If you’re in the market for a new hobby, I find there is nothing more enjoyable than speaking ill of the dead. To prick an overinflated reputation, to throw an egg at a solemn and recently deceased visage: these healthy pastimes are as rewarding as actual blasphemy ever was.
When Gough Whitlam died a few days ago, it was all but inevitable that the tone of the coverage would be rather sugary. So I was pleased to see that there was in Australia a whole tabernacle choir of lone voices, each prepared to hold up the process of beatification by having a word or two about the economy under Whitlam. And to be fair, they all have the sliver of a point.
The Whitlam years are unlikely ever to be remembered for superlative macroeconomic management. Then again, there aren’t many Western leaders of the mid-1970s who come off looking like geniuses in this respect. And while I can full-throatedly endorse Greg Sheridan’s wish that “a few more people would check the facts on the Whitlam government”, and though some of Whitlam’s friends can be suspected of remembering his accomplishments with advantages, the case for the prosecution as it currently stands is decidedly clumsy.
The first person who might consider checking “the facts” is Sheridan. He asserts rather confidently that under Whitlam, “inflation got above 20% at one stage”. His confidence is misplaced. During Whitlam’s government, inflation as measured by the consumer price index peaked at 17.7% in the first quarter of 1975. Since the beginning of Australian Bureau of Statistics records, inflation has only exceeded 20% in three quarters, and in all three of them, it was Robert Menzies’ pyjamas that were tucked under the doona in the Lodge. (Perhaps Sheridan could let us know if “ruinous” is the right adjective with which to garland our longest-serving prime minister.)
Things don’t get much better when Sheridan turns to the international scene, where he is apparently more of an expert. Here we discover (and though Sheridan generously allows that there was a tiny little oil shock to contend with) that on the question of inflation, “the outcome in Australia was much worse than in comparable countries”. This might have come as a surprise to Aldo Moro, the then-prime minister of Italy, where inflation reached 24%, or to Harold Wilson, who presided over a British inflation rate of 26.6%.
Other commentators trying their hand at sacrilege fared no better. Thanks to Gough, Miranda Devine lamented, “half the nation is now on welfare”. In 2012, the last year for which the Department of Social Services has released data, only around a quarter of the population over 15 was receiving some kind of income support payment. A bit under half of these are old age pensioners. Presumably, sans Gough, we would have adopted work-for-the-pension schemes or simply euthanised the elderly to spare them the moral decay of Devine’s “culture of entitlement”.
Meanwhile, Andrew Bolt, making the daring argument that Kevin Rudd was merely Whitlam digested and reconstituted, credited the former with “the same debt blowouts” as the latter. When Whitlam left office, Australia had negative net debt. But did not Whitlam “lose control” of the purse, as Alan Mitchell wrote? Of the three budgets prepared by Whitlam’s government, two resulted in surplus; deficits accounting therefore for a third of his budgets. That fiscally continent duo Bob Hawke and Paul Keating, on the other hand, recorded 10 deficits from 13 budgets (about three-quarters in the red).
For all of the ruin occasioned by Whitlam’s supposedly disastrous programs, government spending has, as a proportion of economic output, never retreated to the levels seen before 1972. Whatever else the electorate might have thought or now thinks of the government he led, they have never really shown much interest in reversing the increase in the size of government he oversaw. In this sense, budgetary history since 1975 has been a remarkable vindication of Whitlam rather than an repudiation.
You don’t have to accept my assessment of his legacy, of course. It doesn’t require a great deal of inventiveness to compile a case for the prosecution in the trial of Gough Whitlam, economic helmsman. But I think we might say that Whitlam — a man whose opening to China gave breath to an economic relationship that is probably our most important, and who unilaterally cut tariffs by 25% — deserves a better class of critic.