Remembering Remembrance Day

Remembrance Day* always raises lots of complex thoughts about history. As the anniversary of the Armistice that halted the Great War in 1918, it’s a time for reflection on many things. I was attending the meetings of the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia and we halted for a minute’s silence, a custom that has fallen into disuse, but which it would be valuable to revive.

It’s also the anniversary of the dismissal of the Whitlam government and the issue has been raised again by John Faulkner’s interview with Gough, of which I’ve only seen part so far. Ken Parish and
Don Arthur, among others have blogged on this. Ken shares my misty-eyed enthusiasm (though we both agree, contrary to Gough, that HECS was a good idea).

Don is less keen. He says, ‘Whitlam’s enduring popularity is testament to the fondness many Australians have for martyrdom and failure.’ But the part of the Whitlam story that gets me excited is the two-man government and the marvelous first term, when it seemed that we had the chance of a bright future. And although the government failed in the end, much of what was done in this first term has endured. In particular, Whitlam’s expansion of school education spending laid the groundwork for the huge expansion in school completion rates in the 1980s and in university participation in the 1990s. The abolition of university fees at a time when relatively few kids went on to university was premature, but the overall policy was right, and far more economically rational (a term that was probably coined by Whitlam) than those of his successors. Equal pay for women is another enduring legacy.

Of course, 1975 is an important part of the legend. Without it, Whitlam would have dragged his way to an election in 1976 and 1977 and been comprehensively crushed under the weight of economic failure and the scandals created by the absurd behavior of Cairns and Connor. The big problem with heroes is that they get old and tarnished like all of us. An early death is a major qualification for hero status. Whitlam’s political martyrdom is the next best thing, allowing his supporters to excuse the kinds of sins and failures that are inevitable in a politician but undesirable in a hero.

Finally, given recent discussion of my beard on my “Monday Message Board”, it would be remiss of me not to mention that Nov 11 is also the anniversary of the execution of Ned Kelly. If you haven’t read Peter Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang, today would be a good day to start.

*For US readers, this is our name for Veterans Day