On December 2, 1972, I was within a month of my 20th birthday. On the morning of that remarkable election day, I was enjoying the thrills of water skiing at Lake Eildon. The lake was, as I recall, a millpond. We skated over the water as if there was nothing beneath us. No tomorrow. Flying. But the mind was anything but still. What would the future hold for me, for my mates?
Would we be part of a war that none of us understood, and still don’t? Or would the promises of the Gough Whitlam-led opposition cast conscription (for those turning 20, and by ballot) into the gutter of history, and remove an impossible choice from the mixed-up brain of a late teenager — a teenager with no voting rights? But more than that, would this Government-to-be live up to its long list of life-changing promises, forged not just in the few months of the election campaign, but in the six years of Whitlam’s charge over change?
I had been born into a Labor family; a mixed Labor family. Catholic, flirting with the DLP, returning to Labor, torn between flimsy doctrine and blind loyalty; faith and faith, neither charismatic, but each (church and state/party) in the mix of new leadership and drastic change.
This was a time when I, we, Australia needed a new direction; the church had already set its own guidelines and action points, now for the country.
Australia’s path, for me at least, had been set in the lead up to the 1969 Election. At last the ALP had, in Whitlam, a leader that resonated across all ages and demographics. Charismatic, certainly, but methodical and process driven (if in doubt of that capacity, read his maiden speech to the House Of Representatives, on March 23, 1953: ), and by election day 1972, on the verge of taking the driver’s seat, surely.
My parents were with him, and so was I. We now had The Faith. The 1969 election, immortalised in David Williamson’s Don’s Party was not so much a loss, but a starting point. Change was happening at all levels of life: no longer would we accept the status quo, whether here, in Europe or the USA. There was an energy about to burst free, to be released from the shackles of what had seemed to be a never-ending Victorian age.
At home, our national personality was coming out of its chrysalis, perhaps a fitting allegory given the short life cycle of its driver, Whitlam.
Bob Menzies, appointed in 1965 as Constable of Dover and Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports, an obscure set of destination points on the English Channel, represented subservience to England as far as I was concerned, and, worse, to the royals. For goodness sake, before the introduction of decimal currency in 1966 it was even suggested our soon-to-be-replaced pound should become the royal!
I, we, needed change. We needed pride in self, a purpose as a country. We wanted character in government. We wanted leadership. We needed what we didn’t know we needed. We were like pubescent teenagers on the way to the big dance. In the political sense, this was not just about being with the Government or for the Opposition. Paul Keating described the Holt/Gorton/McMahon governments as living in “Menzies’ torpor”; but equally he described his own party — pre-Whitlam, that is — as “wading in molasses”. It was about putting all this energy into one bottle, and shaking the life out of it. McMahon had lost the bottle; Whitlam had it firmly in his grip.
I am reminded of Steve Jobs when Whitlam pops into the frame. Jobs invented, created, then was sacked by those who had praised his genius. Jobs never used focus groups before launching products, nor did Whitlam/Barnard’s pop-up cabinet. Jobs had the view that most people wouldn’t know what was possible in his world, which would become their world: they needed to hold the future in their hands, to feel it, a la the New Testament’s doubting Thomas, searching for the wounds of Christ. If what Jobs’s followers touched and fondled was a surprise, but worked, it was good. In many instances, it was the same with Whitlam.
Just as Jobs developed a still-lasting evangelical momentum with Apple, Whitlam was and remains more than a political figure to me. He did not lead me to politics, or into backroom shuffles, or headlong into the pros and cons of left and right, he led me to believe that ideas make all the difference, and that energy applied will always flourish, no matter what flotsam and jetsam falls away in the process. And, that it’s good to make mistakes. No mistakes, no change. No guts, no glory. None of this resonates with the concept of a conservative party, which has me tied to the Labor mast forever, no matter what may come in the down years (I also followed Hawthorn Footy Club during many down years; patience provides plenty).
Jobs made mistakes. Whitlam made mistakes. Jobs admitted his. I’m not sure Whitlam ever did.
But my love of Whitlam is not about what he achieved, listed rhapsodically in multiple media outlets this week, and especially yesterday, when he was laid to rest. It was about his view that anything is possible. This is what he gave me, and to so many of my generation. This is his eternal legacy.
He led us into a different national psych; sadly, so much potential in his short time in charge was thwarted by an intransigent Senate (can anybody image a Senate surviving in Steve Jobs’s world) and by the inability of inexperienced ministers flailing around with too many ideas, and too little time to apply what we now call due diligence. More sad still: that marvellous Whitlamesque sense of adventure is now available only to skydivers and Himalayan trekkers.
Now is a time when meagre, “safety-first policy” is the only policy presented in advance of any election period. When imagined economics trumps social equity game plans, and the imagination that can develop a new and grand infrastructure of buildings, parks, transport, education and health is lost in a maze of haphazard development supported by slogan-driven scripts mouthed by mealy-mouthed government and opposition spokespeople alike.
It’s a time driven by negativity in Opposition and safe, poll-driven routes in Government. It’s a time of ill-will between parties, even between individuals who have divergent views. It’s a time, when, despite all the rhetoric and breast-thumping, the difference I and others perceive between the parties has become so slight as to differ only in personality, not direction or leadership.
Again, sadly, the enduring consequence is that the electorate has become jaded, distrustful, almost uncaring as to who’s in charge. I still maintain the rage, but find the enthusiasm to participate so much more difficult.
It’s a time for somebody to grasp the nettle, to have the teenagers of today—and their doubting parents—mouthing WOW, rather than LOL or WTF.
It’s time for a leader to emerge with the DNA to espouse these words, as relevant today as they were, when spoken by Gough Whitlam, in November 13, 1972:
“The decision we will make for our country on (election day) is a choice between the past and the future, between the habits and fears of the past, and the demands an opportunities of the future.”
Geoff Slattery is the principal of Slattery Media