The mak­ing of a La­bor mar­tyr

The Whit­lam Legacy

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Frank Car­ri­gan

Edited by Troy Bram­ston The Fed­er­a­tion Press, 518pp, $59.95 (HB)

PAUL Keat­ing has noted al­most ev­ery mod­ern par­lia­men­tary po­lit­i­cal leader fails to leave of­fice at a mo­ment of their choos­ing. They get carted off pre­ma­turely on their shield. This oc­curs ei­ther through elec­toral de­feat or an in­ter­nal party coup.

Keat­ing’s re­alpoli­tik on the brevity of po­lit­i­cal lead­er­ship is re­fresh­ing. But his ax­iom needs to be viewed in par­al­lel with the con­cept that even heroic fail­ure can leave a legacy of un­ful­filled prom­ise that will in­spire fu­ture gen­er­a­tions. Tragic fig­ures de­feated by his­tor­i­cal forces can be el­e­vated into the pan­theon of great lead­ers by the long eye of his­tory.

For his­tory to view de­feated lead­ers with a warm gaze, there must be tri­bunes to sing their praise through time. Cer­tainly, if Troy Bram­ston has any­thing to do with it, Gough Whit­lam’s name will echo down the cen­turies. Al­most 40 years af­ter Whit­lam’s top­pling as Aus­tralia’s prime min­is­ter, Bram­ston has put to­gether a col­lec­tion of es­says that seeks to shine a light on Whit­lam’s legacy.

The con­trib­u­tors span a sub­stan­tial slice of the po­lit­i­cal spec­trum, but at each stage of this im­por­tant and vale­dic­tory book, Bram­ston’s hand is ev­i­dent. As ed­i­tor he was re­spon­si­ble for its struc­ture and he has a penned a num­ber of the more il­lu­mi­nat­ing es­says.

Bram­ston is an ar­tic­u­late cham­pion of the poli­cies of mod­ern so­cial democ­racy that Whit­lam epit­o­mised in the 1960s and 70s. Yet he and the pick of the other con­trib­u­tors are at their best when nar­rat­ing the force of cir­cum­stances that brought the Whit­lam gov­ern­ment to its knees.

The early struc­ture of the book ex­plores the influences that shaped Whit­lam’s so­cial demo­cratic vi­sion. Michael Kirby pays trib­ute to Whit­lam’s fa­ther. He was a bar­ris­ter and longserv­ing crown so­lic­i­tor of the com­mon­wealth. Fred Whit­lam, a so­cial wel­farist lib­eral, was ‘‘ driven by key val­ues of equal­ity, tol­er­ance and self-de­ter­mi­na­tion’’. Whit­lam jr not only fol­lowed in the le­gal foot­steps of his fa­ther but in­her­ited his po­lit­i­cal phi­los­o­phy.

Gough Whit­lam’s philo­soph­i­cal frame­work un­der­pinned the rewrit­ing of La­bor’s fed­eral pol­icy plat­form in the 1960s. He was re­spon­si­ble for a re­formist pro­gram that was aimed at se­cur­ing not only the vote of the work­ing class, but also an ex­panded pro­fes­sional mid­dle class that de­sired a larger share of the fruits of the long post­war boom.

His­to­rian Frank Bon­giorno maps the pol­icy re­vamp of the 60s. It proved to be the spring­board for Whit­lam’s 1972 vic­tory. Bon­giorno high­lights that it was the con­tem­po­rary de­bates in so­cial demo­cratic cir­cles in Bri­tain that shaped Whit­lam’s re­formist vi­sion. Whit­lam seized hold of the Key­ne­sian con­cept of a mixed econ­omy that es­chewed any na­tion­al­i­sa­tion as­pect and in­stead fo­cused on ‘‘ pro­mot­ing eco­nomic growth and greater equal­ity through pub­lic fi­nance, pro­gres­sive tax­a­tion and gov­ern­ment ex­pen­di­ture’’.

Once in of­fice, Whit­lam and his co­terie forged a pro­gram based on gov­ern­ment cre­at­ing the so­cial goods the mar­ket was in­ca­pable of de­liv­er­ing. Key achieve­ments were a needs­based schools pol­icy and a na­tional health sys­tem that Bri­tain had pi­o­neered in the 40s. He also pro­moted the de­vel­op­ment of a bur­geon­ing re­source sec­tor, and pro­grams to over­come race and sex in­equal­ity. The econ­omy had been the ben­e­fi­ciary of an in­ter­na­tional boom but the new gov­ern­ment re­alised a planned ap­proach to tar­iffs was im­per­a­tive if a ro­bust com­pet­i­tive mar­ket was to flour­ish.

If Whit­lam’s legacy is to be con­sid­ered en­dur­ing, it rests on the fact that parts of the agenda his regime in­tro­duced have sur­vived the test of time. On this score, Whit­lam can be proud of the fact that key as­pects of a so­cial demo­cratic pro­gram that had been long in ges­ta­tion and culled from ex­per­i­ments in other par­lia­men­tary states have drawn bi­par­ti­san sup­port through the decades.

Pol­i­tics gives an ob­ject les­son when charis­matic lead­ers driven in cru­elty by noble dreams of cre­at­ing a more egal­i­tar­ian so­cial struc­ture are con­fronted by the chang­ing tides of his­tory. What in­vari­ably hap­pens is that re­formist visionaries con­fronted with a change in the eco­nomic and so­cial pat­tern suc­cumb to pro­tect­ing the sta­tus quo and im­ple­ment poli­cies that are in­im­i­cal to ev­ery­thing they be­lieve in.

No sooner did Whit­lam achieve power than the in­ter­na­tional econ­omy be­gan to ex­pe­ri­ence the first pangs of re­ces­sion. Bram­ston is the first cab off the rank in the sec­ond part of the book that plots the Whit­lam gov­ern­ment’s man­age­ment of the econ­omy and gov­ern­ment. He is a sym­pa­thetic nar­ra­tor but un­flinch­ing in de­pict­ing the chaos that en­meshed the gov­ern­ment as the eco­nomic cri­sis unfolded.

Bram­ston has noth­ing to say about the deeper causes of the punc­tur­ing of the post­war boom. But he has plenty to say on the per­sonal and po­lit­i­cal toll that the eco­nomic slump in­flicted. As the pres­sures grew, Whit­lam’s van­ity be­gan to irk his col­leagues. One min­is­ter be­moaned his au­to­cratic na­ture and that cab­i­net was no longer ‘‘ a venue for dis­cus­sion and pol­i­cy­mak­ing’’. As col­le­gial­ity frac­tured un­der the im­pact of an eco­nomic down­turn, any space that was found to de­velop pro­gres­sive leg­is­la­tion was a small mir­a­cle.

By mid-1973, the trea­surer, Frank Crean, sup­ported by other min­is­ters, was urg­ing deep cuts in spend­ing to com­bat in­fla­tion. Prom­i­nent min­is­ters such as the for­mer eco­nom­ics lec­turer Jim Cairns re­mained wed­ded to or­tho­dox Key­ne­sian­ism and pro­mul­gated the need to boost spend­ing and push on with ‘‘ the im­ple­men­ta­tion of the gov­ern­ment’s so­cial and eco­nomic poli­cies’’.

In 1974, the slump deep­ened as un­em­ploy­ment and in­fla­tion surged, and con­ser­va­tive cir­cles pushed for cut­ting spend­ing and the state’s with­drawal from many ar­eas of pro­vid­ing so­cial goods. Whit­lam vac­il­lated, but for a time coura­geously sup­ported the con­tin­u­a­tion of an eco­nomic strat­egy based on ex­pand­ing state ex­pen­di­tures to fund so­cial re­form.

How­ever, by the time Bill Hay­den be­came trea­surer in June 1975, aus­ter­ity mea­sures had the back­ing of Whit­lam and the cab­i­net.

Gough Whit­lam pic­tured in 1995

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