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Great Australian political policy stuff-ups (part 3): Whitlam – how does history judge him?

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.

Previous instalments:

Great Australian political policy stuff-ups (part 1)

Great Australian political policy stuff-ups (part 2): The Menzies years


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  1. New England Cocky

    Excellent article about our greatest Prime Minister.

    To reminisce: Whitlam and (NSW Premier) Neville Wran were war comrades with the late Bill McCarthy, also a dedicated ALP man. In the 70s, they decided that Bill should become a NSW Parliamentarian. Bill was not sure that this was possible in New England but after consultation, agreed to stand for Armidale then later Northern Tablelands, provided he could get access to government that would drag the electorate screaming in protest, out of the 19th century. This was agreed and provided.

    At a celebratory function in the Armidale RSL, packed to capacity of about 600 persons, Whitlam strode in, towering head and shoulders above the crowd, a giant of a man and a giant of an intellect.

    The political demise of Whitlam at the direction of the CIA with the collusion of alcoholic egomaniac GG John Curr, Judges Garfield Barwick and Antony Mason and seemingly Buckingham Palace. Their perfidy aborted Australia’s possible rise to a true world power exploiting our natural resources by manufacturing for world markets.

    Professor Jenny Hocking is pursuing the facts of this treason with continuing vigor much to the discomfort of the English.

  2. Pamela Curr

    Correction- Governor -General was JOHN KERR not JOHN CURR.

  3. wam

    What a great subject for a post, lord!
    Your words without the side issues of jo, khem, morosi and the old pisspot made my pool visit warm, well nearly.

    It fits with the ignorant posts from my rabbottians about larwood, one of the best Australian poms, and the bodyline,over the bouncer to smith. No mention of jardine nor the establishment’s treatment of the worker after the tour when he refused to take the blame for the tactic.
    These people so readily believe and propagate the trilogy of lies:
    Menzies was the saviour against the communists
    Whitlam was a disaster to the economy
    Howard was a great prime minister.
    Worse they have no evidence for these beliefs and will brook no evidence against.
    Albo get moving it will take years to show these people’s political ideology is wrong for this century, there backers are greedy .
    To appease my pessimistic nature, what about helping those who wont help themselves? True or not they cost labor plenty. Is it best for albo to ignore them and concentrate on showing economic mismanagement? Whatever labor should be seen to be doing something steadily day after day.

  4. New England Cocky

    @Pamela Curr: I understand your concerns, however here in the bush a useless mangey dog is described as a “cur”. Additionally, in New England, when addressing some of the self-important graziers whose thinking is in the19th century, “Sir” is spelt “cur”.

    @wam: Agreed.

  5. Florence Howarth

    One thing for sure, the changes he made to society still exist today. All done in 2 years 11 months with 2 elections. Women were the biggest winners.

  6. Uta Hannemann


    The AIMN published this article in Nov 2015

    The following question was asked:

    “Who was really behind the dismissal of the Whitlam Government? As we approach the 40th anniversary of the dismissal, Dr George Venturini* critically examines the giddy rise of Gough Whitlam, . . .”

    Among othe things, I find this epigraph most interesting because for a long time I could not understand why Whitlam was not voted back in!

    Prophetically, in a sense, Whitlam placed an epigraph to his record of The Whitlam Government, 1972-1975 (1985). It reads as follows:

    “And one has to reflect that there is nothing more difficult to handle nor more doubtful of success nor more dangerous to conduct than to make oneself the leader in introducing a new order of things. For the man who introduces it has for enemies all those who do well out of the old order and has lukewarm supporters in all those who will do well out of the new order.

    The lukewarmness arises partly from fear of their adversaries who have the laws on their side and partly from the incredulity of mankind who do not put their trust in changes if they do not see them in actual practice. Thus it arises that whenever those who are enemies have the opportunity to go on the attack they do so forcefully and the others put up a lukewarm defence, so putting themselves and their cause at risk at the same time” (from Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527), The Prince, at Chapter Six).

    But such was the wisdom of the hindsight.”

  7. Zathras

    For someone who was about 13 years of age at the time, convicted racist, professional hater and media pundit Andrew Bolt certainly has some firm opinions of the Whitlam era.

    It didn’t stop him from later picking up his free Arts Degree courtesy of Gough’s legacy.

    I wonder how fondly he remembers the economic and social disaster of the following Fraser years?

  8. Pingback: Great Australian political policy stuff-ups: Howard wins in a canter. - » The Australian Independent Media Network

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