The Whitlam Legacy

Gough Whitlam was and remains a hero for members of the Australian Labor Party. In him they see the perfect Prime Minister; the enactor of grand social reform after 23 years of static Liberal (Conservative) Rule. They praise his decisions to end Australia’s involvement in Vietnam, abolish the White Australia Policy, abolish university fees and introduce universal health care. Paul Keating summed up this mentality in a statement after Whitlam’s death was announced. “He snapped Australia out of its Menzian torpor – the orthodoxy that had rocked the country asleep, giving it new vitality and focus”.

This is the grand dichotomy of the Australian Labor party. Bitterly divided at the time; eternally protective of the legacy. They allow myths to form around their leaders. Hawke and Keating reformed the economy, Rudd saved us from the GFC, Gillard gave us the NDIS, Curtin won us the war.

Their failures can all be explained away. Gillard was the victim of sexism, Hawke and Keating the victims of the ‘recession we had to have’ and perhaps most damagingly, Whitlam’s removal was a grand conspiracy of the conservative forces.

The Liberals manage greater unity when in politics (not always), their instinct for survival is greater than that of their Labor counterparts, however in the aftermath willingly criticise each other.  The Liberals have allowed Labor to be the masters of legacy. The myth that Australia was stagnant under Menzies, and it was only until Whitlam was elected that Australia moved forward, has sprung around the nation, even into our children’s history books. Only now are the Liberals moving towards a protection of their legacy, even then, not at the same rate of its Labor counterparts.

In protecting their legacy, Labor has been delayed in re-evaluating itself after an election losses. Yes Whitlam was dismissed, but an election was also held in 1975. Whitlam lost in a landslide. Fraser received a 55 seat majority. Two years later in 1977, just to prove it wasn’t a mistake, the public gave Fraser at 49 seat majority. Numbers never before seen, and never seen since.

It took the staunch effort and endeavor of Bill Hayden and Bob Hawke to reform the party. They recognised that Labor would not be re-elected until the public was convinced they could handle the economy. Whitlam, as Bob Hawke acknowledged today was not very interested in economics.

He did not react accordingly to the global economic downturn in 1973 and the economy went in recession. Wages continued to increase strongly leading to an inflation rate in 1975 of 16% (to put that into perspective it is currently 3%) and increasing unemployment (although by today’s standards relatively low).  Yet Whitlam continued to introduce increases in spending, rather than slow down to allow the economy to heal. Labor would spend another 8 years in opposition.

‘Free Universities’ is also another great Labor party myth. Although the principle of free universities is wonderful and many people from low socio economic backgrounds benefited from it, it was eventually removed by the Hawke Ministry because it was too expensive and did not have the intended effect. The first great myth is that it was ‘free’. It was subsidised by the taxpayer, hardly making it free. In fact it proved to be very expensive.

It was also found that there was little change in the socio-economic background of those attending university, and had developed into a means of government subsidy for those who could already afford it.

Not to mention that prior to the introduction of free universities, almost three-quarters of all university students already had their university fees paid for by the Government. In an article in the AFR this year Elena Pasquini Douglas noted that “By 1963, some 37 per cent of Australia’s full-time students had all their university fees paid and a means-tested living allowance. The 1965 Martin Report noted an additional 39 per cent of students received bursaries and cadetships. That means three-quarters of all university students had their education paid for by the Menzies government.”

The abolishment of the White Australia policy is another achievement attributed to Whitlam by Labor that isn’t exactly his. Whitlam officially ended the policy and it was eventually replaced by the Racial Discrimination Act in 1975. However it was Liberal Prime Minister Harold Holt who introduced the Migration Act of 1966, effectively ending the White Australia Policy and increasing non-European immigration to Australia.

In Parliament today, Malcolm Turnbull claimed Harold Holt would be turning in his ‘watery grave’ at the claim it was Whitlam who abolished the White Australia Policy. Despite the crass reference to Holt’s mysterious drowning in 1967, Turnbull does have a point. Nonetheless it is important to note the symbolic nature of dismantling a policy that until 1965 had bi-partisan support.

Universal health care is one area that Whitlam is the undisputed leader. His introduction of Medibank in 1975 was a watershed moment for Australia’s social safety net. Britain had introduced it in 1948 with the National Health Service, also under a Labor government. Although it was eventually dismantled by the Fraser Government, an improved version was introduced in 1984 by the Hawke Government.

It has proven so popular that when the Liberals returned to Government in 1996 under John Howard they dared not removed it, ironically they improved and enlarged it.

Other notable social reforms included the abolishment of the death penalty for federal offences, end of conscription, however with no more Australian troops fighting in Vietnam this was largely symbolic.The introduction of no-fault divorce.

The abolishment of the British Honours System that was re-introduced by Malcolm Fraser, then removed by Bob Hawke, left by John Howard, but partially re-introduced by Tony Abbott. The national anthem was changed from ‘God save the Queen’ to ‘Advance Australia Fair’.

One of Whitlam’s more daring and visionary moments occurred when he was still Opposition Leader. In 1971, he surprised the country by visiting China and meeting with Premier Zhou Enlai. It was a risky move that originally was derided by the Government. They were left red-faced when several months later, Republican US President Richard Nixon visited China and established diplomatic relations with the country. When Whitlam was elected he immediately recognised the Communist Chinese Government.

As the world opened up to China, China reciprocated and opened up to the world and Australia is currently reaping the rewards of this connection; and so we will into the future.

Whitlam was a radical, transformative Prime Minister. He shifted expectations of what the Federal Government could do. The Liberals had followed a conservative approach to Government. Australia was stable, prosperous, evolving. However, there was more to be done.

Whitlam was the man to do it.

He did too much too soon.

He didn’t react to an economy that was in need of serious reform. He didn’t discipline his party (despite his well-known disdain for many colleagues). There were too many scandals. Eventually the public was worn out.

We can, and will, debate the judgement of Sir John Kerr in dismissing Whitlam; it was indeed controversial. However, the judgement of the people is what matters, and after three years of Whitlam, the people handed their judgement; two of the biggest election losses in Australian political history. It isn’t the only element of Whitlam’s legacy; he changed the country for the better, made us more inclusive and less reliant on our British character. However, it shouldn’t be forgotten, because Whitlam certainly won’t be.

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