Gough Whitlam – The Radical and The Dismissed.

Politics and hypocrisy go hand in hand. They are often unrecognisable from each other.  In Parliament we see it often. The start of Question Time often begins with a statement from the Prime Minister, announcing that Australia is engaging in a war effort here or there, or his condolences at the passing of a statured individual. The opposition then rise to associate themselves with the statement. The Opposition Leader in a soft, tender tone evocates support, and explains the reasoning. It is civil, mature and most importantly reassuring to the public.

Then the Opposition Leader concludes his statement, the speaker asks if there are any questions without notice and up jumps the Leader of the Opposition. In a loud booming voice, asks a loaded question with words like ‘rotten, unfair, lie’. The Government ministers interject, the opposition members respond, there is a ‘cacophony’ of noise.

The moment of national unity has passed, the partisan divide of politics has returned.

The hypocrisy of politics on full-frontal display.

Today, the 21st of October, 2014, things are different. Question Time and estimates have been suspended; the flag at Parliament house is flying at half-maste.  Maturity has returned to Australian politics. The reason being, former Prime Minster Gough Whitlam has died, aged 98.

He was a towering figure in Australian Political History. Ascending to the top after 23 consecutive years of careful, efficient Liberal rule, Whitlam proved to be a transformative, radical leader. Impatient to implement his vision for the country, Whitlam did not accede to the conventional political wisdom of his predecessors, gradual reform and consultation, rather it was more ‘crash through or crash’.  Rather than wait for a Cabinet be assigned to him by caucus before being sworn in as Prime Minster, he had the Governor General swear him and Deputy Lance Barnard in. Together they held all 27 ministries.

The agenda was radical at the least. It included ending conscription (Australia’s effort in Vietnam being virtually over), the final abolishment of the White Australia Policy (a process begun in 1967 by Harold Holt), the introduction of free universities, introduction of Universal Health Care (Medibank later Medicare). On the international stage Australia recognised Communist China, Whitlam having presciently visited there in 1971, several months before US President Richard Nixon. Australia’s position was altered to supporting sanctions against Apartheid.  The Honours system was replaced by the Order of Australia. The national anthem became Advance Australia Fair. Infrastructure funding was increased.

It would not be easy. The 1972 election victory was not large, a majority of just 9. The Liberals maintained a majority in the Senate and blocked several of the Government bills including the introduction of Medibank. This lead to a double dissolution in 1974 that Whitlam would win but with a reduced majority in the House (5 seats), and be deadlocked with the Liberals in the Senate.

Throughout this process, the world economy changed. Inflation and unemployment increased. The economy went into recession. The Whitlam government was accused of ignoring the problem. The Government was plagued by scandal after scandal, culminating in the Loans Affair. One of the more sensational events of the Whitlam government, it became public knowledge that the Government in an attempt to raise some $4 billion ($1 trillion today) to fund several energy projects, sought a loan from Arab nations through an intermediary associated with Saddam Hussein and the Ba’ath party. It caused considerable damage to the Government’s reputation.

The chaos around the Government was used as justification by the Liberal Opposition lead by Malcolm Fraser, to block supply of the 1975 budget. The Liberals at this stage had a majority in the Senate for reasons that are too detailed to go into right now. They blocked supply and demanded an election. An election Whitlam was unwilling to provide owing to the unpopularity of the Government and their slim majority in the House.

Eventually,  the Governor General  Sir John Kerr broke the impasse and sensationally sacked Whitlam as Prime Minister, installing Fraser as caretaker on the condition he call an election. It’s considered today a constitutional crisis and remains one of the most controversial decisions in Australian political history. In that moment, the ever witty Whitlam uttered his most famous words. ‘Well may we say “God save the Queen”, because nothing will save the Governor-General”.

The subsequent 1975 election was divisive and passionate with rallies attracting thousands. Despite the intensity it was obvious that mainstream Australia had turned against Whitlam.  Fraser won in an absolute Landslide, a 55 seat majority, the biggest majority in Australian Federal history.

Whitlam didn’t handle the politics of the time well, and many events colluded against him to which he didn’t react appropriately, notably the economy. However, his legacy is great. He managed to re-unite the Labor party, won two elections, the first Labor Prime Minister to do so. In his time as Prime Minister he sought to modernise the country and significantly expanded the role of the Federal Government.

In a statement today, Prime Minister Tony Abbott said Whitlam was ‘A giant of his time…in so many ways, larger than life’.  Despite the obvious differences between Whitlam and Abbott, none more symbolic than Abbott’s partial re-introduction of the Honours system, Abbott has observed protocol out of respect for somebody as important as Whitlam. It is Australian politics at its best, most mature and its most hypocritical, but that’s politics after all.

RIP Gough Whitlam 1916 – 2014.

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