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.
This review appears in the latest Quadrant.
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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).