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. John,

    I want to disagree on the expansion of the welfare state was one of his great aims.
    He was immensely influenced by Alf Rattigan and the Vernon Committee report.
    He wanted to expand education funding because it was so pitiful and he saw the future of Australia as a nation with a skilled workforce. Peter Karmel was instrumental here. If he had hung on we would have gotten a radical change in tax via the Asprey report. There is plenty more of his ‘program’. A lot of it was quite economically rational.

    No-fault divorce was a disaster like most things coming from Murphy!

  2. Don’t forget women’s issues other than equal pay and sole parent income security, John. He set up the first Ministry for Women, and oversaw the setting up of women’s refuges (and youth refuges too). His labour market programs are well worth a mention. In fact, there’s too much more to list, p.s. Not Trampis, why do you say no fault divorce was a disaster?

  3. Thank you, Professor Quiggin. I find the above a helpful guide to Gough’s achievements that his successors and the mainstream media have tried to bury.

    However, as noted by Christopher Boyce in “The Falcon Lands” episode of SBS Dateline of 18 February, the subversion of Australian democracy by no means ended in 1975. It continued until the influence of all who shared Gough’s vision was marginalised within the Labor Party by the likes of Rupert Murdoch, Bob Carr, Paul Keating and Peter Beattie.

    John Quiggin wrote:

    With the failure of the global financial system now evident to all, social democratic parties have found themselves largely unable to respond.

    I think that supposed social-democratic parties of the twenty-first century have shown that they are unwilling, rather than ‘unable’ to respond.

    John Quiggin continued:

    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.

    So, let’s try to bring that about. A good start would be the repudiation of leaders of the Labor Party, mentioned above, who have attempted to bury Labor’s traditional program and have, instead, embraced economic neoliberalism and privatisation.

  4. I note also that one of the modern ALP’s recent major successes – the NDIS reform – was substantially imagined by Whitlam over forty years ago (the Woodhouse Committee of Inquiry). Given another year he may well have done it. Instead, we got forty years of no action on national disability policy. This is a policy area that is regarded today as pretty forward-thinking reform. Yet Whitlam dreamt it up forty years ago!

  5. Gough’s policies showed that he was well aware that the long boom was ending; he engaged with a project for energy self-sufficiency. Arguable, had he not been deposed, he might have made Australia independent, like so many other oil-producing countries of the era. (We no longer produce much oil at all, having used it all or exported it.) For more on this see “Another take on Whitlam, Population, Energy Resources, and the Khemlani loan scandal” at http://candobetter.net/node/4135 When I was engaged in a research thesis that I finished in 2002, I approached the history of the Whitlam government at an angle from which it had not previously been approached.

  6. @James

    So what do we aim for? I don’t see much point in starting with the leadership of the ALP. We need to start with a vision of a world we want. Unless we have a vision, how can we sell it?

    In many ways we need to go back to Gough. He wanted equality of opportunity, hence the free education and healthcare. Where do we go?

    I look at life a bit like a game of footy on the school oval. The best game has everybody playing. But more and more we have too many people sitting on the side lines, not really wanted or needed. Out there on the oval, if the game doesn’t work for the majority of kids, then it breaks up. Kids start changing the rules until the game works again.

    But right now, to stretch an analogy, we have the kids who are getting all of the footy telling us that this is the only way that footy works.

    So we need someone to step up with a clear vision for remaking society so that it works for more people. Back in 1972, the conservative world was looking more and more ridiculous. Change seemed inevitable. But back in that era, there was a youth movement. They really wanted change. When I look at todays uni students, my main worry is that they are too trusting and may end up being sorely disappointed when they do all the right things and life doesn’t work out for them. We’ve already put home ownership out of reach of many.

  7. There is an article by Fiona Davis over at The Conversation, one of a series on Gough’s legacy, in which she refers to the Commonwealth Commission of Inquiry into Poverty, and says that

    “Whitlam advocated for this inquiry for years before then-prime minister William McMahon finally agreed in August 1972.”

    She says that; “At the centre of the inquiry’s final recommendations was a guaranteed minimum income scheme…….. (that) would place “a minimum disposable income … as one of the rights of Australian citizenship”.

    And that, “Under this system…. there would be:

    … no longer any hierarchy of deserving and undeserving poor, categorised according to administratively awkward tests, with all those unfortunates at the very bottom of the hierarchy not entitled to any income at all.”

    This “report was presented to Whitlam in April 1975. In the face of economic decline and other political pressures, the minimum income proposal proved a progressive step too far even for Whitlam, at least in the short term.

    That November, Whitlam was dismissed.”

    And no-fault divorce was a wonderful thing for my parents. How stupid it seemed to me that before that change, they would have had to make up a reason for divorcing that accorded with the Conservative rules for how people ‘should’ behave and the idea that one person is the ‘fault’ or the problem, does not lead to a good outcome for the post-divorce relationship.

  8. @John Brookes
    I’m by no means an unthinking advocate for the Greens, and I’ve had bitter disagreements with members of the local Greens group (disagreements which some of them won’t let go, though I will, suggesting some degree of self righteousness and rigidity), but the Greens are the inheritors of the Whitlamite tradition if anyone is, I think.

    Which is probably the reason Albanese is so angry with them. He is stuck in a party that is never going to return to that tradition – on present trends – and they are, presumptuously but nevertheless probably correctly, claiming the tradition. I’ve written policy for the Greens in health, btw, and been involved in a lot of other policy development, so I have some idea of what I’m talking about.

    I’ve speculated previously on my own blog that there’s a lot of ideals that many Australians believe in (as Gough openly did) but they have been somehow convinced those ideals are unrealizable. That’s why I’ve lately been trying to start discussions about egalitarianism as a way of living, rather than just a dream.

  9. Let’s also note:

    – the Environmental Protection (Impact of Proposals) Act;
    – the establishment of the Australian Heritage Commission;
    – the ratification of the World Heritage Convention;
    – the establishment of the Department of Urban and Regional Development;
    – the establishment of the National Parks and Wildlife Service.

  10. I agree with pretty much everything John except the last, albeit attractive, proposal.

    That the solution is a new Whitlam as seems to be implied.

    Though it wouldn’t hurt to have someone of his ilk around for rousing the crowd, a reincarnation if you like, this seems unlikely to provide the change needed in isolation.

    1. the obstacles to an equitable society can now be seen as in large part structural. It is the nature of capitalism soft, or neoliberal, to exploit people and the natural environment and Australia has always been to a large degree capitalist. Conversely the failure of dozens of government bureaucracy based states to inspire their population and avoid enriching a small elite seems pretty damning to this form of government (or alternatively their conversion to a semi-rigid bureaucratic elite based oligarchy as in the case of China and possibly Vietnam).

    Australian Universities of the past 40 years are not a bad model for the pitfalls of central government/administration based society and they indicate an increase in government intervention alone is not the way – you have nominally the best educated and innovative groups in the country but from where I sit when they had the chance they did not move to etopia from the old Medieval model but to a hierarchical Taylorist management format with barely a peep from the inhabitants.

    2. Separately it is arguably us who need to change our whole philosophy from a growth based one to a sustainability based one, possibly informed by a new demoGough, but not driven by one. Gough did not dream up Australian social democracy. Rather he applied various examples/models already trialed over the world which included contributions from Australia (SA women’s suffrage being a great example). But as yet we don’t have the needed alternative models beyond vague outline so there is arguably nothing for a new Gough to promote as yet.

    Maybe that isnt possible and Free Will is indeed a delusion. Nevertheless the empowerment at least of male workers in previous generations and subsequently women and downtrodden minority groups subsequently/under Gough shows what was possible. But first we would have to develop/evolve a series of new progressive mutually coherent alternative models of society to the neoliberal one.

    Or alternatively modify greatly the existing ones which were not resilient in the face of the 19070s shocks.

    Maybe this is what a new Gough would be – an extended enlightenment teacher rather than a facilitator.

    3. Arguably society is now far more complex and people and groups splintered than in the 1970s dreamtime. Thus the realization of the philosopher king is far more problematic than even in Gough’s time.

    Perhaps I am wrong and another Gough will rise. But I suspect he will be such a different beast comparisons between the two will not be possible.

  11. I would add that Whitlam was anything but an unquestioning supporter of the American alliance. I don’t subscribe to the “CIA brought down Whitlam” narrative but the fact it has any plausibility is testimony to the tensions Whitlam and especially Cairns brought to the longstanding attitude of fawning subservience to Washington. If his government had been in office for another few years they would surely have forged a more mature and independent international role for Australia than their successors, and the country would have been better for it. It’s fascinating to hear that Malcolm Fraser has come to much the same conclusion – pity he didn’t feel that way when his views mattered.

  12. Lyn Gain :
    Don’t forget women’s issues other than equal pay and sole parent income security, John. He set up the first Ministry for Women, and oversaw the setting up of women’s refuges (and youth refuges too). His labour market programs are well worth a mention. In fact, there’s too much more to list, p.s. Not Trampis, why do you say no fault divorce was a disaster?

    Fourthed (this sentiment already having been seconded and thirded)

    That people are still racked during relationship breakups is no bad reflection on no fault divorce. Its that our society hasn’t yet evolved social mechanisms to buffer the impact of the trauma/grieving arising from relationship destruction.

    Separately it had to go because it reflected the old tradition of male ownership of women enshrined in British property laws in earlier times.

    That couples find themselves in a financial and admin mess after relationship breakups is as much about how capitalism allocates resources not the wisdom of no fault divorce. Conversely stable extended families in their better examples illustrate the gains from sharing resources in a benign collective and hence the wisdom underpinning socialism as against the atomisation of people arising from neoliberalism which has us all currently in its vice.

    Beyond this one has to say that if this promotion of equity for half of the human race through addressing divorce and equal pay were Gough’s only achievement it would have been sufficient to show him as a Giant.

    But beyond that there is the wonderful list of achievements that JQ lists and the movements he invigorated.

    Thinking back on it all I am reminded of those of Anni Mirabilium http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Annus_mirabilis – when not one but several epoch changing events occur concurrently (the classic examples here are the great inventive years of Newton 1666 and Einstein 1904).

    I wonder if we should now view/celebrate 1973 as such as year?

  13. @Val
    “there’s a lot of ideals that many Australians believe in (as Gough openly did) but they have been somehow convinced those ideals are unrealizable.” I agree Val. This reminded me of a radio interview I listened to on Wednesday, ABC Conversations, with Eva Cox. It was so sad. At the end Fidler asked her what she said to all the young people these days who asked her what they could do to change things. She said she was pretty ‘stuffed’ about how to advise them. There was no political party, or even an organised group, she could recommend they join. And that they should not think that going on a demonstration or signing a petition was any use. All she could think of was that they should seek like-minded people and continue the discourse. It seems to me, from comments here, that we are all floundering about the way forward.

  14. Yes, ex-Trampis’ dislike of no fault divorce is puzzling. It implies that a person can’t leave a marriage just because they want to.

    Or maybe ex-T just hankers after the days when private eyes would burst from behind the door, flashing camera in hand, catching the moment of infidelity for the courts.

  15. @Lyn Gain
    I guess my point is Lyn, that the Greens – if they could get rid of the self righteousness – do offer something, so maybe that’s the way forward. I’ve been bitten twice in politics (in Labor and the Greens) and both times a lot of it’s been due to the lingering effects of patriarchy, but I think the Greens have the right ideas in theory, at least.

  16. John Brooks @ #9 wrote:


    So what do we aim for? I don’t see much point in starting with the leadership of the ALP. We need to start with a vision of a world we want. Unless we have a vision, how can we sell it?

    Apologies for being so slow to respond.

    If you look around the world in 2014, as well as military aggression, mass murder and tyranny, there is much in the world to give us hope, but only if you remember to believe almost nothing that you read about today’s geopolitical conflicts in the mainstream media.

    Whilst despots, fraudsters, gangsters and fascists run much of the world, much of the rest of the world is run by people who are every bit as humane and decent as Gough was.

    However, unlike Gough, they have shown themselves to be far more capable of standing up for themselves and their countries against the global forces of darkness. Of course, those same leaders are demonised by the mainstream media.

    Two striking examples are Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Contrary to the implication manufactured by msm ‘reports’, both have not only been elected in certifiably democratic elections, both enjoy domestic popularity which dwarfs that of any Western leader I can think of – Tony Abbott, Barack Obama, Francois Hollande, David Cameron, Stephen Harper, Angela Merkel, Kevin Rudd, John Howard, Paul Keating, Bob Hawke, Malcolm Fraser, and even Gough in 1972 and 1974.

    Presidents al-Assad and Putin have also shown themselves to be far more willing to confront critical media scrutiny than any of today’s Western ‘leaders’. I have watched a number of interviews where both were able to demolish what has been peddled as ‘news’ to Western audiences. No doubt, Gough would have been able to do the same before a far less unbalanced international mass media than he had to face.

    Some good web sites are:

    globalresearch -dot- ca, voltairenet -dot- org, presstv -dot- com, landdestroyer -dot- blogspot -dot- com, rt -dot- com (as well as my own web site, candobetter -dot -net).

    By all means, continue to read the printed msm and watch and listen to the msm broadcast media, John Brookes, but I think, over time, you will see, when you are able to compare their narratives with those on the sites such as those listed above, that little truth is to be found there.

  17. John Brookes @ #9,

    As I wrote in my previous comment, which is now ‘awaiting moderation’, my apologies for taking so long to respond. I have also posted my comment to my own web site here. Please feel most welcome to respond further either there or here.

  18. Gough Whitlam’s Childhood Home in Kew Given an Interim Protection Order Against Demolition

    24 Oct 2014, by Julianne Bell of Protectors of Public Land

    Yesterday, Thursday 23 October, was another turbulent day in pre-election Melbourne as the fate of the childhood home of Gough Whitlam at 46 Rowland Street Kew hung in the balance. We were under the impression that the demolition of the house would continue so I dressed in black and went to the site about 1 pm with flowers to leave on the fence and so pay a suitable tribute to Gough Whitlam. (I called up lots of people as the Leader Newspaper said they would send a photographer.) Imagine my shock at seeing a media scrum in the street outside the wire fence with more cars arriving all the time. (Included at the end of this article are the NFIRB’s guidance notes on foreign investment in real estate.)

    Planning Minister Matthew Guy had just announced an “Interim Protection Order for the birthplace of Australia’s 21st Prime Minister, the late Gough Whitlam”. (Hence the media) An application will be referred to the Heritage Council with a request to include the place on the State Heritage Register. The Minister’s representative arrived and ceremoniously pinned the notice on the wire fence at the property. Channel 9, 10 and 2 were there plus the Age and the Leader newspapers . Thanks to Michael and Caroline Petit for representing community interests. A number of people turned up with a portrait of Gough Whitlam on the famous “It’s Time” poster!

  19. @James

    It chances that the most recent issue of WIRE, Amnesty International’s global magazine, contains stories from both Syria and Russia.

    The story from Syria says this: ‘Thousands of suspected government opponents have been arrested in Syria since protests broke out in February 2011. Many are still missing. Their families live in painful limbo, unsure where their loved ones are or what has happened to them. Others who were released after months in secret detention told Amnesty that they were tortured or otherwise ill-treated.’

    The story from Russia says this:
    “We decided to hold this symbolic protest to get people thinking about what freedom means to them,” explains Maria Sereda from Amnesty Russia.
    “In Soviet times, public protests were forbidden. Kitchens became the only places where people could talk freely without being afraid. It seems those times are back.
    “Russia’s new repressive laws make it nearly impossible to organize protests like this without risking heavy fines. You have to jump through a lot of hoops to get permission. And even then you can expect interference from the police or aggressive pro-government protesters.
    “Almost all media are government controlled and the online space to say what you think is also shrinking drastically. But not everyone is aware that this is happening.
    “People’s responses to our alfresco breakfast varied greatly. Some stopped to take photos, asked questions or argued that they do have free speech in Russia. Others sat down for a cup of tea.
    “If nothing changes, pretty soon our kitchens will once again be the only places where we can talk freely about politics, religion, human rights and art,” Maria said.

  20. News Corporation editors told by Rupert Murdoch to ‘kill Whitlam’ in 1975

    The Age article, Murdoch editors told to ‘kill Whitlam’ in 1975″ (27/6/14), excerpts of which appear below, confirms my own recollection of the Whitlam years, as an early teen. Back then, I had naively regarded Rupert Murdoch’s Australian newspaper as progressive and on the side of justice and truth. As I recall, the Australian and Bruce Petty, whose cartoons it published at the time, had opposed the Vietnam War and had supported Gough Whitlam and the Labor Party in 1972 and 1974. So I read the Australian almost every day and believed what I read.

    Suddenly, some time after the 1974 mid-term election, the Australian’s editor ‘informed’ me and other readers that supporting the Whitlam government had all been a “terrible mistake” on their part. He apologised and promised to rectify the mistake. I was disheartened, but continued to read the Australian and trust its judgement.

    Day after day the tone against Whitlam and Labor grew louder, more high pitched and more hysterical.

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