John Menadue and Gough Whitlam in 1974

Few public figures have left their mark on Australia like Gough Whitlam. I knew him for 50 years. He was the most exciting and challenging public person I have met. Australians owe him a great debt for giving them new opportunities and linking the aspirations of working people with those of the university educated.

For me, two events stood out. The first was his letter to Richard Nixon at Christmas 1972 deploring the bombing of the people of Hanoi and Haiphong. The outrage of the Nixon administration was wonderful to behold. It was great to see that at last an Australian government had and would express our own views.

The second was the passing of Medibank/Medicare legislation in July 1974 after a double dissolution and a joint sitting of Parliament. That occurred after years of bitter and self-interested opposition by the medical profession. Medibank/Medicare, like the British National Health Service, has well and truly outlived its critics.

After the dull, colonial and sexist years of Menzies, it was exciting to feel that at last Australia was an independent country, proud and confident. There was a sea change in the way we saw ourselves and the way others saw us.

The achievements of the Whitlam government were legion, including ending conscription, recognition of China, needs-based funding for all schools, Medibank/Medicare, equal pay and ending British honours. One significant reform that is not often recalled was the abolition of tertiary education fees. Many professional women still remind me of that because, in poor families, often it was only the son who would be sent to university. Gough Whitlam believed that giving educational opportunities to all, particularly women and poor Catholic kids, promoted social mobility and social solidarity. He described education reform as his “most enduring single achievement”. I think Medicare was just as good.

Almost single-handedly he reformed the structure of the ALP to rid it of the “faceless men” who controlled it from outside caucus. After becoming leader of the ALP in 1967 he created an exciting new range of policies that Australians embraced with increasing enthusiasm. Effectively, he wrote the “New Testament” of the ALP.

When reforming the ALP, “crash through or crash”, he was saved several times from expulsion by the support he had in the wider community. His goal was to break the control of union and party officials who had little interest in political power. “Only the impotent are pure,” he said. He knew that only the parliamentary leader could break the grip of self-serving officials.

“Comrade, if I am going to put up with the fuckwits in the Labor Party, I’ve got to have my trips.”

What I found remarkable was his courage and determination to keep going despite the enormous obstacles. I once counselled him against taking too much overseas travel. “Comrade,” he said, “if I am going to put up with the fuckwits in the Labor Party, I’ve got to have my trips.” At the time I thought he was being self-indulgent, but in retrospect I can much better appreciate the pressure he was under from archaic elements of the party.

The Whitlam governments are criticised for their economic management. There is some merit in this criticism. Too much was attempted too quickly. But after 23 years in opposition that was not surprising. His governments produced one surplus out of three budgets. During their tenure, Australian government net debt was zero, net foreign debt was minimal and domestic savings were at record levels. However, after the first oil shock, our inflation rose higher than in other countries, and wage increases were excessive. Some policies were clearly unwise, but there was never any illegality or bad faith.

Gough Whitlam, like Paul Keating and Kevin Rudd, had some testy times with ministers and caucus, but only Rudd was to pay a high price for it.

The dismissal of the Whitlam government had little to do with its performance. Three months after Whitlam’s election victory in December 1972, senator Reg Withers, the leader of the Liberals in the Senate, denied the legitimacy of the Whitlam government. Withers warned: “The Senate may well be called upon to protect the national interest by exercising its undoubted constitutional power.” He said that the election mandate was “dishonest”, that Whitlam’s election was a “temporary electoral insanity” and that to claim that the government was following the will of the people “would be a dangerous precedent for a democratic country”. More bills were rejected in the Senate during Whitlam’s three years as prime minister than in the 72 years since Federation. Not content just to engineer the dismissal of a democratically elected government, leading figures set about, one after another, to deceive the prime minister.

Since then, criticism of the Whitlam government has been largely designed to exculpate those associated with the horrendous dismissal of an elected government. To justify this foul deed, supporters of the coup keep harping on about the illegitimacy and incompetence of the Whitlam government. These supporters will never concede that his government fairly won two elections. Conservatives piously extol the importance of tradition and respect for institutions. They preach about democracy, free elections, the separation of powers and the independence of the judiciary. But they throw all that aside to hold onto power and privilege. Whitlam was naive to trust them — as we all were! As more of the secrets of the dismissal are revealed like the clandestine meetings of High Court judges with the governor-general, so is Gough Whitlam more and more vindicated.

Gough Whitlam showed that politics does matter and that it can make a difference. We owe him an enormous debt. He showed that reform is hard, but possible, He shaped modern Australia. His vision and hope is still with us.

Peter Fray

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