Few people under 40 or from overseas have heard of Gough Whitlam, so this is for you.
If you spent any significant time this week immersed in the Australian media, you would be might be under the impression that canonisation is not far away for the ex-Prime Minister. The revisionism is somewhere between Joe Strummer and Diana Spencer in its intensity.
There have been many variations on the theme but probably this one from another ex-PM (Jesus Australia, you’ve got a lot of ex-PMs still alive, haven’t you?), Paul “cop a feel of Queeny” Keating;
Gough Whitlam changed the way Australia thought about itself and gave the country a new destiny.
Did he, Paul, did he really?
Many us weren’t around back then so we have to rely on what we can research about his government and its subsequent demise. What’s clear is that he led an initial sugar-rush of reform, some of which stuck but other policies weren’t fully-thought through or, and this is always the left’s problem…. funded.
1. Universal healthcare subsidy. One of the better healthcare-funding systems in the Western world, in my view, as charges are means-tested and contributions are taken based on income levels. Certainly it’s better than the UK’s NHS which is free at the point of service to all, regardless of means, and therefore often ends up with bottlenecks and funding gaps due to the disconnect from demand (two million non-EU immigrants arriving in the last decade, for example). TNA Verdict: Good plan, well executed.
2. Increased public education funding. This is bread and butter policy for a leftist government. “Education, education, education”, as another fellow private school educated, sandstone university alumni Prime Minister once said. TNA Verdict: Not particularly radical, innit?
3. Aboriginal land rights. Hmm, I’m struggling with this one. My suspicion is that this has been more divisive than he intended it to be. There’s a real constitutional dichotomy in Australia with regards to land title; either the country was officially up for grabs when Captain Cook landed or we have a fuck load of unpicking to be done, unbelievable amounts of compensation to be paid and very little chance of paying it out to the right people. Guilt for the crimes of predecessors in positions of power is no basis to create legal precedent for the future. My personal view is that the problems affecting Australia’s Aboriginal problem are due entirely to special treatment, both misanthropic and well-meaning. My hypothesis is that if we give everyone the same opportunities, responsibilities and consequences for their actions we will find reasonably similar outcomes will occur regardless of ethnic background. TNA Verdict: Thumbsucking well-meaning intentions always end up with unintended consequences.
4. He visited China. Who gives a fuck? Nixon was there shortly afterwards, which was far more geopolitically-significant. Sure, China is important to Australia today but does anyone realistically think the modern mining boom was in any way influenced by a visit in the early 1970’s? TNA Verdict: A commie visiting commies isn’t as earth-changing event.
5. He changed the anthem. Fair enough, God Save the Queen is archaic and not relevant to modern Australia. I am yet to hear anyone ever use the verb “girt” in conversation, though. The replacement anthem doesn’t really stiffen the sinews as, say, La Marseilles. TNA Verdict: Good idea, poor execution.
6. He built some infrastructure. Sewers, for example. Yes, that’s what we’d expect leftish governments to do….. and then the following government has to work out how to pay for it, usually. TNA Verdict: Vote Labor (sic) and you’ll get infrastructure projects, that’s just how it is.
7. Pulled out of Vietnam. Actually, Australia already had, give or take a few
special forces bagging their turds while lying perfectly still tracking targets in their gun sights for days “advisors”. TNA Verdict: At least he finished the job. How’s Obama’s pledge to close Guantanamo by January 22nd 2010, going?
8. No fault divorce. This seems to be waved around quite a lot as a big reform but actually, it was just aping legislation that had already been passed in other countries several years earlier. TNA Verdict: Catching up with the rest of the modern world wasn’t particularly revolutionary and it cost private detectives and photographers loads of business.
Some of these reforms stuck, others required quite a bit of finessing to fund or were repealed later. Components of the healthcare and education reforms, for example.
Ultimately, Whitlam won’t be remembered for any of this as much as he will for being brutally fired from office. I wasn’t there at the time, I don’t have an in-depth grasp of the timeline and political dynamic but everything I’ve read suggests the following summary applies (please correct me in the comments if you disagree);
Whitlam failed to build a consensus with the Senate to pass the bills funding his government’s future planned spending. He spent over two weeks in deadlock because he feared the outcome of a double dissolution. So the Governor-General made the decision for him and the public subsequently massively rejected him at the election.
This intransigence, fear of allowing the electorate to break deadlocks and maintaining a limpet-like grip on office as a lame duck leader is exactly what the the two most recent Australian Prime Ministers have done.
It’s undemocratic at it’s very core and Whitlam set that precedent of tolerating sine die.
Similarly, the Governor-General laid out the approach to resolve it and it is for this reason that three subsequent Labor (sic) Prime Ministers have been victims of regicide since, presumably to avoid a repeat of the “constitutional crisis”.
What I read of Whitlam suggests to me that he had the vision for change but, as with all left-leaning politicians, lacked the pragmatism to find a consensus with enough of those he needed to find the funding. So he got fired.
So farewell Gough. Once you’ve been buried and the crocodile tears for a “comrade” have dried, probably the kindest thing we can say about you is that you weren’t as bad as Rudd/Gillard/Rudd.