Perhaps the most controversial Prime Minister we have ever had. I first became interested in Whitlam after he defeated Jim Cairns in a leadership battle by one vote. My first sighting of him was at a rally in the Melbourne suburb of Greensborough during the 1972 election.
He stood tall in the back of a ute and as the sun began to set the figure of the great man – with the crash through or crash attitude – was driven onto the football field.
That he became Prime Minister is but a circumstance of history.
In his brief three years the Prime Minister produced profound and lasting changes – reforms that could not have been so broadly conceived and so firmly implemented by a lesser man.
The Whitlam Government without doubt was the most creative and innovatory in the nation’s history. Under Whitlam, Australia’s foreign policy also came of age.
His first action on becoming PM was to order the immediate release of all draft resisters, the removal of troops from Vietnam and the recognition of Communist China. He then legislated to change the voting age to 18.
His Government made education its top priority and poured money into schools and colleges throughout the country. He put an end to political gerrymanders and decriminalised homosexuality.
He gave to the people of today who still hate him with a vengeance, a free university education.
He created Medibank, set up community health centres and gave a new deal to pensioners.
He took an active role in urban improvement and development, providing funds directly to local government for sewerage.
Women received recognition and a degree of pay equity. He gave a healthy boost to sexual equality. He saw to it that Aboriginal advancement became a major issue.
He promoted greater Australian ownership and control of resources, legislated against restrictive trade practices, introduced the most civilised and sensible divorce laws in the world.
He gave encouragement to the arts with grants, and in his final budget implemented some fundamental reforms that made the income tax system considerably more equitable.
He and Barry Jones were responsible for the formation of the National Film and Television School in Sydney from which an entire industry developed.
Whitlam himself dominated both his party and the Parliament, and he commanded respect when he travelled overseas in a way no previous Australian Prime Minister had.
The Whitlam Government introduced a record number of Bills, and a record number were enacted, though the Senate rejected 93 Bills, more than the total number rejected during the previous 71 years of the parliament.
Having said all of that, any fair-minded person would have to say that he had considerable success in many areas.
However, in this piece I am looking for policy failures.
After Whitlam’s death Andrew Bolt was quick to describe his failures as thus:
The disaster was inevitable. With the Budget blown and the international oil shock hitting a weakened economy, the Whitlam government saw unemployment nearly triple, the tax take double, the deficit blow out and inflation soar to almost 20 per cent.
Bolt – as usual – doesn’t know what he is talking about. He makes no allowance for the oil shock and an American recession.
He adopted multiculturalism, only to encourage a dangerous new tribalising of Australia.
There he goes with the vagary of his racism:
And that is the third lesson from Whitlam’s mistakes that Labor unlearned and even the Liberals seem to be forgetting with a race-based change to the Constitution.
No, more modest leaders suit Australia best and hang around longest. They are the leaders who know Australians wish to live their own dreams and not those of their prime minister.
Australians expect their leaders to lead creating opportunity to fulfil their dreams. So it would seem that, on one side, there are the Gough haters who see his period in office as a disaster in monetary terms and his changes in society as a bigger disaster.
Then there are those who take into account, when observing his economic decisions, the extenuating circumstances surrounding them.
Astonishingly, Whitlam changed Australia forever, and in just three short years. There is no question about it. What has to be decided is whether the benefits of his many reforms exceeded their considerable economic costs.
For this assessment I turn to Ross Gittins (respected economics journalist) who in 2014 wrote the following words in an article titled “Reformer Gough Whitlam oversaw economic chaos but it was not all of Labor’s making” (which explains the circumstances that prevailed at the time. In part it tells us how a government who hadn’t been in power for a couple of decades came into power when world economics were totally unsuited to naive “do good” politicians):
What Labor’s True Believers don’t want to accept is that the inexperience, impatience and indiscipline, with which the Whitlam government changed Australia forever, and for the better, cost a lot of ordinary workers their jobs. Many would have spent months, even a year or more without employment.
But what the Whitlam haters forget is that Labor had the misfortune to inherit government just as all the developed economies were about to cross a fault-line dividing the post-war Golden Age of automatic growth and full employment from today’s world of always high unemployment and obsession with economic stabilisation.
Thirty years of simple Keynesian policies and unceasing intervention in markets were about to bring to the developed world the previously impossible problem of “stagflation” – simultaneous high inflation and high unemployment – that no economist knew how to fix, not even the omniscient and infallible John Stone.
It was 30 years in the making, but it was precipitated by the Americans’ use of inflation to pay for the Vietnam war, the consequent breakdown of the post-war Bretton Woods system of fixed exchange rates, the worldwide rural commodities boom and the first OPEC oil shock, which worsened both inflation and unemployment.
The developed world was plunged into dysfunction. The economics profession took years to figure out what had gone wrong and what new policies would restore stability.
Money supply targeting was tried and abandoned.
The innocents in the Whitlam government had no idea what had hit them; that all the rules of the economic game had changed.
The point is that any government would have emerged from the 1970s with a bad economic record. Malcolm Fraser had no idea the rules had changed, either. His economic record over the following seven years was equally unimpressive.
I will now to turn to Gough Whitlam’s life and legacy: experts respond in The Conversation for a summary of what those experts say, starting with Richard Holden, Professor of Economics at UNSW Australia Business School writing on Whitlam’s economic legacy:
The Whitlam government is remembered as transformative and revolutionary: sometimes fondly, sometimes not so fondly. In the economic sphere, the most salient memory is typically ballooning spending, a failure to appreciate the perils of inflation, and allowing a wage-price spiral from 1974. This was bad. Really bad.
But there is also a hugely positive side of the Whitlam economic ledger. The introduction of the Trade Practices Act in 1974 brought Australia into the modern economic era in dealing with harmful monopoly practices. The revolutionary 25% cut in tariffs acknowledged, and did a lot to further, the crucial role of international trade for Australia. In this sense, Whitlam put a lot of faith in markets – a faith that was frankly rather lacking under Robert Menzies.
What Whitlam did wrong – and there was plenty of it – was relatively easy to fix. What he did right was incredibly hard to do. And that is the economic legacy for which he should be remembered.
On his education legacy, Hannah Forsyth, Lecturer in History at Australian Catholic University says that:
Almost 20 years before he was elected prime minister, Gough Whitlam gave words to an idea that remains central to his legacy: everybody in Australia is entitled, without cost to the individual, to the same educational facilities, whether it be in respect of education at the kindergarten or tertiary stage or the post-graduate stage.
After the 1972 election, education was made free, including university study.
Historians, educationalists and political analysts have attempted ever since to smart-arse their way out of how important this was.
On health, Anne-marie Boxall, Director, Deeble Institute for Health Policy Research, Australian Healthcare and Hospitals Association; Adjunct Lecturer at University of Sydney observed that:
When reflecting on the introduction of Medicare nearly a decade later, in 1984, the health minister at the time, Neal Blewett, commented that it would have been very difficult, if not impossible, to have implemented Medicare if Medibank had not first been introduced. Medicare now enjoys bipartisan support and is acknowledged as the basis of one of the best health systems in the world. We can largely thank Whitlam for it.
I now draw from the sobering article Gough Whitlam left a long list of achievements by Damien Murphy at The Sydney Morning Herald. Murphy remembers that:
Gough Whitlam is perhaps best known for the manner in which he prematurely exited from power rather than how he chose to wield it
But wield it he did. Whitlam’s short three-year shelf life as prime minister is generally recognised as one ofAustralia’s most reforming governments.
Conservative government has been the norm in Australian politics since federation and their preference is for reform by increment rather than by rush. Consequently, much of what Gough Whitlam built – such as a free university education – has been torn down by successive governments on both sides of the political spectrum.
Whatever your political disposition there cannot be any doubt that he changed the country for the better.
As for the other side of the ledger, the economics, I would suggest that history is beginning to look favourably on the intellectual giant that he was.
My thought for the day
The left of politics is concerned with people who cannot help themselves. The right is concerned with those who can.
Like what we do at The AIMN?
You’ll like it even more knowing that your donation will help us to keep up the good fight.
Chuck in a few bucks and see just how far it goes!