Gough Whitlam

More than any other Australian political leader, and arguably more than any other political figure, Gough Whitlam embodied social democracy in its ascendancy after World War II, its high water mark around 1970 and its defeat by what became known as neoliberalism in the wake of the crises of the 1970s.

Whitlam entered Parliament in 1952, having served in the Royal Australian Air Force during the War, and following a brief but distinguished legal career. Although Labor had already chosen a distinguished lawyer (HV Evatt) as leader, Whitlam’s middle-class professional background was unusual for Labor politicans

Whitlam marked a clear break with the older generation of Labor politicians in many otherrespects. He was largely indifferent to the party’s socialist objective (regarding the failure of the Chifley governments bank nationalisation referendum as having put the issue off the agenda) and actively hostile to the White Australia policy and protectionism, issues with which Labor had long been associated.

On the other hand, he was keen to expand the provision of public services like health and education, complete the welfare state for which previous Labor governments had laid the foundations, and make Australia a fully independent nation rather than being, in Robert Menzies words ‘British to the bootstraps’.

Coupled with this was a desire to expand Labor’s support base beyond the industrial working class and into the expanding middle class. The political necessity of this was undeniable, though it was nonetheless often denied. In 1945, the largest single occupational group in Australia (and an archetypal group of Labor supporters) were railwaymen (there were almost no women in the industry). By the 1970s, the largest occupational group, also becoming the archetypal group of Labor supporters. were schoolteachers.

Whitlam’s political career essentially coincided with the long boom after World War II, and his political outlook was shaped by that boom. The underlying assumption was that the tools of Keynesian fiscal policy and modern central banking were sufficient to stabilize the economy. Meanwhile technological innovation, largely driven by publicly funded research would continue to drive economic growth, while allowing for steadily increasing leisure time and greater individual freedom. The mixed economy would allow a substantial, though gradually declining, role for private business, but would not be dominated by the concerns of business.

The central institution of the postwar long boom, the Bretton Woods system of fixed exchange rates, was already on the verge of collapse by the time Whitlam took office in 1972. The proximate cause of its collapse was the inflationary surge that had begun in the late 1960s and reached its peak with the oil price shock of 1973.

So, Whitlam was living on borrowed time from the moment he took office. His ‘crash through or crash’ approach ensured that he achieved more in his first short term of office (eighteen months before being forced to an election by the Senate) than most governments did in a decade. The achievements continued in the government’s second term, but they were overshadowed by retreats and by a collapse into chaos, symbolized by the ‘Loans Affair’ an attempt to circumvent restrictions on foreign borrowing through the use of dodgy Middle Eastern intermediaries.

?The dramatic constitutional crisis of November 1975, and the electoral disaster that followed, have overshadowed the fact that, given the economic circumstances, the government was doomed regardless of its performance. The Kirk-Rowling Labour government in New Zealand, also elected in 1972 after a long period of opposition, experienced no particular scandals or avoidable chaos, but suffered a similarly crushing electoral defeat.

Despite his defeat, and repudiation by succeeding leaders of the ALP (and of course his conservative opponents), it is striking to observe how much of Whitlam’s legacy remains intact. Among the obvious examples (not all completed by his government, and some started before 1972, but all driven by him to a large extent)

* Aboriginal land rights
* Equal pay for women
* Multiculturalism
* Greatly increased Commonwealth spending on school education
* Medibank (now Medicare)
* The end of colonial ties to Britain
* Welfare benefits for single parents
* Extension of sewerage to Western Sydney
* Reduction of the voting age to 18
* No fault divorce

In all of this Whitlam is emblematic of the social democratic era of the mid-20th century. Despite the resurgence of financialised capitalism, which now saturates the thinking of all mainstream political parties, the achievements of social democracy remain central to our way of life, and politicians who attack those achievements risk disaster even now.

With the failure of the global financial system now evident to all, social democratic parties have found themselves largely unable to respond. We need a renewed movement for a fairer society and a more functional economy. We can only hope for a new Whitlam to lead that movement.

62 thoughts on “Gough Whitlam

  1. Whitlam’s mistake on November 11, 1975 was to go back to the lodge to have a nice streak for lunch. He didn’t tell his colleagues that that all been sacked.

    Firstly, he should have told that this President of the Senate to resign so that the Senate could not transact any business until a President was elected.

    In the interim, he should have ensured that the House of Representatives withdrew the supply bills from the Senate. This would have stopped Fraser from passing them in about five minutes in the Senate after lunch.

    In a book is subsequently wrote on the matter, called the truth of the matter, he mentioned that in the future all appropriation Bill should take effect on the day appointed by a resolution of the House of Representatives. That would ensure the supremacy of the House of Representatives in any suppy crisis.

  2. @Jim Rose

    All true, and in any event Gordon Scholes, then speaker, might have declined to sign the bills anyway.

    That noted, Whitlam later said that he was worried about the army being called out, so his actions (or inaction as here) was probably guided by his sense of the turmoil such moves might create.

    Whitlam, despite his distress, was a loyal servant of the boss class, and probably imagined that the move could be refuted by entirely orthodox means, or that the public would back him in an election, given the bizarre circumstances in which he had been dismissed.

    Clearly, he made the classic mistake of thinking most people saw matters as he and his fan club (amongst which I was then counted) did. I also couldn’t believe at the time that most people would reward Fraser for doing what he did. The lesson was salutary. Large sections of the populace — large enough to swing elections — are open to manipulation if you control the press.

    That’s why a general strike — which many of us saw as important at the time — was an indispensible tool. Had we taken that course, I’m convinced that we’d have had a repeat of Clarrie O’Shea in 1970. Whitlam would have been restored to office, a new half-senate election and HoR election would have been held and Whitlam would have won. The whole course of the next 15 years would have been different and better.

  3. @Fran Barlow

    Yes, the way Whitlam, Gore and Kerry all rolled over and gave up when they had elections or government immorally and illegally stolen from them makes me wonder. Why did they roll over so easily? What were they told behind closed doors about what would happen to them and their supporters if they did not roll over?

  4. J-D wrote:

    … discussion of the present government of Syria and discussion of the present government of Russia have only a tenuous connection to the original post …

    Gough’s attempt to introduce free tertiary education was rolled back by subsequent ‘Labor’ and Liberal governments to the point where a perverse debt collection industry based on buying and selling debts that students incur attending university has been established in Australia as has alo occurred in the UK and other places. Syria, in the midst of wars and a terrorist insurgency, is able to provide free tertiary education to all its citizens as I showed on October 26th, 2014 at 23:29. If Syria can do it, why can’t Australia, the US and the UK? Clearly this suggests that Gough was right to attempt to make University education free.

    The other obvious link is that Bashar is, like Gough was, the target of an attempted US ‘regime change’ Unlike Gough, Bashar has been more successful in stopping foreign powers meddling in his country’s domestic affairs.

  5. @James

    If you want to pursue this discussion with me, you can do it in the Sandpit. I can find plenty more to post there, but I’m not going to do it here.

  6. @Fran Barlow

    If Whitlam had called for a general strike, would unionists have responded? After all, if they wanted a general strike, they could have called one without Whitlam bringing up the subject.

    I’m not saying a general strike would have been a bad idea. I’m only saying that Whitlam wasn’t the sole person who failed to call for one. I didn’t call for a general strike either (admittedly I was only eleven at the time).

  7. @J-D

    What we see here is a kind of collective action problem. While many individuals may have impulses to do things, unless someone with standing goes first, people will look at each other and wonder what should be done.

    Back in primary school, it was the case at school dances that although people were keen to get up and dance, very few liked the risk of being the only person up there, with all eyes on them. I was far less bothered by such things — something of a theme for me as it turns out — so I’d always be amongst the first to get up and take the risk of looking foolish. Yet the dance floor would not fill until the peer leaders began to organise their besties to accompany them out. At some point the game changed. While few had wanted to be the first out, remaining behind when the cool kids were out there was neatly as bad. It made you look isolated in a different way.

    General strikes require organisation and support. Individuals can be picked off easily by the state, but if the mass go out state coercion becomes far more problematic. And as we know, while people are willing to make sacrifices (and striking is a big sacrifice, especially in the run up to Christmas) they need to be confident it will achieve something commensurate with their sacrifice and risk. Unless and until the big unions called for this, or Gough himself had done so, lending the action authority, few were going to run the risk. In a real way, the precursor to the split in the 1950s with the DLP was the coal strike of 1949.

    Matters had changed since then of course, and really, had the unions fought back hard and promptly — people said ‘they’ve denied our supply so we should deny theirs’ — I believe the working people would have won. Of course, the ALP was de facto if not de jure an instrument if boss class rule, and so being perceived as the creature of the workers was a terrifying concept, not merely to the party but its union backers as well.

  8. @Fran Barlow

    I pretty much agree with that analysis. It is clear that the ALP is and always has been an instrument of boss rule. However, with union and worker roots it has been, in the past, a proponent of an accommodation between workers and bosses. This accomodation, to put it crudely, has been that the workers have been allowed some share in the loot of capitalism, especially imperialist capitalism. Western workers got some of the loot because the Western capitalists and imperialists had plenty to spare as they were exploiting people abroad as well as at home. It was worth paying (bribing) Western workers to remain docile and even complicit in the broader imperialist system.

    Since, the spread of capitalism to S.E. Asia and now China, Asian workers can start competing with Western workers for jobs via the transfer of jobs and manufacturing industries to Asia. Western workers are slowly but surely losing their privileged position and their power as industrial power, strike power and so on. There is global pressure to push wages down. Real wages are now falling in most of the West.

    As the position of the workers weakens in the West and Australia we see the so-called “Labor” parties reveal more and more of their true nature as parties for boss rule not parties for workers.

  9. There is a petition to the ACTU for them to organise a General Strike against the budget.


    I think it is a problem that the Labor party and therefore tacitly all/most of the unions have really abandoned the idea of being a workers party, and became more of a nationalist party wanting Australia to be a high income/wealth country. Although this high income idea might seem to be in the interest of Australia’s workers – it is not in the interests of workers in other countries, so it takes away the principle of being for workers, and substitutes a nationalist principle instead.

    Really since the level of consumption is too high and causing environmental problems world wide, there needs to be a contraction of high income/wealth countries consumption , and very poor people need their consumption to go up – and it all needs to be within more sustainable levels maintaining the climate, biodiversity etc.

    It is a real shame the ALP did not go in that direction in the 1980s. It is very hard to see how they could say ‘Oh dear – we were wrong’ and have sustainable and fair policies going forwards. But then this leaves only the Greens advocating for sustainability – and they do not have very widespread support and with the LNP and the ALP both attacking them it is hard to see how they would increase their support now.

    I am not sure where the best hope lies… To come back to the topic, maybe there could be a figure like Whitlam that could move things sufficeintly in the right direction that the momentum would be there from then on.

  10. @ZM

    What will happen, indeed what is happening under late stage capitalism is a new trifurcation of classes. This is in my opinion.

    (1) There will be a tiny, rich corporate-capitalist oligarchic class. This class is already formed in the US and is forming in China and Russia. This is the top 1% or even the top 0.1%.

    (2) There will be a functionary class required to run the rump state to service the corporations, to run the corporations themselves and internal and external security. Management, adminstration, IT and security will require this functionary class. I don’t see this class as needing more than about 20% of the population.

    (3) 80% of the population will tend be pushed into a new underclass of working poor, unemployed, indigent, tranisent and refugees.

    I don’t see this developing situation as in any way sustainable or stable. Many things will give. Chaos is entirely predictable. The many specific local and regional forms of chaos are not predictable.

  11. “Whitlam, despite his distress, was a loyal servant of the boss class … ”

    The rantings of the paranoid Marxist Left are thankfully of no practical import in this country. The Australian working class has very sensibly given Marxists the bums’s rush.

    A General Strike would have reduced Labor to a rump that would have been unelectable for half a century.

    As can be discerned from Quiggin’s Zombie Economics, it was the idiotic greed of unions during the Whitlam years that gave us stagflation and the consequent ascendancy of neoliberalism.

  12. @Centrist

    A General Strike would have reduced Labor to a rump that would have been unelectable for half a century.

    This claim is as sound as the argument underpinning it.


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