It’s been a sad week. I wasn’t alive when Gough Whitlam was Prime Minister, but my parents brought me up to understand that he was a hero. When I asked mum this week how she and dad, who were around my age when Gough was dismissed, could live through this time without being driven insane with the injustice of it all, she told me how they stayed up all night, too angry to sleep, plotting revenge on Malcolm Fraser. But what more could they do back then? There was no quick way to start a protest movement like there is now, via Facebook and Twitter. There wasn’t even a way to send chain emails to bring people together.
When I heard Gough had died, I sent my condolences first to my parents, who have been staunch unwavering Labor supporters since their university days. And then I tweeted that when I met Gough, just one time, at Tanya Plibersek’s Christmas Party, he said to me ‘nice to meet you comrade’. Unlike Malcolm Fraser, whose values have moved away from the Liberal Party as he aged, Gough stuck by the Labor Party his entire life. Because his values are Labor values. The public good. Equal opportunity. Universal education. Universal healthcare. And of course the pragmatism, character and political will to get good things done. In three years, Gough’s Labor government achieved amazing things which every Australian is still benefiting from. Gough makes me proud to support Labor. And I am as proud to support Labor today as my parents were in 1975.
The way you hear people speak about Gough now, from both sides of politics, you’d swear he had a term as long as Menzies. But he didn’t. He was incredibly unpopular and his dismissal apparently caused a political rift the likes this country had never seen. And not everything he did was perfect. Of course it wasn’t. He was the Prime Minister. He was making decisions on behalf of the country hundreds of times a day. No matter how great Gough was, he was human like the rest of us.
One example of this ‘less than perfectness’ that my mum reminded me about was that many progressive people were disappointed when Gough didn’t support the independence of East Timor and instead sided with Indonesia. Many progressives preferred Gough’s more left-wing colleague Jim Cairns and perhaps if today’s crop of journalists had been around then, leadership tensions would have been big news. Even though the Greens have disgracefully and offensively claimed Gough’s legacy as their own this week, presumably waiting until he died so that the great Labor man couldn’t complain, you can image just how Greens would have responded to Gough’s East Timor decision at the time, had they been there. You’ve all seen the way Greens supporters talk about the evils of the Labor Party, and how they’ve ripped up their support of Labor and written the party off for a lifetime because of Labor’s asylum seeker policy. There is no compromise with these people. There is no pragmatism. There is no acknowledgement that politicians might sometimes make mistakes or be weaker than they should be or scared or unwise. There’s no acknowledgment that major parties, by their very nature, are broad churches that must compromise in order to survive. And that’s what made the Greens opportunistic grave-robbing promotional advertisement using Labor’s greatest leader so very distasteful and so very offensive. Gough hadn’t even been buried yet and he would have already been turning in his grave. He knew how hard it was to work a great policy idea into a great policy. Which is exactly what the Greens have no experience doing, and no right to take credit for when all they really want to do is ignore this hard work and continue to attack Labor from the left.
What I’ve learned this week is that Labor leaders will always be more popular after their time in office. I think we’re already seeing this in the way that the public admire Gillard not very long after her opinion polls were as low as Gough’s. Because Labor reforms are enduring. They might not be perfect at the time, they might not go as far as the Greens would like them to, which is irrelevant when you consider the Greens don’t actually have to fight to turn ideas into policies. And of course Labor governments and oppositions will make mistakes and will be lambasted by their own supporters amongst others and will hopefully stick to their values in the end.
I have no doubt that the same values that drove Gough also drive the modern Labor Party. It’s not fashionable, nor popular, to say this. But I don’t care. I’ll be called a hack, an apologist, a rusted-on-one-eyed-in-denial-groupie, even perhaps, as I have been called, a murderer of asylum seekers. If Twitter is anything to go by, it’s far more vogue to be a left-winger whose taken a moral stand against Labor and will NEVER VOTE FOR THEM AGAIN AND WILL SHIT ON THEM AT EVERY OPPORTUNITY because of asylum seeker policy, national security laws, gay marriage, single-mothers on the dole or a range of other cherry-picked-deal-or-no-deal-make-or-break policies which seem to turn some people into angry-Labor-haters. These haters would no doubt have reacted the same way to Gough on the issue of East Timor. In modern times, it’s Bill Shorten the haters hate and we hear constantly how they can’t possibly ever vote for Labor ever again. But apparently these very same haters loved Gough Whitlam and he was perfect in retrospect. I can imagine they’ll be telling their kids in 30 years’ time that the one-term Abbott government did its best, but failed to completely undo the enduring reforms of the Whitlam, Hawke, Keating, Rudd and Gillard Labor governments. But where are these haters now now? Why aren’t they getting their hands dirty helping these reforms to eventuate and defending those they value? Where are they now when Labor needs every progressive’s eye on the one-term-Tony prize? They’re still bitching about whatever deal breaker policy it is this week which appears to override their support of every other Labor policy which we can only assume they do agree with because they haven’t ranted their opposition to it yet.
One thing I’ve learned about politics is that, like life, it’s complicated. I’m proud to stand by Labor while they keep fighting the good fight. Implementing good public policy isn’t about ideological purity. It’s about outcomes. Outcomes can be messy, ugly, and usually less than perfect and can make enemies of powerful people. Progress doesn’t often come about in a revolution – it can be just a preference over something worse. But any progress is better than no progress. And of course it’s preferential to be going forwards, however slowly, rather than backwards like we are under the Abbott government.
My support of the Labor Party isn’t about aligning my identity so closely to the party that the minute they do something I disagree with, my faith crumbles irrevocably and I turn my back forever on the movement and become bitter and twisted, and likely to lash out. I don’t hold the unobtainable expectation that the Labor party will be everything I want them to be all the time without fail. How is it even possible to be everything to everyone when everyone has different opinions about what this ideal looks like? Being a Labor supporter is about supporting progressive policies that align with my values. This means taking the good with the bad, disagreeing when you disagree and giving credit when credit’s due – all in equal measure.
I don’t think Gough got enough credit for his brilliant political career while he was in power, just as Labor gets no credit for their previous two terms, nor for the work they are doing in opposing Abbott. People always wait to say the nicest things about people after they’re dead – when it’s too late for them to appreciate the compliments. I keep this in mind while I watch in frustration modern Labor deal with the exact same situation. Gough supported Labor to the end. I’m happy to wait 30 years for Labor to get credit, as long as in the meantime, they keep reforming. Because it’s the progressive outcomes that are important. Far more important than what haters say today.