Not surprisingly, the passing of Gough Whitlam this week prompted some reflection on the current state of politics compared to his era, and how the contemporary generation of politicians measure up, or fail to, from their vision to their competence to their communication skills. One may agree or disagree on Whitlam’s vision and deplore his executive skills, but no one doubted his effectiveness as a communicator and that he was that rare thing, a genuinely witty politician, a figure who wouldn’t have been out of place in the House of Commons in the time of Gladstone and Disraeli (from whom he and James Killen shamelessly stole some of their famous exchanges).

With Parliament on hold on Tuesday except for speeches for Whitlam, it was an opportunity to size up the quality of political communication, albeit in the unusual environment of relative bipartisanship. The Prime Minister was generous, unexpectedly so, as he seems inclined to be about Labor figures of the past, noting that Whitlam “represented more than a new politics. He represented a new way of thinking, about government, about our region, about our place in the world and about change itself. 1972 was his time and all subsequent times have been shaped by his time.” And as more than one Labor figure noted, Warren Truss, rarely singled out as one of Parliament’s stronger speakers, also spoke well, not merely in explaining how Whitlam motivated him to get into politics — to oppose Labor — but to acknowledge how he “brought Australia into the 20th century”.

Less surprisingly, Malcolm Turnbull gave an outstanding speech, as good as the superb speech he gave in tribute to Robert Hughes in 2012. With the departure in 2010 of Lindsay Tanner, Turnbull is unchallenged as Australian politics’ pre-eminent speaker, a man fit to be assessed in the same terms as Whitlam. Of course, Turnbull tends to see events through the prism of Malcolm Turnbull, and his remarks on Tuesday were no exception. But somewhat like Gore Vidal (a noted fan of Gough’s), Turnbull is able to do that because he has known, worked with or dealt with more people than anyone else in politics. But he also identified why Gough drew such respect from the conservative side of politics as well:

“What is that thread, that narrative that emerges from history out of the humdrum daily grind of political argument? What is it? It is an enormous optimism and all of us admire that, whether we voted for him in the seventies or our parents voted for him, or whether we approved of what John Kerr did or not, all of that recedes. What people remember of Gough Whitlam is a bigness, generosity, an enormous optimism and ambition for Australia. That is something we can all subscribe to.”

On the Labor side, John Faulkner had sadly farewelled his friend in a speech to caucus. Jenny Macklin spoke of Whitlam’s practical impacts for women in the 1970s, like reopening the equal pay case and placing the contraceptive pill on the PBS, and for land rights. Wayne Swan, speaking last in Parliament, avoided covering old ground by talking about the decision to go to China, made in the unlikely venue of a pub in the nearby suburb of Curtin.

Then there was Bill Shorten, whom history had selected for the invidious fate of being the Labor leader to be compared to Gough at the time of his passing — as if anyone wouldn’t suffer in the comparison. Shorten is certainly not a strong speaker, and he’s only been in Parliament for seven years, which shows. He tends to stick rigidly to his script, not allowing us to see the more relaxed and natural human beneath. His remarks to Parliament, however, were well-crafted, especially the bit about how, because of Whitlam, it is now “always time” for a fairer Australia. A more telling exchange was with Chris Uhlmann on AM the following morning, when Uhlmann invited him to outline his Gough-style vision for Australia, eliciting:

“We want to be a modern country, we want to be outward looking and not afraid of the rest of the world. We want to be a fair country. We want to be a country which reaches for higher ground, that brings people together, that has growth at the centre of what we do but understands that growth and equality, equality and fairness is not the child of growth, it is the twin of growth. Where we have a fairer society with more Australians able to participate, men and women equally, then we have a greater chance to be a better country.”

That’s fine as far as it goes, but as Uhlmann noted, there’s not much there that Tony Abbott would disagree with. Polling-wise, Shorten has had a remarkably strong start to his period as Opposition Leader, but he needs to avoid the mistake made by Kevin Rudd, who failed to use his own period of high popularity in 2008 and 2009 to give voters a strong sense of his political identity and goals, leaving his support friable when he finally faced a competent opposition leader. That’s easier to do from the prime ministership than opposition, of course, and governments lose elections, oppositions don’t win them, etc, etc, but Shorten’s next step has to be the one he’ll be least comfortable with, conveying to voters not merely what he wants for Australia, but how he wants to achieve that and what specific policies he will adopt to do it.

Meanwhile, on the other side, leadership tension is starting to cause problems — not over Abbott’s leadership, which is perfectly secure, but over who’s now the heir apparent. The only apparent thing is that it’s no longer Joe Hockey, who has vanished off the political radar while on G20 and APEC duties. Scott Morrison’s ambitions are now so obvious as to have offended his colleagues, but Julie Bishop — well-known for her ambition during the last Howard years — is emerging as the strongest contender. Gone is the Bishop of gaffes, stumbles and plagiarism that we saw in opposition, replaced with a figure whose straightforward competence has elevated her head and shoulders above most of her colleagues. And she knows it.

Peter Fray

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