Lessons from the Whitlam Years

Sensibly, this reappraisal of the Whitlam government has steered away from the mayhem that was that government’s reputation. The essays are rooted in the key question—what the Whitlam government achieved of lasting significance. The answer is a great deal, but “significance” is a two-edged sword. A sparkling foreword by Bob Carr, the longest-serving Labor Premier of New South Wales and later senator and foreign minister in the Gillard–Rudd era, recalls his moment as a “teenage Whitlamite”. No longer a teenager, I danced next to Gough and Margaret at St Kilda’s Palladium, and cheered at Gough’s stirring speech in Springvale Town Hall in 1972.

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The madness of the period was of course, unmistakable, few instances more so than the referenda held in 1973 when voters were asked to give the Commonwealth power over prices and incomes—with Bob Hawke as ACTU secretary urging them on. Fortunately, it lost. It seems as though the Albanese government is just as silly in its attempts to control the Australian energy market, and to tell Australians that they should hand Aboriginal leaders what would amount to a “black cabinet”, to use Greg Craven’s phrase. It will end in tears. Whitlam can’t have been all bad though, as the veteran psephologist Malcolm Mackerras rates him sixth in order of Labor prime ministers, behind Hawke and Keating, but ahead of Rudd and Gillard.

Greg Melleuish asks an important question about whether Whitlam was a modernising force, one whereby writers and intellectuals, the technocratic elite, are given due respect. If Whitlam was the early mover in modernising Labor, Albanese is the apotheosis which has little base among the labour force, and the policy is passed down from university elites, and the rewards go to public servants and beneficiaries of public welfare. Melleuish characterised Whitlam’s government as backward looking, which after twenty-three years in the wilderness, had little option but to continue down its ideological path, despite it being ill-suited to the circumstances in which it found itself. The same could be said of any government, but in Albanese’s case, the intention to deliver on the climate change response is a path almost certainly to have the Albanese government thrashed. Whether they crash out, a là Whitlam, or are dismissed by an angry electorate remains to be seen.

A further observation by Melleuish is that the Whitlam narrative can be cast as one in which the culture of the new educated class, in part created by the Menzies university reforms, interacted with the culture of old labour, composed largely of “self-educated autodidacts” driven by experience rather than by theoretical economics. In the Albanese government that interaction is long gone, with the complete dominance of the new educated class, artificially enlarged by the grossly bloated university sector, and the demise of the “self-educated autodidacts”.

Fascinating also is the reverberation through the years of inquiries established by Whitlam into education and poverty, national superannuation, national rehabilitation and compensation, and more. All of these things have been worked and reworked many times in the fifty years since the Whitlam government came to power, and while “who pays for other people” is the most enduring element of public policy, it is somewhat dispiriting that these matters are never put to rest. One wonders how an NDIS, which is probably running at the level of the entire public sector budget of Whitlam’s time, would have been managed by Whitlam, and is a salient reminder that nothing in the progressive agenda is possible without someone generating wealth to pay for it. This is the point well made by Jonathan Pincus who, recalling Kenneth Galbraith’s The Affluent Society meme of private affluence and public squalor, noted that private affluence was taken for granted in the 1960s and 1970s, a Labor position that still remains.

A wonderful insight into the idiosyncratic nature of the Whitlam government is the example given by Gary Banks, former chairman of the Commonwealth Productivity Commission, who recalled the 25 per cent reduction in tariffs. According to Banks, tariff reduction was a personal initiative of the Prime Minister, against the times, and on the advice of a few trustees from outside the bureaucracy. The change, nevertheless, gave a firm base on which the Hawke government could continue to cut tariffs across the board and stop the sweetheart deals between unions and employers in protected industries. It also commenced a conversation about productivity, alas now forgotten by both Coalition and Labor. This is an example of the happenstance of politics. Occasionally someone grabs a sensible and necessary idea and, like Boris on Brexit, “gets it done”. For the remainder, it is pure graft, in all senses of the word.

Very sage advice is proffered by Frank Bongiorno on the Whitlam legacy for the Fraser and Hawke governments when he remarks that “Whitlam believed that the main challenge for governments was planning for abundance”. Perhaps an update to incorporate the Morrison and Albanese governments would be along the lines of managing abundance by sending the bill to the next generation. If the Hawke and Keating governments represented a shift towards a more market-oriented approach, our recent governments represent a deceit whereby government spending is labelled co-investment, social democracy is seen as old-fashioned because people either have human rights, which must be paid for, or in this era of environmental obsession, that every rich country should both import poverty and destroy wealth creation.

The rate at which the West is destroying itself and handing autocratic and evil regimes a free kick illustrates the complete capture of policy by elites that would have Gough turning in his grave. As in all things, there are lessons to be learned from history, but which ones tend to be in the eye of the beholder. It is worth one more look at the Whitlam era as a reminder of how persistent ideas are—good and bad.

The Whitlam Era: A Reappraisal of Government, Politics and Policy
edited by Scott Prasser & David Clune

Connor Court, 2022, 480 pages, $54.95

Gary Johns was a minister in the Keating government in the 1990s. His most recent book is The Burden of Culture (Quadrant Books).


15 thoughts on “Lessons from the Whitlam Years

  • ianl says:

    >” … nothing in the progressive agenda is possible without someone generating wealth to pay for it”< [part quote from the article above]

    Never do "progressive" leftoids concede that. A year or two ago, in a discussion with a Conversation-type group, I disrupted the usual low chatter from them about those dastardly miners by pointing out the the Chinese were seriously funding iron ore exploration in Northern Africa.

    The reaction was essentially: "How dare they threaten our income ?" Utterly parasitic …

  • Daffy says:

    One of the plusses of the Whitlam (chaos) years was that they had an effect similar to Trump’s; they disrupted political complacency on all sides. Always a good thing, IMO. Unfortunately the disruption in both cases was more an undoing that a re-building…still; we can’t have it both ways, I suppose.

  • Doubting Thomas says:

    My recollection of the Whitlam years is focused pretty much on the incredible arrogance of the man, and on the to me utterly incomprehensible cult of personality that surrounded him. Even acknowledging the beneficial policy changes his government introduced eg, no fault divorce, the sheer blindness of the faithful to the incredible damage he caused still amazes me.
    Probably the worst disaster with the most lingering adverse effect was his indecent haste to grant independence to the then Territory of Papua New Guinea. Anyone who had lived and worked there around that time knew that this decision was at least two generations too early.
    As one of the wiser members of his government said, they were behaving like people who did not expect to be in government often or for long. Funny that!

    • norsaint says:

      Have to take issue with you Tom on the benefits of “no fault divorce”. It is an misnomer. It should really be called unilateral divorce. It gave the state the power to end marriages upon the wishes of one spouse on the most spurious of reasons, thus turning marriage into the only contract whereby one was actively encouraged and subsequently rewarded for breaching a contract. (they have to propagate the business by rewarding those who bring it)
      It also turned divorce into a state-sanctioned kidnapping and extortion racket. The whole point of the law is to make business for itself and the best way of doing this is to kidnap the children of blameless parents, and thereby forcing them into court. No prizes for guessing who benefits there. Of course they don’t need to remove them from any parent, but if they took them from the parent seeking a marriage dissolution, then that parent would promptly drop the action and the industry lose all that potential revenue.
      The whole process is best summed up by Prof Stephen Baskerville, who opined that legally unimpeachable individuals, not seeking any civil redress or accused of any criminal infractions of the law, are press-ganged into secret courts and ordered to write cheques to court officials on pain of losing their children and/or being jailed. The writing of said cheques doesn’t necessarily preclude the later occurring either.
      It was the beginning of the wholesale corruption of the legal process and the replacement of the Common Law with Feminist Jurisprudence, which according to Baskerville, is nothing if not the denial of due process.
      Try reading “Taken Into Custody: the war against fathers, marriage and the family” and see if you think the “no fault” reforms were deserving of a tick.

    • sabena says:

      That arrogance and hypocrisy were demonstrated early on when Whitlam dispensed with the Prime Ministerial Bentley with comments to the effect that it was a British relic, only to replace it with a top of the line Mercedes 450SEL.

  • Geoff Sherrington says:

    A few months before “God save the Governor-General”, we miners hosted Gough, Margaret, daughter Cathy and 5 Cabinet ministers for a weekend grog at Jabiru. People say Gough was a master of rhetoric, but at the start of the party at the Jabiru Sports and Social club it took about 40 minutes for the lads and lasses, the salt of the earth, to do a comprehensive demolition/neutralisation of grandeur into bewilderment. A movie of the first 2 hours would have become an all time Aussie hit. The scene was priceless when our club president took the microphone to open proceedings with “This is a very special night for the Jabiru Sports and Social Club….” Gough moved to take the mike. Pres continued “It’s Ricky Young’s birthday”. Thunderous cheers, singing started “Hang a fang”.
    There were D notices. The RAAF VIP aircraft about to land at the wrong strip. The VIP aircraft wing taking the tail off a parked press aircraft. Gough holding up an aborigine skull reciting “Alas poor Yorick”. Security guards delaying the departure while searching for their souvenired guns. The missing Minister found asleep in a phone cable trench nursing a bottle of Scotch.
    Then, as expected, we uranium miners were dudded, despite bonhomie promises, when our world-importance mineral licences and leases were taken without compensation to become UN world heritage areas with all mining operations banned.
    And we have to attend the voting booths now and then for these egotistic misfits on a mission. Geoff S

    • pgang says:

      Great story Geoff and it takes me back to my own early days in mining when miners were totally irreverent and a little bit crazy. That spirit has been largely killed off now by the Human Resources machine and the Safety Industrial Complex – aka socialism.
      What happened at Jabiru was a national shame, but we’ve seen the same thing happen in the NSW coal fields under Liberal governments – companies robbed of their portfolios, investors dudded, and livelihoods destroyed wholesale. As you say, ‘egotistic misfits on a mission’, to look out for themselves.
      Maybe one day, when we are long gone, a conversation will start about unlocking the billions of tonnes of coal underneath the utterly useless Yengo National Park.

  • Brian Boru says:

    I remember the 25 per cent tariffs reduction.
    I also remember the jokes which I can’t repeat here. About the Labor box that KFC was introducing. About Juni Morosi and Margaret.
    I remember that we all got a vote after the dismissal despite it being called a coup.
    I also read David Smith in Volume 28 of the proceedings of the Samuel Griffith Society at page 176. That is where he tells of Labor endeavouring to defeat the 1970 Budget. Exactly what Labor screamed about in 1975.

  • STD says:

    According to the laws of nature, socialists are parasites-socialism is parasitic by its very nature. They suck the life from some other body. The people who don’t suck on the socialist teat, are the teat.
    The voice is – parasitic welfare.
    Whitlam was an unmitigated rissole.

    • Brian Boru says:

      With respect STD, it’s not as simple as that. Whilst I can be allied with you in opposition to the Voice, I have reservations about your other comments.
      There exist people, who although they recognize free enterprise as the best system to produce for society, also believe in equality as far as that is possible to achieve provided the individual strives as best they can. The moral dilemma is how to best achieve an egalitarian and equitable distribution without creating the parasites you abhor.
      My opinion is that both communism and unbridled capitalism can enslave. I suppose it is all about definition but I do not see socialism as the same as communism.
      As to Whitlam, despite my previous comments, I would not say his government was “unmitigated”. For example that government made university education possible for all no matter the wealth of their family. Unfortunately it was a bit late for me.

      • Michael Waugh says:

        Whitlam’s legacy includes :
        – Aboriginal Land Rights legislation;
        – Freedom of Information legislation;
        – Administrative Law (Judicial Review) legislation;
        – The AAT;
        – The Federal Court;
        – The Family Law Court along with the Family Law Act and no-fault divorce;
        – Medibank;
        – Racial Discrimination Act , which was probably the origin of other anti-discrimination legislation;
        – the 25% tariff reduction and the warm embrace of capitalism by the ALP (which had promoted the nationalisation of the means of production, distribution, and exchange in times of yore);
        – the new and more powerful trade practices act , which included better consumer protection;
        – free university tuition;
        Plus stuff I can’t recall immediately. Suffice to say the government kept our heads in a dizzy spin. And the changes, many of them profound and long-lasting, were not all bad, but with the benefit of hindsight, not all good either. And how can I forget 17.5% leave loading. Plus wage increases followed by price increases followed by wage increases and the instigation of “stagflation”.

  • brandee says:

    My recollection of the Whitlam past seem different to Brian Boru. The free university education was an unmitigated financial disaster for the government and replaced by following governments including that of Labor PM Bob Hawke.

    Labor often gets it wrong on education. Recall the Dawkins so called ‘reforms’ which submerged the Teacher Training Colleges into the university mire. Now teachers learn ideology but no techniques for classroom management.

    Similarly the ‘We give a Gonski’ tania Plibersek extolled the virtue of utopian Gonski spending for schools with later results showing there has been no educational benefit from the billions spent.

  • Paul.Harrison says:

    I note with more than passing interest that the photo heading up this piece includes Comrade Cairns. I recall, and have the digitised proof of, Cairns committing treason in Hanoi when he visited the seat of power in North Vietnam and his almost falling into the welcoming arms of the enemy of the time. He was there to offer aid and comfort to a bitter enemy, an enemy with whom I was ‘very’ familiar during my time in the military. I was dumbfounded at his arrogance and hubris, that he could do this while our good friends, the Americans, and the remains of the South Vietnamese army were fighting a rear-guard action against the Viet Cong and the Communists. I also firmly believe that, during his visit to North Vietnam, there were still elements of Australian armed forces on the ground in Vietnam after the draw down of our forces was completed. I have since delved deeper and found that Cairns handed a $10 Million war cheque to the enemy, and that alone would have earned him a date with a bullet in a more? enlightened war. All this could not have occurred without the blessing of Whitlam. My point: This is lost in the mist of time, but both Rudd and Gillard, and I suppose the current excuse for a PM, note Whitlam as their mentor. He was nothing but a base mongrel of the worst kind. Well may we say, God Save the King, for nothing will save Albanese.

    • Doubting Thomas says:

      Speaking of the “base mongrel”, and further to my last about his betrayal of PNG, I was the duty air traffic controller at RAAF Base Richmond when Whitlam (then leader of the Opposition) returned to Australia after his trip to PNG where he made his promise to grant independence immediately if elected to government in the coming election. That promise aroused feverish media interest so, when his RAAF VIP aircraft arrived at Richmond at about 8.30pm, teeming hordes of ravenous journalists were waiting at the passenger terminal and outside the main gates at the eastern end of the base.
      As the aircraft landed we were instructed to direct the aircraft to park adjacent to the control tower to the west and much deeper inside the base. The Whitlams were then met by the Base Commander and whisked away to the Officers Mess where they were entertained for the next hour or so, waiting hopefully for the hordes to disperse. Then, his Commonwealth car was routed out of a back gate of the base and drove him home. Some hero!
      The next incident showing the nature of the man also permeated the RAAF air traffic control network. When Cyclone Tracy destroyed Darwin, Whitlam interrupted his Greek sojourn and flew back to Darwin. In keeping with the protocol for visiting VIPs on RAAF bases, an officer invariably greets the VIPs as they alight from the aircraft. On this occasion, all of the senior officers on the base were married, and totally involved with their families dealing with their own tragedies. So the chore of greeting Whitlam fell to one of the few available unmarried single officers, a junior air traffic controller. With his well-known charm, Whitlam’s first and only words to this young and very nervous officer were effectively to get out of his way because this was a civil not military operation. This just days before he appointed Brigadier Stretton to lead the recovery and deployed vast numbers of ADF people and resources.
      This was, indeed, the very nadir of “base mongrelism”.

  • Sindri says:

    “The rate at which the West is destroying itself and handing autocratic and evil regimes a free kick illustrates the complete capture of policy by elites that would have Gough turning in his grave.”

    I’m not sure that the man who said “I’m not having hundreds of fucking Vietnamese Balts coming into this country with their political and religious hatreds against us” cared too much about “handing autocratic regimes a free kick”.

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