John Mant. Tribute to Gough Whitlam

Nov 10, 2014

It is difficult to make this speech – so much to say about this great man and his times.

I observed him from a number of angles:

  • Working with Tom Uren and Gough Whitlam on urban policy proposals before the elections.
  • Assisting my friends Peter Wilenski and James Spigelman in their work on the administrative orders for the new government.
  • As Uren’s principal advisor for the first year I attended that amazing two man Cabinet meeting when we made the first great installment on changing Australia.
  • During the first year of the government I was closely involved in a number of critical issues.
  • Finally I worked as the PM’s principal private secretary in the five months before the coup.

And coup it was, make no mistake about that.

A coup which was successful because of one of the PM’s most enduring qualities – an assumption that people would behave properly and constitutionally.  During the crisis, which was totally engineered by typical dishonourable acts and subterfuges by the Right, the PM’s central focus was to preserve Australian (and British) parliamentary tradition, namely that governments are made in the People’s house.  This belief mirrored his commitment to ‘one vote one value’.

He assumed, wrongly, that his determined opponents, and especially the Governor General, would be similarly motivated. A person with a more cynical view of people may have been less trusting.  But then that person wouldn’t have been Gough Whitlam.

His approach to policy reflected this.

Gough Whitlam believed that governments can do good things for people. This was a view shared by others in the days which were before the Right launched its propaganda war to convince everyone that governments were the problem rather than the solution.

Gough Whitlam’s approach to policy also reflected the realist tradition of Sydney University:  a thing is a fact only if it exists; any number particulars do not prove a general proposition.

He therefore was a shining example of The Enlightenment.

As such, he had difficulty in accepting those who would not face the facts – those whose views were driven by love of the past, superstitious dogma or cyclical political advantage.

This, and his prodigious capacity for work and his legendary (and, for staffers, disquieting) memory for detail, drove The Program.  During the long years of Opposition he worked on it: rational, transforming, exciting.

Assuming others would share his analysis, The Program was to be implemented. Unfortunately the quantity and quantity of his front bench too often meant some were not up to the tasks he set.  The Program was too rational for some, too rushed for others, not sufficiently flexible to respond to changing economic settings.

But enough was achieved to make a real and beneficial difference to many lives.  Nobody else in Australia’s short history can claim to doing so much good.  For that we can be grateful for Gough Whitlam’s long and productive life.


John Mant is currently a Councillor on the City of Sydney Council.

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