PARTS OF HIS AGENDA SUR­VIVED THE TEST OF TIME

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Frank Car­ri­gan

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.’’

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