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.

QOSHE - Hero, martyr, victim ... but was Gough Whitlam a great man? - George Brandis
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Hero, martyr, victim ... but was Gough Whitlam a great man?

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04.12.2022

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,........

© The Sydney Morning Herald


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