PARTS OF HIS AGENDA SURVIVED THE TEST OF TIME
Bramston celebrates Hayden ‘‘ as the one minister who most clearly understood the economic and budgetary challenges and advocated the most sensible policies in response’’.
This is all very fine, but it ignores the fact that the turn from a strong social democratic welfare state program spelled the end of market interventionist theories and the wave of regulatory reform that Bramston trumpets as the legacy of Whitlam.
The capitulation of the Whitlam government to the credo of keeping state intervention in the market to a minimum reaped no lasting benefit. Its polling figures were dire and damaging scandals added to its woes.
The scandals were a long suicide note. Predictably, ministerial sexual misdemeanours were a feature. But the cardinal one described in agonising detail by Rodney Tiffen was the attempt to gain loans from oil-rich Arab countries to fund the development of Australia’s mineral wealth. A nation-building ideal turned into a nightmare as a carpetbagger employed to broker loans unleashed mayhem. The whole episode became, in Tiffen’s words, ‘‘ a policy folly on a grand scale’’. It claimed a ministerial scalp for misleading parliament, and gave Malcolm Fraser a skerrick of credibility in his crusade to block supply and force Whitlam’s demise.
A whole section of the book is dedicated to the dismissal of the Whitlam government. This is unsurprising for, as Michael Sexton notes in his essay, the events of November 11, 1975, ‘‘ have certainly cast a very long shadow’’. Sexton was an adviser to Kep Enderby, the attorney-general, and he was on duty the day Whitlam was felled. He provides a compelling insider’s account of the key events. He’s far more critical of Fraser’s thrust for power and his unwillingness to wait 12 months for a deeply unpopular government to fall at an election than he is of governor-general John Kerr’s ‘‘ refusal to inform Whitlam in advance of what he was proposing to do’’.
History works in mysterious ways and Sexton notes that despite the fact the Whitlam government ‘‘ would almost certainly have been very heavily defeated at the end of its normal term’’ the circumstances of its overthrow meant ‘‘ Whitlam took on the role of martyr and hero within the Labor movement, achieving a status that later prime ministers like Hawke and Keating could never quite attain’’.
Paul Kelly is not so sanguine about Whitlam’s heroic status. Kelly, one of Australia’s finest journalists, has spent a lifetime tracking Whitlam. He has the final contribution in the section on Whitlam’s legacy. He canvasses the highs and lows of the Whitlam epoch and is generous in his praise of the social policies that have endured. But he is adamant Whitlam was both hero and villain, and that he bequeathed a ‘‘ hybrid legacy’’. Kelly’s reductionism, evident in his claims Whitlam’s reforms failed to take account of the conservative nature of Australians, undercuts his critique.
Kelly is ambivalent about Whitlam’s heritage, but he bemoans the bleak contemporary Labor landscape that lacks someone of his stature. He states, ‘‘ Whitlam was a leader who dared Labor to be great.’’ Going against the grain of those who want to put messiahs behind them, Kelly understands the public yearning for charismatic leadership and a noble vision. In a book of stimulating essays on a topic that will reverberate down the years, Kelly finishes on a prophetic note. He states: ‘‘ Whitlam’s historical presence constitutes a perpetual reminder of what Labor has lost in its diminished political soul.’’