Fifty years ago today, Gough Whitlam became Australia’s 21st prime minister. The government sworn in by Sir Paul Hasluck that morning comprised just two ministers, Whitlam and his deputy Lance Barnard. They held between them every portfolio. So eager was Whitlam to begin that the swearing-in of the full ministry was delayed for another fortnight.
Whitlam and Barnard were a contrast between the new Labor Party and the old. Whitlam, a suave and charismatic Sydney QC, the first Labor prime minister to have been to university, embodied the spirit of modernity and impatience for change so brilliantly captured by Labor’s campaign theme “It’s Time”. Barnard, a self-effacing Tasmanian trade unionist who began life as a logger, represented a then more familiar Labor Party: the party of the working man.
Gough Whitlam and Lance Barnard after they were sworn in to office in 1972.Credit:Ted Golding
Politics apart, they had nothing in common. There was no tension between them; Barnard knew perfectly well that Whitlam was not just the star of the show but – in words that Barnard perhaps would not have recognised, but as Whitlam once described himself – the prima donna assoluta.
The government Whitlam led lasted less than three turbulent years before its spectacular end in what remains Australia’s most divisive political event and only constitutional crisis. Perhaps because of the dramatic – almost operatic – quality of his departure from office, even a half-century later it is difficult for some to assess Whitlam objectively. The moment the governor-general dismissed him, he became for his enraged acolytes a sacrificial hero, the noble victim of a metaphorical political assassination and an actual constitutional coup d’etat.
His martyr’s mantle became a shield against criticism of the shambles his government had become. Meanwhile Sir John Kerr was fated to be forever cast as the pantomime villain, caricatured in his top hat as the malign agent of a devious and unscrupulous establishment. Overwhelmingly, the academy, the arts community, much of the media and most of the commentariat signed on to this nonsense. It has been part of the Left’s mythology ever since.
Gough Whitlam on the day he was sacked by the governor-general.Credit:NAA
One result was that almost every subsequent appraisal of Whitlam has been unreliable. Biographies have ranged from the merely admiring (Jenny Hocking) to the abjectly adoring (Graham Freudenberg), and every shade of hagiography in between. Donald Horne, in the full ardour of maintained rage, wrote:
“Whitlam [w]as a Prime Minister born to be king. He was a king in the great battles of politics… He was bold like a king, he had favourites like a king, sacked Ministers like a king; like a king he got a sinecure for his son. He blamed others like a king, was boastful like a king, sulked like a king. He had visions like a king … Like a king he was ready to protect the poor from the avarice of the merchants and to shock the burghers with the frivolities of art…”
There is no doubt that Whitlam captured, and came to embody, the spirit of his time – so much so that many of the achievements of others were, in later years, lazily associated with him. It was Harold Holt, not Whitlam, who began the demolition of the White Australia policy; John Gorton, not Whitlam, who made the decision to end Australia’s military engagement in Vietnam; Gorton, not Whitlam, who established the Australia Council and introduced the tax breaks upon which the success of the Australian film industry was built. But so much was Whitlam the choice and master spirit of the age that those, and many other reforms, came to be attributed – erroneously – to him.
He dominated the Parliament as few have ever done: always eloquent, often eruditely witty (his description of McMahon as “Tiberius with a telephone” was genius, when one understands the context), frequently cruel, sometimes profane. (Hansard sacrificed assonance for decency when it rendered his description of a Liberal MP as “a truculent runt”. When once a rural MP innocently said “I’m a country member” Whitlam interjected: “We remember!”)
He achieved many great and historic reforms, universal health insurance, Aboriginal land rights and anti-discrimination law among them. Yet there was a Keystone Cops element to his government as well: Lionel Murphy’s midnight raid on ASIO; Rex Connor circumventing Treasury to raise a massive foreign loan (equivalent to 1/16th of GDP at the time) through a dodgy Pakistani commodities broker; the treasurer Jim Cairns attempting to raise another massive loan through a football mate while agreeing to pay him an undisclosed brokerage fee.
Prime Minister Gough Whitlam pours soil into the hand of traditional landowner Vincent Lingiari in 1975.Credit:Mervyn Bishop
Neither those, nor the many other scandals or affairs which blighted his government, were Whitlam’s own doing; he was let down by dangerously inept ministers. His cabinet was a mixture of old Labor survivors like Connor, who were just too exhausted – and too bitter – when at last they came to power; a few younger oddballs like Kep Enderby (a dreamy internationalist who once demanded that all cabinet submissions be in both English and Esperanto); and some veteran oddballs as well, like Cairns.
No prime minister had to dismiss so many senior members from his cabinet. Through all this turmoil, there was never any stain cast on Whitlam’s integrity; he was just unlucky in those he had to work with.
It was in global affairs that Whitlam both revelled, and revealed himself. He was fascinated by – and pretentiously identified with – the great men who fashioned the sweep of history. Napoleon was a particular obsession. He admired the great nations and empires which shape history’s narrative. Perhaps Donald Horne was onto something: Whitlam worshipped power.
In his memoirs, immigration minister Clyde Cameron records Whitlam’s refusal to accept South Vietnamese refugees – some of whom were family members of local staff at the Australian embassy whose lives were in peril when Saigon fell: “I’m not having hundreds of f---ing Vietnamese Balts coming into this country!” His lack of sympathy for the people of the Baltic States themselves was complete. His objections to Indonesia’s invasion of East Timor were tepid. No brutal autocrat of the 20th century was so lionised in the House of Representatives as Mao Zedong when he died in September 1976.
Whitlam rhapsodised “the greatness of Mao”, spoke admiringly of his “character and his unique gifts as a leader [who] set examples of courage, fortitude and determination to his people”, and of “the veneration in which he was held [as] the authentic father of his people”. These presumably did not include the tens of millions (estimates vary wildly but never in less than multiples of millions) who died in enforced famines, mass executions and “re-education” camps, sacrificed to Mao’s ruthless will.
If you were one of history’s minnows – a Lithuanian, an Estonian or a Latvian crushed by the Soviet police state; or an East Timorese villager shivering in fear of the advancing Indonesian army; or a South Vietnamese refugee fleeing the murderous Viet Cong; or a starving Chinese peasant or dissident who got in history’s way – Whitlam was not on your side. He always backed the big battalions.
Was Whitlam a great man? I think undoubtedly the answer is “yes”, in the way the world pays that dubious compliment to important historical figures without overmuch moral fussiness, averting its eyes from a multitude of sins.
Most people know Lord Acton’s remark “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Fewer remember the next sentence: “Great men are almost always bad men.” Gough Whitlam would have been happy to accept the accolade, and let the Devil take the hindmost.
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