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Whitlam eyed our conscience, not our wallet

First of two guest posts by Race Mathews. Race is former chief of staff to Gough Whitlam and Labor leaders in the Victorian parliament, federal MP and state MP and minister.

Gough Whitlam’s objective was equality for all. He believed the proper business of politics was to secure informed public consent for necessary change, through objective information from trusted sources. He gave back hope to my generation of Labor Party members. Chifley’s “light on the hill” was re-kindled. The party’s electability was restored. His political career invites us to recall the words of Robert F. Kennedy: “Some see things as they are and say ‘Why?’ I dream of things that never were and say ‘Why not’?”

Whitlam realised from the start that in order for policies to be accepted by the electorate they had first to be understood. Medibank (later Medicare), for example, was explained constantly from 1967 until 1969, and again from 1969 until 1972, in Parliament and wherever public platforms or media attention were obtainable. He required the speeches that were prepared for him to be in part repetitious, in order for their proposals to become as near as possible universally accepted. Once a basic theme and content of a speech had been settled, drafts were exchanged repeatedly between him and whoever was doing the writing, until he was satisfied that the best possible outcome had been obtained.

Speeches such as the definitive “Political and Constitutional Problems in National Transport Planning”, which he delivered for the Department of Civil Engineering at Melbourne University in April, 1968, could take weeks to complete. His memorable 1972 election policy speech was a distillation of all the speeches which had gone before it, as far back as his entry to Parliament in 1952.

Malcolm Fraser mistakenly supposed that Australians would accept his abolition of Medibank – in defiance of his 1975 undertaking to retain it – because it had been in place for only two months prior to the notorious Remembrance Day Coup. The real strength of Medibank stemmed at that point from the fact that it had been explained to the electorate more thoroughly than any other Opposition proposal in our history.

A consequent Whitlam government innovation was the creation of the great Investigatory, reporting and recommendatory commissions, such as the Schools Commission, the several post-secondary education commissions and the Hospitals and Health Services Commission. Legislation for a Children’s Commission that would have revolutionised early childhood development, education and care was introduced, but lapsed with the dismissal of the government in November 1975. Like the Ombudsman and the Auditor-General the commissions were empowered to inquire as they saw fit into any and all aspects of their respective briefs and report directly to Parliament on the outcomes of their investigations and the recommendations arising from them. Their outstanding work opened up government services to unprecedented levels of scrutiny, facilitated forward planning and budgeting, and enabled informed and constructive public debate at unprecedented levels to occur. Their subsequent abolition at the hands of both Coalition and Labor governments has been a public policy and democratic enfranchisement setback of epic proportions.

The provenance is plain. Whitlam epitomised throughout his career the Fabian approach to politics and policy development. As he once said tongue-in-cheek of himself, “Among Australian Fabians, I am Maximus”. Each new piece of work he undertook started from the principles of social justice and egalitarianism that had given his career its whole motivation and direction.

Facts were then painstakingly and meticulously analysed, so that policy options could emerge and be tested. Once the final form of a policy had been settled, it was fought for with all the formidable force of his intellect and eloquence.

Australians are accustomed to having their votes sought through their purses and pockets. It is Whitlam alone in the memories of most of us who has addressed himself uncompromisingly to our consciences and intellects. He himself would not necessarily have regarded so sweepingly affirmative an assessment, as inappropriate, as a further flight of self-mockery attests.

Barry Cohen – elected to the House of Representatives on Whitlam’s coat-tails in 1969 and a Minister under Hawke – has a relevant story in his book, After the Party.

It reads:

I had heard that on the release of the massive tome The Whitlam Government 1972-1975 Gough was asked by an intrepid young reporter whether this was the third major work on his period of government, the others being The Truth of the Matter by himself, and A Certain Grandeur by Graham Freudenberg. He was reported to have replied loftily, “Yes, there was the Crucifixion, the Resurrection and now we have the Gospels”.

I had tried to check the authenticity of this wonderful story with the man himself but was unable to do so as he was away overseas for a considerable period, fulfilling UNESCO obligations.

I eventually caught up with him and repeated the story. He paused for a moment before replying, “I must say I can’t recall it, although it has a certain ring to it. However, I can tell you that I do keep ‘THE THREE BOOKS’ together on my office shelf”.

“The three books?” I inquired innocently. “Yes,” he replied, “The Bible, The Complete Works of William Shakespeare and The Whitlam Government.”

Tomorrow… Gough Whitlam remembered: gallows humour and monumental rages


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  1. Jennifer Meyer-Smith

    “It is Whitlam alone in the memories of most of us who has addressed himself uncompromisingly to our consciences and intellects.”

    Whitlam’s life and fantastic achievements for the Australian people are national treasures that provide beacons of inspiration for modern Labor.

    It’s Time Labor … to forge alliances with the modern progressive forces of the Greens, upcoming progressive parties, sane Independents, progressive social enterprise organisations and motivated individuals, who want to help demolish the LNP barbarians and bring back hope, energy and positive, reformist and compassionate policies and politics in Australia.

  2. Kaye Lee

    Gough’s approach has contemporary relevance.

    So many of us are crying out at the apparent inability of the Labor Party to make a case. Party faithful defend the idea of keeping mum about your policies so they can be released with a grand flourish a few weeks before the election. What then ensues is an increasing rush to buy votes usually by appealing to the hip pocket or certain regions or lobby groups.

    I cannot endorse this approach which, to me, is like a kid hiding their homework so no-one can copy it. Where is the vision? Where is the well-thought through case gradually built and explained to the public? Where is the leadership and passion that can ignite a nation to do what is right?

    Understandably, both parties are focused on winning elections, but the idea that being in Opposition means you just turn up to vote on legislation occasionally, or that your job is to give the one-liner in Question Time that makes the nightly news, makes a mockery of having elected representatives.

    I am sick of image consultants and spin doctors dictating what, when and how to “sell” a pitch on the basis of focus groups. Politicians have unlimited access to the best of expert advice. Should a Murdoch phone poll of 1400 people answering questions while cooking dinner really dictate policy?

    They should employ teachers to present the information at an understandable level for the electorate so we can decide on “best interest” policy rather than being the pawns of advertising gurus like the odious Mark Textor, power hungry people like Murdoch and Credlin, and those who are just plain greedy like Rinehart and Palmer.

  3. donwreford

    The beginning of the end of vision and freedom, started in London in 1967-8, this upstart or renaissance of contemporary culture, would be curtailed by the establishment, which is military, police, and authoritarianism, this would have been further endorsed by finance, think tanks, such as psychological institutes, media, and old rich, adding up to political pressure and collaboration, to destroy the hippy movement, that would eventually transform world ideology, one main problem, military, as with the British, psyche, of institutional military crime, the lessons of those who become persecuted have not forgotten their responsibility, to truth and freedom, the energy of the British Empire, is rapidly diminishing, as a result of moral decay, in Australia, being always behind the times of the repressive doctrine of Britain of 67, took some time to catch up so by the time it did was in Whitlams, destiny, as one can see the establishment destroyed, Whitlam, such as, the CIA, and MI6, all played a part in this destruction of what the people voted for, America, Britain, France and Israel, are the as far as the elites go, the terrorists of a planet, now in desperate need to rejuvenate.
    The present militaristic operation is no longer a working plan, and we now need leaders who are visionaries, that are not corrupt, Britain, being the central instigator of institutional violence, on such a grande scale, now has to reverse its ideology after centuries of slaughter and destruction, they now have no other course that to make amends, any interference from foreign sources has be resisted in its destiny of becoming a global lead in events of example.

  4. Jennifer Meyer-Smith

    Spot on Kaye. Teachers (often denigrated and ignored) are important to Labor, as part of the solution for their skills to deliver complex information into understandable, interesting and inspirational political components for Australians to identify as important to them and their community.

    Get rid of the image consultants and advertising gurus.

    Fake functionaries that produce no substance are what are wrong with Labor’s faultering appeal to the hearts and minds of diverse, progressive Australian people.

  5. Florence nee Fedup

    Whitlam let us believe we could change things. Where has that belief gone,

  6. Jennifer Meyer-Smith

    That’s a good way of defining Whitlam’s great legacy. He inspired us to understand that we have power, if we want to think about it and use it.

  7. Christine far

    Was it his very success that caused Whitlam’s destruction? After the post-war torpidity of Menzies, Holt, Gorton, McMahon, whose concerns seem to have been largely military, Whitlam’s programmes would have been far too progressive for any conservative to countenance. There was a belief that voters had elected his government in a fit of mental aberration, and therefore, really, the conservatives must take back what had been theirs for decades, returning life to “normal” , before voters decided that they liked Whitlam’s progressive ideas.
    And so the undermining began.

    Ah yes, an anti-Whitlamite will say, but voters threw him out in ’75. Not surprising considering the media clamour against him. He achieved more for the people in his short period in office than had been done in the previous twenty years. He was a great man who will be looked upon with more appreciation as time passes.
    I have maintained the rage, on several levels.

  8. Florence nee Fedup

    So much changed under Whitlam, especially for women and families. Most has stood test of time. All done within less three years, and two elections. MSM and Opposition hostile.

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