, in which the Left and the Right were more than mere factional labels for a few minor differences over social policy. This was an era of profound ideological differences even within Labor itself, where socialists and even the occasional communist sat cheek-by-jowl with the Right, which even in the early 1970s was starting to shift towards a far more market-based economic policy than many Australians were used to or comfortable with.

It was Whitlam, after all, who — without a cabinet submission! — obtained cabinet agreement to cut tariffs by 25%, with the short-term goal of restraining inflation, a move influenced by Tariff Board head and free marketeer Alf Rattigan. It was an immensely costly decision politically — Whitlam owned every factory closure from that point — but the task of knocking down the tariff wall around the Australian economy would be carried on by the next Labor government. And it was Whitlam who had secured government for Labor by overhauling the party’s deadening internal structures in opposition and running a presidential-style campaign (befitting Gough’s ego, large even by the standard of a profession characterised by egomania) in 1972, including probably the most successful media campaign theme in Australian history.

But no amount of campaigning or internal reform could address his government’s fatal flaws: poor judgement, inexperience and a desperation to somehow make up for 23 years in opposition. It was also an unlucky government, with the oil crisis sending an inflationary shock through the economy here as it did for most the Western world — by December 1974, when Whitlam called and won a double dissolution election, inflation had topped 16%. Unemployment had doubled to over 5% (a shocking figure for a generation used to “a job for everyone”), and wages growth was spiralling out of control. Whitlam’s social policy innovations, educational reforms, innovative foreign policy (in opposition he’d anticipated Nixon by travelling to China) were for nought in the face of an economic crisis his government appeared to have no answers to.

It was a lesson the next generation of Labor didn’t forget. The Hawke and Keating governments put economic management front and centre in Australian political debate in a way that it hadn’t ever been before: the modern political fixation with economic performance started in the 1980s. Those governments were every bit as reform-minded as Whitlam’s, but it was the entire reconstruction of the Australian economy they were pursuing, a reconstruction intended to protect the interests of workers while introducing external and internal competition.

Whitlam had become the “reverse playbook” for his party; Keating was said to deride “dewy-eyed Whitlamites” in caucus. But it was Whitlam who established the reformist government template: even as the ideological gap between the major parties closed, governments were now expected to reform, not merely manage, and to reform on a large scale; reform, progress and change became the yardstick by which successful governments were measured — governments might either do too little (now a common complaint) or do too much too quickly or too ineptly, but they must be seen to pursue big-picture change.

As he receded into history, much of the rancour surrounding Whitlam softened, as it did for Malcolm Fraser, his opponent in the titanic battle over supply in 1975 that led to the dismissal. Younger generations who now know Fraser only as a benignly soft-left elder statesman would be shocked at the visceral hatred directed at him after 1975 by the Left — Fraser was a figure more polarising and more hated than Tony Abbott will ever be. In retirement, Whitlam and Fraser ceased to be such divisive figures and almost appeared to merge into one another ideologically.

But the intense division of 1975, when Fraser took the country to the brink of a constitutional crisis in an effort to oust his opponent, left a permanent mark on Australian politics. Thereafter it became more brutal: Labor would never forgive or forget being dismissed from office; in opposition, the Coalition alternated between tearing itself apart looking for a leader that could restore it to power, and resorting to any tactic, smear or issue that could delegitimise Labor. It all started with the dismissal and with Whitlam, a man whose “crash through or crash” ethos proved a self-fulfilling prophecy but also reflected a determination to change Australia no matter how much entrenched opposition he encountered from conservatives. Labor will mourn him as a fallen giant, and are right to do so.

Peter Fray

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