Gough Whitlam’s objective was equality for all. He believed the proper business of politics was to secure informed public consent for necessary change, through objective information from trusted sources.
He gave back hope to my generation of Labor Party members. Chifley’s “light on the hill” was re-kindled. The party’s electability was restored. His political career invites us to recall the words of Robert F. Kennedy: “Some see things as they are and say ‘Why?’ I dream of things that never were and say ‘Why not’?”
Whitlam realised from the start that in order for policies to be accepted by the electorate they had first to be understood. Medibank (later Medicare), for example, was explained constantly from 1967 until 1969, and again from 1969 until 1972, in Parliament and wherever public platforms or media attention were obtainable.
He required the speeches that were prepared for him to be in part repetitious, in order for their proposals to become as near as possible universally accepted. Once a basic theme and content of a speech had been settled, drafts were exchanged repeatedly between him and whoever was doing the writing, until he was satisfied that the best possible outcome had been obtained.
Speeches such as the definitive “Political and Constitutional Problems in National Transport Planning”, which he delivered for the Department of Civil Engineering at Melbourne University in April, 1968, could take weeks to complete. His memorable 1972 election policy speech was a distillation of all the speeches which had gone before it, as far back as his entry to Parliament in 1952.
Malcolm Fraser mistakenly supposed that Australians would accept his abolition of Medibank – in defiance of his 1975 undertaking to retain it – because it had been in place for only two months prior to the notorious Remembrance Day Coup. The real strength of Medibank stemmed at that point from the fact that it had been explained to the electorate more thoroughly than any other Opposition proposal in our history.
A consequent Whitlam government innovation was the creation of the great Investigatory, reporting and recommendatory commissions, such as the Schools Commission, the several post-secondary education commissions and the Hospitals and Health Services Commission. Legislation for a Children’s Commission that would have revolutionised early childhood development, education and care was introduced, but lapsed with the dismissal of the government in November 1975.
Like the Ombudsman and the Auditor-General the commissions were empowered to inquire as they saw fit into any and all aspects of their respective briefs and report directly to Parliament on the outcomes of their investigations and the recommendations arising from them. Their outstanding work opened up government services to unprecedented levels of scrutiny, facilitated forward planning and budgeting, and enabled informed and constructive public debate at unprecedented levels to occur. Their subsequent abolition at the hands of both Coalition and Labor governments has been a public policy and democratic enfranchisement setback of epic proportions.
The provenance is plain. Whitlam epitomised throughout his career the Fabian approach to politics and policy development. As he once said tongue-in-cheek of himself, “Among Australian Fabians, I am Maximus”. Each new piece of work he undertook started from the principles of social justice and egalitarianism that had given his career its whole motivation and direction.
Facts were then painstakingly and meticulously analysed, so that policy options could emerge and be tested. Once the final form of a policy had been settled, it was fought for with all the formidable force of his intellect and eloquence.
Australians are accustomed to having their votes sought through their purses and pockets. It is Whitlam alone in the memories of most of us who has addressed himself uncompromisingly to our consciences and intellects. He himself would not necessarily have regarded so sweepingly affirmative an assessment, as inappropriate, as a further flight of self-mockery attests.
Barry Cohen – elected to the House of Representatives on Whitlam’s coat-tails in 1969 and a Minister under Hawke – has a relevant story in his book, After the Party. It reads:
I had heard that on the release of the massive tome The Whitlam Government 1972-1975 Gough was asked by an intrepid young reporter whether this was the third major work on his period of government, the others being The Truth of the Matter by himself, and A Certain Grandeur by Graham Freudenberg. He was reported to have replied loftily, “Yes, there was the Crucifixion, the Resurrection and now we have the Gospels”.
I had tried to check the authenticity of this wonderful story with the man himself but was unable to do so as he was away overseas for a considerable period, fulfilling UNESCO obligations.
I eventually caught up with him and repeated the story. He paused for a moment before replying, “I must say I can’t recall it, although it has a certain ring to it. However, I can tell you that I do keep ‘THE THREE BOOKS’ together on my office shelf”.
“The three books?” I inquired innocently. “Yes,” he replied, “The Bible, The Complete Works of William Shakespeare and The Whitlam Government.”
Race Mathews is former chief of staff to Gough Whitlam and Labor leaders in the Victorian parliament, federal MP and state MP and minister.