“Suck it up, comrades” I suspect would have been Gough Whitlam’s response to Labor charges that the Greens are political grave robbers, “stealing Gough” by honouring the memory of his radical reformism. One thing Whitlam and Malcolm Fraser came to agree on later in life, and I think we can accept Fraser’s testimony on this, is that both major parties have swung markedly to the Right. The rise of the Greens is partly an expression of this; they have occupied the ground that post-Whitlam Labor vacated to its Left.
This is Australian politics 101. When you get down to specifics, this process is obvious. Whitlam’s government abolished university fees. A later Labor government reintroduced them. The Greens opposed the reintroduction. Even in its last year the recent federal Labor government announced cuts of $2.3 billion in university funding, including over $1 billion cut from start-up scholarships for students from lower-income families. It was the Greens that opposed these moves and defended the Whitlam heritage.
The same process went on with the single parents’ pension, another of the signal reforms of the Whitlam era. Perhaps the worst example of this abandonment of what we may call Whitlamism was in indigenous affairs. While the Whitlam government responded positively to the Aboriginal movement for self-determination, the last Labor government continued the John Howard-Mal Brough intervention in Northern Territory Aboriginal communities despite the pleas from those same communities. The Greens were again on the side of Whitlam’s legacy.
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On a personal level, the charges of expropriation are also wide of the mark. Many Whitlamites ended up in the ranks of the Greens. Some of them were there at the birth. Take Tony Harris, the man who initiated the founding of a specific Greens party in Australia and became the party’s first registered national officer. He joined the Labor Party in 1969, the first year of the Whitlam surge, and went on to become secretary of his branch and a tireless activist in the Whitlam election campaigns of 1972, 1974 and 1975. But by the 1980s he was disillusioned not only with Labor’s charge to the Right but by its sclerotic response — so un-Whitlam — to the new issues of our time.
Tony’s shift to the Greens was representative. A whole segment of the Whitlam base split off. I can recall Fred Daly reporting to our Labor Party branch in early 1973 that he could not remember all the names of the new MPs who had flooded into Parliament on Whitlam’s coat-tails. “So when they say ‘Good morning’ to me in King’s Hall I just respond by saying ‘Good morning, doctor’, and generally that’s right.” Fred was, of course, an old working-class stalwart of the NSW Labor Right, but Whitlam’s Labor had won the new educated middle class. That electorate has now substantially passed over to the Greens.
“It is the Greens who now best express the reformist impulse for which the Whitlam era was justly famous.”
Talking of Daly, after Whitlam had sacked Jim Cairns, Clyde Cameron and Rex Connor (or encouraged them to resign) Daly told the branch he was worried because it looked like Whitlam was purging his cabinet alphabetically and in that case he was next. Jokes aside, the citing of the names of those ministers again reminds us — without in any way idealising them — of the sheer radicalism of some of Whitlam’s ministers. The establishment, for good reasons, did not consider them safe men. Who could say that about any of the current crop of Labor MPs?
Finally, what is often overlooked is that the Whitlam government was very much an expression of — and response to — the wider radicalism of the time. The Whitlam years from the late-1960s to the mid-’70s were the time of the moratoriums, of Aboriginal land occupations, of draft resistance, of the birth of the women’s movement and gay liberation, of urban environmentalism — and let’s not forget a thriving union movement that had thrown off its fears of penalties and was busy squeezing profits and redistributing income downwards, as well as challenging management prerogatives at work.
The Whitlam government’s genius was to respond positively to that wider movement. So it ended conscription. It legalised and underwrote Aboriginal land occupations. It abolished the tax on the Pill. It supported women’s refuges. It bought the Glebe Estate in Sydney’s inner-west, nearly 600 houses of working-class rental housing destined for the open market and the possible eviction of the tenants. Likewise, it saved Woolloomooloo in response to the campaign of residents and the Builders Labourers Federation. It withdrew funding for expressways. Not to mention its acceptance of quarterly cost-of-living wage adjustments and generous wage rises.
It is this aspect of the Whitlam era that federal Labor has lost. It is now a pro-war party. It approved CSG fracking and mining in wilderness forests and prime farm land. It promised funds for inner-city motorways. It could not even legislate for marriage equality.
It is the Greens who now best express the reformist impulse for which the Whitlam era was justly famous. Not that any of us are going to complain if people in the Labor ranks are keen to revive some of that old-time Whitlamism. All power to their Left arms.
* Hall Greenland joined the Labor party when he was 17 and was a member for 22 years. He then joined the Greens. He is now convenor of the Greens NSW.