Yesterday when I told a colleague that I was upset about the passing of Gough Whitlam, it was pointed out to me that I was not even alive when he was Prime Minister. This, of course, is true. Nonetheless, I write this article to express why his death saddens me so. I may not have been alive during the ‘Whitlam era’, but I have an appreciation for history and I possess a sense of justice and fairness. Few who possess such values could go unmoved upon hearing of the death of Whitlam.
When I launched this blog a tad over a year ago now, with some drinks among friends and fellow aspiring writers at the John Curtin Hotel (a pub named after another great Labor PM), I wore a jumper emblazoned with the words ‘What would Gough do?’ Even then I considered the great man’s legacy as the inspiration for a blog aimed at re-invigorating (even if only in some miniscule way) progressive and left wing ideas in Australia. He will continue to serve as our inspiration in our ideological fight against the old conservative born to rules.
Mark Latham yesterday wrote that Gough is the greatest Australian there has been. Latham hasn’t been right about much in the last decade but he is right about this. Gough is our JFK and FDR, all rolled up into one gargantuan figure. Chifley reminded us where the light on the hill is, but Whitlam showed us how to get there.
My dad was, as Neil Kinnock famously said, the first in his family to get to University in over a thousand generations. My mum was the second in her family after only her older sister. It is doubtful whether either of them would have had the opportunity to do so if not for Whitlam abolishing University fees. We are, as so many are, truly members of Whitlam’s middle class.
Whitlam understood the importance of education. He was the first Labor Prime Minister with a University degree. Some in the unions were suspicious of, for example, his ability to read and write Latin. Yet Lenin argued in ‘What is to be Done?’ that intellectual leadership is crucial for any workers movement. Engels said that there were three forms of struggle – the political, the economic and the theoretical. People with ideas are important. And Gough had some grand ideas. Whitlam, for the first time, brought the labour movement and the educated progressives together in Australia under the one banner, both realising that now was their time for change.
Anthony Albanese yesterday stated that Australian history can be divided up as either ‘pre-Whitlam’ or ‘post-Whitlam’. This is most certainly true. I remember going to the Immigration Museum in Melbourne last year and looking at immigration statistics. The immigration intakes for 1901-1971 were listed and then separately the intakes for 1972 to now were listed. There was no mention of what happened in 1972, but I knew. Perhaps the first major Australian political leader to not be afraid of the “yellow peril”, Gough embraced Asia and ended White Australia. In 1972 he and Al Grassby created modern multicultural Australia. His government cemented our multicultural character in 1975 with the Racial Discrimination Act. The racists that occasionally gather on the beaches of Cronulla may still be trying to deal with it, but the change is irreversible.
Tanya Plibersek yesterday said that it is fitting that Whitlam was Australia’s twenty first Prime Minister because it is with Whitlam that Australia became a fully-fledged adult. Until Gough was PM Australian passports still had the words “British subject” on them. Our anthem remained God Save the Queen. Incidentally, the fact that Gough removed the statement ‘God Save the Queen’ from the end of all official proclamations provides the full significance of his famous ‘well we may say God Save the Queen’ remarks. As the Governor General’s secretary read out the dismissal on the steps of Old Parliament House, he ended the proclamation with ‘God Save the Queen’ despite it being government policy that he not do so. Fraser was sworn in as caretaker PM by Kerr on the condition that he instituted no new policies until an election could be held. Yet already in the first hours of Fraser’s rule we see a small yet symbolic change in government policy. Whitlam highlighted this fact – a fact which brings home even more clearly for me the corrupt and illegal nature of Fraser and Kerr’s coup – before famously chastising Kerr: “nothing will save the Governor General”.
Yes, Australia was still a child of a nation pre-Whitlam. We had few Australian films, television shows, or art galleries. We looked to Britain or America for guidance in all things and most of our most capable citizens ended up re-locating to one of those two places. In 1973 Whitlam personally authorised the National Gallery’s purchase of Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles at the price of 1.3 million. At the time he was attacked mercilessly for wasting valuable public dollars on nonsense art that anybody could make. These days the National Gallery still owns Blue Poles, and it is valued at between 20 and 100 million dollars. Could there be any finer symbol of Whitlam’s long term vision paying off? On numerous occasions his ideas were far ahead of his time. Time and again, he has been proven correct.
Indeed even things seemingly as mundane as the youth radio station triple J trace their origin to Gough. It may sound like an odd question to ask, but could there have been a Vance Joy or a Gotye without a Gough Whitlam? Like all good social democrats, Whitlam understood that the government should aim to ensure its citizens a good life, and a good life involves having a variety of pleasures to enjoy – be it sport, art, music or whatever. Gough made Australia a cultured place as well as a multi-cultured place.
Australia grew up in 1972 but we lost our innocence in 1975. The dismissal of the Whitlam government meant that Whitlam became a martyr of the left in Australia well before he died. Yet Whitlam was a martyr in a deeper sense than people may first appreciate. Those events on November 11 1975 nearly destroyed democracy in this country. The illegal coup remains a blight on our collective conscience. However It was not a violent coup, it was a constitutional one. And if it couldn’t have been stopped through legal processes, it could have been stopped through less civilised means. Paul Keating is on record saying that if it was he that were dismissed he would have considered mobilising the AFP to arrest the Governor General. I wonder which side the police would have taken? The army? Keating’s response is an understandable one and one that I don’t even necessarily disagree with. Yet such a response could have torn apart the rule of law in this country on a far more permanent basis. If the law allows such corrupt things to happen then maybe it should be torn apart, some will argue. Fair enough. A debate for another day. The point is that Whitlam, despite his ambition, his ego, his vision, his zeal and his sense of righteousness and justice, accepted what happened to him peacefully. Fraser’s government would be worse than Whitlam’s and Whitlam knew it. Fraser would go on to repeal some of his reforms, such as universal healthcare (which was in turn brought back by Hawke). Yet even worse than a Fraser government would be the end of democracy and rule of law in Australia on a long term basis. So Whitlam martyred his own ego and his own wonderful future plans for our country on the altar of stable democracy.
I wouldn’t want to live in an Australia that had never had Gough Whitlam as PM. He is the greatest Australian because he contributed to our nation in a positive way more than anyone else has. Whitlam provided a clear vision in his 1972 campaign launch and he did much to achieve it, in only three short years. 1. To promote equality 2. to involve the people of Australia in the decision making processes of our land and 3. to liberate the talents and uplift the horizons of the Australian people. Whenever the ALP finds itself lacking in vision or purpose, it should return to these three simple points. As Whitlam said, the Labor party should be constantly seeking “to give a new life and a new meaning in this new nation to the touchstone of modern democracy – to liberty, equality and fraternity.”
So I may not have been alive while Whitlam was in office, yet I feel his legacy and I mourn. But we shouldn’t get too sad. We should get mad. Rage against those who are seeking to oppose and destroy his vision. Maintain your rage and enthusiasm. Rage against the dying of the light. Do not go gentle into that good night.
Elliot Brice is a secondary school teacher.