Mike Steketee. Whitlam: the power of persuasion.

This article was first published by The Drum.

Gough Whitlam’s sheer presence, drive and ambitions disguised some deep flaws. But his vision and achievements stand in stark contrast to the politics we often have seen since, writes Mike Steketee.

“It’s time”. It seemed like a modest slogan for a momentous event – after 23 years, a new government led by a towering figure promising sweeping change.

But it was perfectly pitched for maximum impact. Not all Australians were swept up in the political euphoria but all but the most died-in-the-wool conservatives could see that after 23 years, with the party of Menzies now under the leadership of the comical Billy McMahon, the Liberals had reached their fag end.

In his first election as leader in 1969, Gough Whitlam secured a 7 per cent swing and gained 18 seats to reduce the Gorton government’s majority to seven. To some extent, it was a predictable correction following the landslide Coalition win in 1966 but its size – the largest swing since 1943 – spoke to another factor: for the first time for many years, Labor under Whitlam looked like an alternative government.

In Canberra, there was a feeling of irresistible momentum, with Labor sweeping all before it at the next election.

At least that is how it felt as a 20-year-old reporter arriving in the national capital in 1969. Canberra then was a mecca for journalists. Working cheek by jowl with politicians in the confined quarters of the old Parliament House, there was a sense of being part of great national events.

In part it was the Whitlam style – what his speechwriter and first biographer, Graham Freudenberg, called “a certain grandeur”. His intellect dazzled, his wit sizzled.

“Who’s this – Aristophanes?” he said as I walked into the opposition leader’s office and encountered him talking to his staff. Without the benefit of an education in the classics, I had to take the first opportunity to repair to the parliamentary library to discover that Whitlam was referring to an ancient Greek playwright. About all we had in common was a beard.

The mood of the time could not be more different from the all-pervading cynicism surrounding politics today. There was a rare idealism: Australians dared to dream that a government could build a better, bigger nation than the outpost of the Empire that we sometimes still had trouble putting behind us.

Whitlam elevated politics to a higher plane, convinced of what could be achieved through an expansive role for government and a more confident and independent foreign policy. As he put it in his policy speech for the 1972 election, ever since his entry to parliament in 1952:

I have never wavered from my fundamental belief that until the national government became involved in great matters like schools and cities, this nation would never fulfil its real capabilities.

Allied to this was a faith in his own powers of persuasion. He believed that patient, detailed explanation in countless public forums could convince the public, as he had first convinced his own party, of the merits of a national health insurance scheme that left no one facing crippling debts because of a medical condition; of a system of school funding based on student needs; of broadening access to university education by removing fees; of the national government funding basic services such as sewerage neglected by the states.

If he received the nation’s trust, he would return the favour by keeping his promises – a novel idea in today’s politics. There was a warning sign in the 1972 election result – a swing of only 2.6 per cent, delivering a modest majority of nine seats. There was less a wholehearted embrace of the Whitlam revolution than a wary endorsement of the need for change.

But this was overlooked in the euphoria of victory. The Program, as Whitlam called his policies (or less formally, the New Testament), was holy writ, especially now that he had received a mandate from the people to implement it. He would forge ahead, crashing through the political barriers and trusting his reforms would bring their own reward.

In the modern context, when politicians barely dare move a sinew without reference to the opinion polls, it was a refreshing approach. But it also was the start of Whitlam’s undoing. To the extent that he thought of it at all, economic policy was a given. The assumption was that continued economic growth would bring with it the increase in revenue that would finance this expanded role of the government.

As he said in his policy speech for the 1972 election: “Within Australia today we do not have to plan to ration scarcity but to plan the distribution of abundance, not to restrict shares but to secure a fairer share for all.” After 23 years out of office and with Whitlam’s determination to carry out his mandate, he and his ministers were not to be diverted from their grand plans.

It was not Whitlam’s fault that Middle East oil producing nations decided in 1973 to use their stranglehold over supplies to extract greater returns, resulting in a quadrupling of oil prices and the new economic phenomenon of stagflation – recession combined with high inflation. But he was responsible for Australia’s ambivalent and inadequate response, which fluctuated from pulling in the reins to the government spending its way out of recession.

Sounder economic policies, even at the cost of breaking or delaying promises, may have provided a stronger defence against opponents. Members of the Liberal and Country Party opposition, together with a conservative business establishment, simply did not accept the legitimacy of a Labor government. To them it was an aberration, to be rectified at the earliest opportunity.

It is often forgotten that the Coalition parties not once but twice tried to bring the government down by blocking the budget in the Senate. The first time was in 1974, after less than 18 months in office, when Whitlam responded to the opposition threat by calling an election, which he won but with a majority reduced from nine to five. It was another warning sign.

The following year, with the government in a much weaker electoral position, Whitlam defied Malcolm Fraser’s attempt to force an election, triggering the nation’s greatest political crisis. The fact that Labor held a majority in the parliamentary chamber that determines who forms a government was not enough to confer it legitimacy in the eyes of the opposition, even for the remaining year or so that it would have continued until its almost inevitable defeat.

While it is now generally accepted that Governor-General John Kerr had the constitutional right to dismiss Whitlam, the enduring criticism is that he deliberately deceived Whitlam about his intentions, giving the prime minister no opportunity to react to warnings.

Whitlam’s sheer presence, his drive and his ambitions for the nation disguised some deep flaws. But his vision and the achievements that flowed from them stands in stark contrast to the myopic, reactive politics, we often have seen since.

Mike Steketee is a freelance journalist. He was formerly a columnist and national affairs editor for The Australian. 

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