Graham Freudenberg. Gough Whitlam Commemorative Oration.Mar 4, 2015
You will see below what I think is a remarkable speech by Graham Freudenberg about Gough Whitlam’s contemporary relevance. This oration is much longer than I normally post on this blog, but it is an outstanding oration which I am sure you will enjoy. The Whitlam Institute will also be publicising this oration. John Menadue
THE WHITLAM INSTITUTE
GOUGH WHITLAM COMMEMORATIVE ORATION
“Contemporary Relevance, comrade”:
Gough Whitlam in the 21st century
St Kilda Town Hall, Melbourne, 4 March 2015
Let me begin by doing what I did for the best part of my career, and re-cycle a speech by Gough Whitlam. It was his first major speech in the House of Representatives on international affairs, in days when they actually debated foreign policy in the Australian Parliament – on 12 August 1954. That was another world. Yet this speech goes to the heart of my assertions about the contemporary relevance of Edward Gough Whitlam. In style and substance, in his zest for the cut and thrust of parliamentary debate, for the sweep of its ideas, its challenge to prevailing orthodoxies – and for its optimism – it is quintessential Whitlam. He made the speech soon after the Geneva Conference in 1954 had given the West a new chance for good sense over China and Vietnam; instead, alas, the lost opportunity of Geneva became a disastrous wrong turn for the United States and Australia. Whitlam had been a member of parliament for less than two years. His star was just rising in the Labor Party, itself on the threshold of the Great Split. I’ll quote just a few of his opening lines, to give the flavour:
In the exciting and rapid movement of events during the last few months, the Minister for External Affairs [Mr Casey] has twice circumnavigated the globe in the steps of his model, Mr Eden, and his master, Mr Dulles [UK Foreign Secretary and US Secretary of State respectively]. Though the Minister saw fit to make statements to the newspapers in the United States of America and in other parts of the world, he did not say anything to the Australian press. The only Minister who has seen fit to make any statement on international affairs has been, of all people, the Postmaster General (Mr Anthony) [Doug Anthony’s father, that is], who three weeks ago addressed the annual conference of the Queensland branch of the Australian Country Party. In haranguing that rally of rustics, the Postmaster General declared that we Australians cannot live in peaceful co-existence with the Communists in this cold war. That pronouncement, fortunately, was in direct contradiction of statements that had already been made by President Eisenhower, of the United States of America, and Sir Winston Churchill, the British Prime Minister. The declaration of the Postmaster General has been emphatically repudiated in this House by the Prime Minister [Mr Menzies] and the Leader of the Opposition [Dr Evatt]. As a consequence of that rash utterance, the Postmaster General, whose health in recent months was deemed to be rapidly qualifying him for a diplomatic post, has rendered himself persona non grata to every head of State except President Syngman Rhee of the Republic of Korea, and Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, the leader of the Chinese Nationalist Government [on Formosa].
When, more than a decade later, I came to read all Whitlam’s early speeches with a professional eye, time and again I found myself thinking “I wish I could say things like that”. So I did.
But what could be the possible relevance of a speech made by a Labor backbencher more than 60 years ago, when Churchill was still Prime Minister of Britain and when Menzies still had more than eleven years to go as Prime Minister of Australia? Well, this was the speech in which Whitlam first called for recognition of the People’s Republic of China, nineteen years before he achieved it. In particular, he insisted that China’s sovereignty over Taiwan (Formosa) must never be allowed to become a cause for war with China, inevitably a third world war, inevitably a nuclear war. Whitlam was daring to assert that the views and interests of Australia might not always be the same as those of the United States. His propositions will be as relevant to our relations with China and the United States over the next 60 years as they were 60 years ago. Further, he made an eloquent connection between hopes for democracy in our region, then in the throes of decolonisation, and the preservation and enhancement of parliamentary democracy in Australia – his life-long cause, from which all else flowed. It was a speech marked by his special capacity to make connections between the wider world, the region around us, and Australia’s own standing and conduct.
And this speech, not only in its content but in its approach, attitudes and insights, the breadth of vision enhanced by his attention to detail, provides a sub-theme for everything I say tonight:
Gough Whitlam’s contemporary relevance lies not only, or even so much, in the actual policies and issues he placed on the Australian political and social agenda, but in the educative process, based on reason, relevance, knowledge and foresight, by which he reached them. And perhaps most relevant of all to these times, for all of us as Australians, his challenge to conventional wisdom, the prejudices and fears of his times.
And that included emphatically obsolences and obstructionism in Labor thinking. I don’t pretend to be able to answer the question: “What would Whitlam do if he were the Labor leader today?” I’m certainly not purporting to tell Bill Shorten and his colleagues: “This is how Gough would do it”. But perhaps I can shed some light on what I believe would be his approach and attitudes to the very complex questions facing Australia and the Labor Party in today’s “rapid and exciting movement of events”.
There is no place more fitting to do this than Melbourne. I take the opportunity to make amends for an omission in my accounts of the life and times of Edward Gough Whitlam. In my brief eulogy at the Sydney Town Hall on 5 November last year, for instance, I identified the central importance of his relationship with Werriwa, for 25 years his electorate in the outer Western suburbs of Sydney. And he himself always acknowledged the impact of being a teenager in Canberra, as it struggled to grow into the national capital after the move from Melbourne in 1927. But it should never be overlooked how much of Melbourne there was in Gough Whitlam. It is not just the fact that he was born here – on 11 July 1916 – and spent the first five years of his life here. The greatest single influence of his life was his father, Harry Ernest Frederick Whitlam, later Commonwealth Crown Solicitor; and Fred Whitlam was Melbourne through and through. His influence on his son was steeped in the old Melbourne liberal/radical tradition. Its strength, paradoxically, retarded the early growth of the Labor Party in Victoria. There was a remarkable revival of that tradition through the flourishing of the Fabian Society in the late fifties, sixties and beyond; and the Fabian relationship with the rise of Whitlam is an important part of the larger story. “Among Australian Fabians, I am Fabius Maximus”, he said. Though I myself believe the title properly belongs to Race Mathews.
Gough returned to Melbourne, in thought, towards the very end. When much in that mighty memory was fading, he would recall to his faithful visitors to his William Street, Sydney, office, like John Faulkner and John Menadue, that when he was 17 or 18 he took his grandmother to the new Shrine of Remembrance in St. Kilda Road and read out to her – she was nearly blind – the name of the battlefield in France where her son, his uncle, had died.
Even at the time of Gough’s death, the comment was still being made that it was strange, with his background, he should have become a Labor leader. There used to be Tories who regarded him as a class traitor. The truth is, with his upbringing, with such a father and his values, Gough Whitlam could never have been any other than Labor, in the Australian context.
In November 1973, in the glow of his first year in office, Whitlam delivered the Robert Garran Memorial Lecture in Canberra. His father had delivered the inaugural Garran Lecture in 1959, one great public servant honouring another, who had been his Melbourne mentor. Whitlam quoted his father, who was speaking of Australia’s role in the United Nations:
The task before Australia is honourable, and its efficient discharge would make for a dynamic peace; to it, all the resources, skills and energy that Australia can command deserve to be committed. The honourable task, however, could become majestic, and infinitely inspiring, and the peace could become creative, deep and rich, and enduring, if there be added what I have termed Excellence, Excellence in all its fullness.
That is Gough Whitlam quoting his father. But he might just as well have been quoting himself. Perhaps, given the closeness of their relationship, he was.
I acknowledge my own debt to Melbourne. Melbourne made me. I arrived here as a 20-year-old reporter for The Sun, via newspapers in Brisbane, Sydney and Mildura, in 1955 – the year of the Great Labor Split and the beginning of the Bolte era in Victoria. Anyone who believes that the fifties were dull wasn’t there. I missed the transformational event of the 1956 Olympic Games because I had taken myself off to London for a year. It was a watershed year: Khrushchev’s not-so-secret speech in Moscow denouncing Stalin; Nasser’s nationalisation of the Suez Canal and the Suez crisis; the Soviet invasion of Hungary.
The Suez crisis was my political Road to Damascus. Returning to Melbourne in 1957, I immediately joined the East Melbourne branch of the Australian Labor Party. Arthur Calwell, then Deputy Leader of the Opposition under Evatt, was the member for Melbourne. In 1961, I was given the opportunity of a lifetime when, by a wonderful combination of friends and flukes, I became Press Secretary to Arthur Calwell, by now the Leader of the Opposition, and in 1967, to his successor Gough Whitlam. When Whitlam made his famous or notorious “The impotent are pure” speech before the jeering delegates to the Victorian Labor Conference at the Melbourne Trades Hall in June 1967, Calwell watched the performance from the gallery and said to me in the vestibule afterwards: “You won’t be working for your new boss long now”.
“Throughout my public life”, Whitlam said on the 30th anniversary of the It’s Time election, “I have tried to apply an over-arching principle and a unifying theme to all my work. It can be stated in two words: contemporary relevance. It was the fundamental test I applied, in particular to the development of Labor policy in the years before 2 December 1972. There is a case to be argued that my government faltered whenever we lost sight of the principle or allowed the rush of events to subsume them.”
Among the many fine and true things said at the Sydney Town Hall, I want to focus on a point made by Tony Whitlam. He said that his father believed deeply in a strong two-party system. The whole thrust of Whitlam’s career was to further his determination that the Labor Party should remain one of the two dominant forces within our parliament, either in government or able to form government, in its own right. He saw strong, effective parties as the mainstay of parliamentary democracy. The future of the two-party system and Labor’s role within it is now the big political question facing Australia today, not just the Labor Party.
May I say here how much encouragement we draw throughout Australia from the victory of Daniel Andrews and the Labor Party in Victoria, so soon after Gough Whitlam’s death. Like Neville Wran’s victory in New South Wales six months after the Dismissal, it had a galvanising effect and renewed our sense of what is possible. As to the Queensland result, well, it shows that anything is possible.
In his first statement on becoming Leader of the Federal Parliamentary Labor Party on 8 February 1967, Whitlam said:
For the Labor Party, what is clearly at stake is its future role within the Australian parliamentary system …. Our actions in the next few years must determine whether it continues to survive as a truly effective parliamentary force capable of governing and actually governing.
Nearly nine years later, almost on the eve of the Dismissal, in the middle of his tremendous battle against the Senate, the ultimate challenge to the very legitimacy of a reforming Labor Government, Whitlam delivered the Curtin Memorial Lecture at the ANU in Canberra (29 October 1975). Speaking of his work before 1972, he said:
I addressed myself to three principal tasks: to develop a coherent program of relevant reform; to convince a majority of Australians that those reforms were relevant to their needs and their lives; and to convince the Labor Movement as a whole that the parliamentary institutions were relevant in achieving worthwhile reform.
“The great organisational battles between 1967 and 1970, particularly in Victoria”, he said, were essentially about that third task: “It was the toughest of all”.
Keeping bright the Whitlam legend does not require manufacturing myths about him. The stakes in Victoria were high; and while both sides invoked high principles, in the end the resolution of the conflict involved number-crunching of the roughest kind. Whitlam was not particularly adept at that game, but accepted its necessity. He largely left it to others – Lance Barnard in his rise to the leadership; Rex Connor in his self-imposed contest for the leadership with Jim Cairns in April 1968; Clyde Cameron in the reconstruction of Victoria in 1970.
So I want to emphasise that electoral and political calculations figured as largely with Whitlam as any other political leader. It was not all altruism and crashing through. To gloss over Whitlam as a practising, party politician, working the system with the best of them, is the surest way to make him irrelevant.
Whitlam set out, from the first, to combat the defeatism which had settled on much of the Labor Party, particularly in Victoria. Political necessity drove his defiant speech to the Victorian ALP Conference in June 1967:
We construct a philosophy of failure which finds in defeat a form of justification and a proof of the purity of our principles. Certainly, the impotent are pure ….. Let us have none of this nonsense that defeat is in some way more moral than victory ….. I did not seek and do not want the leadership of Australia’s largest pressure group. I propose to follow the traditions of those of our leaders who have seen the role of our party as striving to achieve, and achieving, the national government of Australia.
Whitlam was especially infuriated by the self-serving claim that the bosses of the Victorian Central Executive were the principled guardians of Labor’s opposition to Australian involvement in the war in Vietnam. In his landmark speech of 4 May 1965, Calwell had explicitly acknowledged the unpopularity of Labor’s position, to be met, in what seemed on the day a devastating reply by Menzies, with the sneer “If I might end on a horribly political note, it is a good thing occasionally to be in the majority”. This was the same speech in which Menzies’ total justification for the war was that it was “part of the downward thrust by China between the Indian and Pacific Oceans”. By such simplicities did Menzies reign supreme. After the debacle of the 1966 election, ostensibly because of Vietnam, but more because of the dire state of the Labor Party itself, Melbourne became the heart and soul of the Moratorium Movement under the memorable leadership of Jim Cairns.
Whitlam, by contrast, antagonised the Labor Left by his dismissive attitude towards the Moratorium Movement. He told that Victorian Conference in June 1967 that protests “would not save a single Australian life or shorten the war by a single day. Our consciences should not be so easily salved. The present government opposes all moves which might bring about negotiations, and is the first to applaud and endorse escalation of the war. Therefore our aim must be to replace that government.”
But Vietnam was not really the divisive issue for Labor. The most potent source of division was far older – over a century old in fact. It was the issue of State Aid for non-government schools, meaning, in practice, the Catholic parish school system.
It must be hard for any Australian under 60 to grasp fully the sectarian bitterness and the political explosiveness surrounding this issue. Even the phrase itself – “State aid” – barely registers today. The Bishops and the Church, even with so powerful an advocate as Archbishop Mannix, had failed utterly to dent the bipartisan intransigence against State Aid – the Liberal Party still essentially a Protestant party; the Labor Party, its traditional Catholic support notwithstanding. The unravelling came after the Split when the breakaway DLP put a pro-State aid plank in its platform. From then on and for the next decade, the Labor Left made opposition to State Aid the test of Labor orthodoxy. This was the issue which was to provide Whitlam with a platform to secure representation for the parliamentary leadership on the Labor Party’s Conference and Executive, ending the “36 faceless men” controversy. It produced Whitlam’s outburst against “the 12 witless men” of the ALP Federal Executive, and his near-expulsion from the party in 1966. It produced his triumph at the 1969 Federal Conference in Melbourne which adopted his ground-breaking proposal for the Schools Commission, granting aid to all schools – government and non-government alike – on the basis of needs. It produced the last ditch defiance of the old VCE, sabotaging Labor’s 1970 State campaign, and perversely giving Whitlam unmistakable grounds for Federal intervention; which in turn paved the way for Victoria’s decisive role in electing the Whitlam Government in 1972 and saving it in 1974.
What were the qualities that rewarded Whitlam with such success after these long years of turmoil and confrontation? Perseverance, of course. Stamina, of course. But there was something else – a characteristic approach to political problems, and his way of arguing them out. “Only connect”, E. M. Forster wrote, and Whitlam was the master of making connections – from the particular to the general, linking the local with the regional, the regional with the national and the national with the international. Or reversing the process, as when debating standards for education, health, housing or transport, he would start from the carefully crafted formula: “Countries with which we would choose to compare ourselves”. Sometimes, this left only Canada. In the case of State Aid, he comprehensively connected the whole education issue with party reform, policy reform and electoral success – “the party, the policy, the people” in John Menadue’s 1967 formula.
I see this making of connections as the essence of the Whitlam approach and the key to his contemporary relevance. Remarkable, too, was his melding of personal experience with public policy. In her truly great biography, Jenny Hocking describes his learning curve on aborigines when he witnessed their treatment in Queensland and the Northern Territory during his wartime years in the RAAF. I have already mentioned the connection between Whitlam, the member for Werriwa, and Whitlam’s policies on “Schools, hospitals, cities”, to use his shorthand for his Program, his deep understanding that Australia is a nation of immigrants, and all the opportunities and obligations which flow from that central fact, his passion for electoral reform, one-vote, one-value, and even the national sewerage program. He himself dated his determination to modernise the Constitution from the failure of the 1944 referendum, broadening and deepening with his service on the Joint Parliamentary Committee on Constitutional Reform. This seminal experience led him to focus on the connection between the Constitution and the Labor Platform. He was exasperated by the way the Labor Party had allowed the High Court rejection of bank nationalisation under Section 92 in 1948 to become an excuse for policy stagnation. He later put his attitude in this way:
I was concerned by the way in which the Labor Party’s failure to move on, to look ahead, to attempt to find new ways towards reform, was short-changing the Australian people and short-changing the Party itself. The Party became obsessed with the idea that rather than being about revival for the future, its purpose was to return to a more comfortable past – not renovation but mere restoration. As a result, both the achievements of the past and the hopes for the future receded equally. The Party stagnated and the Platform was stultified.
There, in its most striking form, is Whitlam’s continuing challenge – to modernise the Party, to modernise the Platform, to modernise the Party’s place in a modernised Australia. He wanted, of course, to modernise the Australian Constitution, and no Australian leader worked harder to achieve change by referendum. Right to the end, he never gave up on this, despite the overwhelming evidence that change by the direct referendum route is almost always foredoomed in Australia. Yet despite this, he achieved real change in the spirit of the Australian Constitution, in its interpretation and in the application of the Constitution as it exists to the implementation of Labor policy. He never succeeded in altering the Constitution by a single line or letter, but he enlarged the Constitution like no other leader. As in so much else, Whitlam was the Great Enlarger.
He did it in three ways.
First, by pointing the Labor Party to the parts of the Constitution which were relevant and achievable. As he said in 1961, in his first Curtin Memorial Lecture:
In our obsession with Section 92, which is held up as the bulwark of private enterprise, we forget Section 96, which is the charter of public enterprise.
In that speech, too, he derided the most sacred of Labor’s cows, the socialist objective, as “weak, defensive and apologetic”. At the same time, he was not apologetic about calling himself a socialist and was, in fact, the last Labor leader to do so.
Second, in government, he widened the Constitution and its interpretation whenever his legislation was tested in the High Court, starting with the Hamer Government challenge to the Australian Assistance Plan in 1974. He was justly proud of the fact that no Whitlam Government laws were ever held to be unconstitutional.
Thirdly, most relevant of all, he enlarged the Australian Constitution by the use of the external power, and by enshrining key laws within covenants of the United Nations and the International Labor Organisation. The Racial Discrimination Act is an outstanding example.
And here I make the claim that the connections Whitlam made between what we do here and our standing in the world represents his distinctive expression of Australian patriotism – rational, authentic and deep patriotism.
Let me give a specific example. In two visits to Papua New Guinea in 1970 and 1971, as Opposition leader, he proclaimed independence for PNG by 1976. In Government, he advanced the time-table by a year. The independence ceremony in Port Moresby in September 1975 was the last time Sir John Kerr and Whitlam appeared in public together. During the 1970 visit, his meetings with Michael Somare were tracked by ASIO. After he addressed 10,000 Tolai at Rabaul, Prime Minister Gorton said he would have “blood on his hands” if there were any violence on the Gazelle Peninsula. The Minister for Territories, CEB Barnes, thought PNG might be ready for independence in 25 to 100 years. This was probably majority opinion in Australia. Seven Australian Prime Ministers attended Whitlam’s Memorial on 4 November 2014 – with five Prime Ministers from PNG, including Michael Somare.
How did Whitlam turn around Australia’s stance so completely, so quickly? I remember vividly the day in Port Moresby in January 1971 when he dictated the thoughts which we worked up as the definitive statement on PNG independence:
All Australians must now realize how damaging and dangerous a reputation Australia’s present policies produce. What the world sees about Australia is that we have an aboriginal population with the highest infant mortality on earth, that we have eagerly supported the most unpopular war in modern times on the ground that Asia should be a battleground for our freedom, that we support the sale of arms to South Africa, that the whole world believes that our immigration policy is based on colour and that we run one of the world’s last colonies. We may profess our good intentions and feel that we are victims of special circumstances but the combination of such policies leans heavily indeed on the world’s goodwill and on Australia’s credibility.
The true patriot therefore will not seek to justify and prolong these policies but will seek to change them.
It is upon his determination to protect and advance Australia’s reputation and standing in the world that I stake my strongest claim for Whitlam’s contemporary relevance. I deeply believe that if the Labor leadership had taken its stand clearly on Australia’s international reputation and international obligations on refugees from the beginning, in 2001, we would not have had fourteen years of this malignancy, eating away at our national self-respect. Of course, Australians care about “who comes here and the circumstances in which they come”. But, given leadership, they do care for Australia’s good name in the world. How else were Whitlam and Don Dunstan, together with quite small public interest groups in the universities, churches and unions, able to persuade the Labor Party in 1965 to abandon its most cherished tradition and Australia’s deepest fears embodied in the White Australia Policy?
So I stress the importance of making connections in Whitlam’s approach to policy. But I am bound to acknowledge that there were disconnections when it came to implementing policy in government. The connections were Whitlam at his most constructive; the disconnections the most damaging. No appraisal of his contemporary relevance can omit the failures, and the lessons to be learned from them.
In his book The Whitlam Government, Whitlam himself makes a significant admission. The matter-of-fact way he puts it masks the pain it cost him to make it. He wrote (p.195): “The chief economic failure of my Government resulted from the wage explosion of 1974. In part, our failure was a failure of communication, our failure to persuade the trade union movement to accept the central concept of Labor’s program.”
He then spelt his definition of the meaning of equality in modern Australia: “That central concept was this: in modern communities, even the wealthiest family cannot provide its members with the best education, with the best medical treatment, the best environment, unaided by the community. Increasingly, the basic services and opportunities which determine the real standard of life of a family or an individual can only be provided by the community and only to the extent to which the community is willing to provide them. Either the community provides them or they will not be provided at all. In the Australian context, this means that the community, through the national Government, must finance them or they will not be financed at all.”
That is the bed-rock of the Whitlam Program, with its over-arching theme of a more equal Australia. Then comes his painful admission: “I have to acknowledge that this philosophy was never really accepted by the Labor movement of Australia at any time after the election of its own Labor Government.”
In a generous review in The Age, Sir Paul Hasluck described the book as “the longest trumpet voluntary in political literature”. But it seems to have escaped Sir Paul that there could hardly be a more mortifying admission than that the very core of Labor support had not accepted the relevance of the Whitlam Program to its immediate concerns. By contrast, the Hawke and Keating Governments succeeded in persuading the unions to accept the concept of a social wage, and, through the Accords, made it the basis of their transformation of the Australian economy.
Whitlam notoriously said: “I don’t mind how many prima donnas there are in my Cabinet, as long as I’m prima donna assoluta”. It was a throwaway line that actually highlights both the strengths and weaknesses of the Whitlam style of government: individual brilliance against collegial disarray. There was a serious gap between the primacy he gave to Parliament, to parliamentary government on one hand, and the operation of its most distinctive feature, the Cabinet, the great engine of parliamentary government. Cabinet embodies the two principles that make parliamentary democracy work effectively – Cabinet solidarity, and answerability to Parliament. Cabinet is the grand committee of the nation. Bob Hawke’s superb chairmanship skills made his Cabinet the most successful in our history. A properly-run Cabinet would not have enmeshed the Whitlam Government in the toils of the loans affair.
Nevertheless, while the orchestration was sometimes discordant, the Whitlam Government was not a one-man band, although Gough himself scarcely discouraged the notion. “What would happen if you were run over by the proverbial bus”, Mike Willesee asked him in 1974. “In the light of my government’s public transport reforms, that is highly improbable”. But the free rein Whitlam gave his Ministers did become the basis for its record of achievement. The one thing he expected was that they would act in the spirit of the Program, especially as set out in the It’s Time Policy Speech. As Kim Beazley Snr said: “The Platform is the Old Testament; the policy speech is the New Testament”. He was only half-joking.
There will never be another Policy Speech like it. At least I devoutly hope so, because I hope that the conditions which produced it will never be repeated. That is, I hope fervently for the sake of Australian parliamentary democracy that the Australian Labor Party will never again be out for 23 years, or anything like 23 years. We cannot fully understand the nature, content and purpose of the It’s Time Policy Speech, unless we place it firmly in the context of those 23 years. Nor, for that matter, can we fully understand the conduct and fate of the Whitlam Government without understanding the sense of urgency and expectation those lost 23 years produced.
There were outstanding Ministers. Think of Bill Hayden, who built Medibank – with its vital principle of universal access to health care – so strong that it defied seven attempts by the Fraser Government to dismantle it and enabled the Hawke Government to restore it as Medicare. The attacks on its basic principles by the present Federal government are, of course, part of its current turmoil. Contemporary relevance indeed!
Again, Hayden had progressed far towards establishing a national superannuation scheme. Keating accomplished it, and Labor’s role as the custodian of superannuation, and its true principles, remains, or should be, one of its greatest electoral assets.
Think of Lionel Murphy, whose transformational law reforms constitute almost a parallel program. His concerns about the accountability of the national security apparatus remain a question of fundamental relevance to Australian democracy.
Or think of Al Grassby. For dismantling White Australia (“Give me a shovel and I will bury it”, he said to a sceptical reporter in Manila); for establishing multicultural Australia, he paid a high political price. He lost his seat in what Whitlam called Australia’s first overtly racist campaign in 1974. We may think we have come a long way since 1974. On the other hand, we may think that the story has deep contemporary relevance, certainly in terms of the need for unremitting vigilance in the work of building a more inclusive and tolerant Australia.
I think, in particular, of Tom Uren, who breathed life into the most original and wide-ranging of all the Whitlam concepts, really the heart of the Whitlam project – national involvement in cities and regional centres. The restoration of his Department of Urban Affairs is again urgent and relevant to the Australian people in almost every aspect of their daily lives.
These examples remind us of a largely neglected, if not forgotten, aspect of the Whitlam project – how much, both in development and implementation, the Whitlam Program was a collective effort, how much he sought and welcomed the ideas and advice of others, inside and beyond the Labor Party. Many years later, I suggested that he should acknowledge that “the Program did not spring, like Minerva, fully armed from Zeus’ brow”. He agreed entirely, but insisted that he was not going down to posterity confusing the Greek and Roman gods. Gough thought Zeus more appropriate than Jupiter, so Minerva had to give way to Athena.
This aspect of the Whitlam project, as a cooperative and collaborative effort, will, I believe, become increasingly relevant to Labor’s mission, as Australia moves into a more complex era, with its communities more dissociated, its voters more volatile, its competing interests more vocal, its public discourse more discordant, if not debauched, its media ever more pervasive.
More than a century ago, Alfred Deakin complained about the impossibility of governing “with a reporter at one’s elbow”. We may speculate how Gough would have coped, in a world of instant response, endless spin, the ten second grab and the cacophony of self-appointed pundits. I think I know the answer. Brilliantly. Three reasons: He was the master of the one-liner before the term was invented. He would have dominated the mainstream media by open, long and frequent press conferences. And, above all, he would have refused to relegate Parliament to its present humiliating role as an almost incidental channel of political communication.
Almost our last collaboration, stretching across more than 40 years, was the Foreword to Troy Bramston’s splendid collection, The Whitlam Legacy. Gough knew it would be his last serious word on Australian politics:
May I make one valedictory point: never forget the primacy of Parliament as the great forum for developing, presenting and explaining policy. This seems to me the best response we can make to the unprecedented demands now made on our leaders and representatives by the relentless news cycle, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. If we develop, define and defend our policies thoroughly before their implementation, we will be much less likely to be blown off course by the accidents and aberrations inseparable from modern political life. And Parliament is by far the best place to achieve it.
This was the precept and practice of a life time.
Parliament is, or should be, a marvellous resource, and it has been the anchor of our national life longer than almost any country in the world and, by the standard of the suffrage – the right to vote – more democratic longer than any. But if the Labor Party is to survive as the prime mover in the development and implementation of the public polity – the party of new ideas – its policy makers will need to draw on all the available resources, reaching out beyond its own resources and ranks. This points to a future role for independent but dedicated resources like the Whitlam Institute itself. This was Gough’s own deep hope as he watched the Institute grow during his rich and mellow autumnal years.
Partly because of his long and active public life, there is a timelessness about Gough Whitlam’s legacy, extraordinary for a working politician who reached the heights of his achievement forty years ago and whose Prime Ministership lasted only three years. But I always emphasise that Gough Whitlam was also very much a man of his time. His vision of a more equal Australia, a more independent Australia, a more inclusive, generous and tolerant Australia, a more forward-looking and outward looking Australia, belongs to all time. But the means by which he sought to advance Australia towards that vision reflected his own times, the influences, pre-occupations and demands of his time, the political, constitutional, social and economic opportunities and constraints of his time. Hence his insistence on contemporary relevance. Here in St. Kilda Town Hall, closing his great campaign in 1972, he invoked Ben Chifley’s “light on the hill”. His program was not the light on the hill; but he shone a bright light along the path.
Far be it from me to presume to put words into Gough Whitlam’s mouth, at least now that he cannot speak for himself. But I do believe that his first advice to his successors – the Labor leadership, the members, supporters and well-wishers – as they pursue their tasks of shaping and re-shaping Labor policies, Australian policies, for the 21st century, in times and circumstances every bit as daunting and challenging as those he faced in his time – I believe that his watchword would be for them, as his instruction was so often to me:
“Contemporary relevance, comrade”.