Well, we thought he might have made the century — if only in the hope that Tony Abbott might prove a one-term proposition and there would be a Labor man or woman to read the eulogy. But in the end, perhaps he made the ultimate republican gesture, going two years before what others have observed would have been a very awkward telegram from the Queen. Gough Whitlam is dead at 98, and the past comes back into the present. For a time, in the ’90s and into the 2000s, we had wondered how long he would still be with us — but he seemed to be ever-present, turning up at launches and celebrations, towering still, with an inexhaustible dry wit. Beyond that, it seemed impossible to imagine that he would die, a living link to a century of struggle and confrontation. It has felt, for this near half-century, that we remain in the aftershock of Whitlam’s crash-through, and then crash.

Born in 1916, when the Labor Party was not much more than a decade old, the son of a senior public servant, he grew up in Canberra, when it was not much more than a pseudo-English village. He went on to Sydney University in the ’30s, where he became a perpetual college resident and editor of the literary magazine Hermes, in the years when it was one of the most important of Australian literary periodicals. Like countless young men and women, he was politicised by the Second World War, serving as a navigator in bombers. He was decisively swung to Labor by conservative campaigns against John Curtin’s wartime referendum, which had sought to take a whole range of social development into the federal remit.

For a haute bourgeois young man to commit himself to the Labor Party in 1944 was not nothing; there was no easy conduit for left-leaning members of the elite to commit to a party that saw itself as a representative of the working class only. But neither was the party guilty of reverse snobbery, and as the member for Werriwa from 1956, he became one of the party’s star parliamentary players, with both a lightning-quick wit and a commitment to serious policy development at a time when the party struggled under the leadership of Doc Evatt, and then with the heartbreak of the 1961 borderline loss. His ascent to the deputy leadership set up a battle for the soul of Labor — as a party half-in, half-out of a race-based socialism, suspicious of higher education and of a modernising world. No one, at the time, could have predicted that he would become a hero of the Left, for it was Whitlam who ensured the party’s adoption of a series of right-ward policies, including government funding of private schools and intervention in the left-wing Victorian branch of the party. It was not Whitlam who was the first senior Labor figure to denounce the Vietnam War as racist and imperialist, but Arthur Calwell, damned by history for a silly joke.

But it was Whitlam and those around him, particularly Mick Young and Race Matthews, who licked the party into shape to fight a modern election — and who, crucially, opened a door to the new young professional classes, at a time when they might have been snared by the Liberals — especially so, had Harold Holt not defected to China. Even so, Labor was denied victory in 1969 and won with a far-from-overwhelming majority in 1972. From that came the first Whitlam government — himself and deputy PM Lance Barnard, sworn into more than 20 ministries while they waited for the final results of the election to be tallied (required so that the full Labor caucus could select a ministry). In a matter of days, they enacted a raft of legislation that would set the country on a different path. Out of Vietnam, higher education opened to all, Medibank underway, urban and community development. When full government was established, this would be followed by a reorientation of foreign policy, an embrace of multiculuralism, women’s rights, land rights, no-fault divorce,  killing of censorship, a broadcasting revolution, a turn to the environment, and much more. Many in the Whitlam government were not natural radicals; some of them became so under pressure of relentless resistance from entrenched power. This was an era when Australia’s then-attorney-general Lionel Murphy could stage a raid on ASIO in an attempt to bring its right-wing insurgency to heel.

“The sort of Australia [Abbott] and his ilk wanted preserved, deferential, limited and grounded in conservative fantasy was forever put beyond possibility by the Whitlam revolution.”

But it was also an era when Labor allowed power and policy to get away from them. True, they were dealing with the worst possible luck — a global recession that hit in the early ’70s and decisively closed off the high-growth era of the post-war years. But the difficulties of an untested ministry, long out of power, the crosscurrents of the ’60s/’70s social revolution, and the complexities of the Senate exposed the limits of Whitlam’s administrative abilities. The Senate was lost when he was outsmarted by the Nationals and by Joh Bjelke-Petersen in the appointment of  new senators, and a great deal of public support was lost by the drift of his deputy Jim Cairns into a full counter-cultural journey with his secretary/lover Junie Morosi, and the out-of-control search for funds for an ambitious buy-back of Australia’s natural resources.

But if Whitlam’s sometimes imperious style contributed to his government’s downfall, there now seems little doubt that the coup de grace was delivered at the behest of, or with the involvement of, outside forces, by John Kerr, a one-time Trotskyist who had passed into the anti-communist movement and had been firmly allied with US representatives in that movement for some time. Whitlam had appointed him, just as Allende had appointed Pinochet. The outcome was less bloody for us, but of the same cause — a fatal and final trust in the establishment to respect the laws and principles they purported to obey.

From that came much of the myth of Whitlam, that of a hero far more to the Left than the man actually was. It is a myth the Right are willing to subscribe to as much as the Left, for their own ends. Yet Whitlam was a social democrat, rather than a socialist, and above all a reforming liberal. His vision of  a good Australia was a place where “every kid has his own room, and his own desk and lamp, so he can study”. In recent years, some have dismissed many of his modernisations as consisting of things that would have occurred anyway, but there is no guarantee of that. Much of what occurred, occurred because of what was enabled — by massive reforms to the education and health systems, to broadcasting and culture, in black-white relations — and by a plethora of grants that made possible a permanent modernising revolution at the social level, vastly accelerating the transition of the country from a parochial commonwealth entity into something more like a dynamic European social democracy.

Whatever Tony Abbott brings himself to say in the coming hours and days, one truth above all will remain: that the sort of Australia he and his ilk wanted preserved, deferential, limited and grounded in conservative fantasy was forever put beyond possibility by the Whitlam revolution. That did not happen everywhere else, not nearly. If what we thrill to in the memory is the bearing, the audacity, the wit, what we should also remember is the root-and-branch reconstruction of our institutions, the battle to open up opportunity, to go to war against received notions of what a white imperial outpost, a two-century improvisation, could and should be. To write this from a motel in Colorado, where the waitress at the truck stop next door earns $2.50 an hour plus tips, and the battle is to stop an amendment that would criminalise all abortion, is to remember that progress can be measured by the battles that no longer need to be fought, and to remind ourselves that audacious change has happened on our shores, and can do so again. What is owed to the memory of Gough, and all who made the era that goes under his name, the myth and the reality, is to find no shame in defeat, only in caution, to crash through or crash.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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