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RIP Gough Whitlam.Long Live the LegendEmail Marketing For Planners
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RIP Gough Whitlam.Long Live the Legend

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John Robertson

For anyone who had not directly observed the prime ministership of Gough Whitlam, the eulogies prompted by his passing would have left one obvious question: why couldn't we have more like him.

In November 1975, at the height of my sporting prowess and as a recent migrant to Canberra, I was set to join a group of colleagues for a twilight social cricket match when we got word Gough Whitlam had been sacked by the governor general.

As public servants, we had been watching the train wreck unfold. Among those with whom I was involved, overwhelmingly ALP voters, this was the destiny of a bad government.

A few of us had gone to the front of Parliament House a hundred metres or so from our offices to see what all the fuss was about but the cricket match went on, only slightly delayed. There was little talk that evening of what is today regarded as one of the most momentous events in Australian political history.

Over the last few days, the eulogies have flowed for a politician whose popularity grew with age. It is hard to believe a leader of such a comprehensively flawed government should be held in such high esteem. The man firmly rejected as a political leader in 1975 and again in 1977 turns out to be the role model for a politician in 2014.

Gough Whitlam is the antithesis of the modern politician and perhaps that is where the attraction now lies. He was never what is today referred to as a small policy target. Some of his exulted standing is probably a mirror image of the public disdain for today's batch of parliamentarians.

In the lead up to the 1969 election and again in 1972, Whitlam talked incessantly about what he would do in government. He came to government, as all commentators have observed, with a comprehensive and far-reaching agenda.

The agenda reflected a policy backlog after the ALP had been out of government for over two decades. His to-do list also seemed more dramatic because of the time span Whitlam allowed himself for its implementation. By sharing all the portfolios of government with Lance Barnard before the parliamentary caucus had a chance to convene in 1972, Whitlam immediately created an impression of men in a hurry with a lot to get done.

After so long in opposition, too, many of the skills of government were missing. There was widespread suspicion among members of the caucus about the loyalties of the public servants who had been serving conservative politicians for a generation. This validated, in their minds, a disregard for process.

Over time, this changed. Bill Hayden, who had been Treasurer for the last five months of the Whitlam government, wrote to his former department on leaving. He thanked officials for their help and asked rhetorically whether the soundness of the relationship was due to him changing or those advising him coming round to his way of thinking. It was probably a little of both.

Some of the early suspicion may have been understandable but there were also policies that were horribly inappropriate. Union warrior Clyde Cameron's determination to make public servants the pacesetters for economy-wide wage increases stoked an inflation problem that took nearly two decades to solve and left Australia economically diminished and its living standard depleted.

Like all governments, too, external events dictated much of what Whitlam had to do. Tariff cuts, high inflation and Cyclone Tracy, for example, had not been part of the starting agenda.

Claims about how Whitlam changed the world have been greatly exaggerated. In many respects, he was responding to changes occurring around him. This is no criticism. A politician can rarely take a community where it does not want to go.

The best politicians recognise change and adapt. The most revered have skills that suit only a particular time. Winston Churchill is perhaps the outstanding example. His political career had been book ended by rejection. He, nonetheless, fulfilled a need when circumstances matched his abilities. Margaret Thatcher was another.

Everywhere, the 1960s seemed different. People were dressing and behaving differently, for a start. This had nothing to do with Whitlam. He was a beneficiary of change, not the progenitor now so widely hailed.

Many of the changes now attributed to Whitlam preceded him. Growing up in Perth, like many other Australians in the suburbs, I lived in a house with no sewerage. We did not need Whitlam to tell us that. Sewerage would have come without him.

Neither did Whitlam introduce free tertiary eduction. Prior to Whitlam, entry to university was based on merit and, if a student was sufficiently talented, the government would fund a place. Large numbers of students attended on government scholarships with means tested living allowances.

Whitlam did not abolish fees. Perhaps more accurately, he abolished student ability as a requirement for university entry but, in doing so, left the consequences unfunded.

Whitlam did not take the troops out of Vietnam. He abolished conscription but a cut in the military commitment preceded his arrival.

Whitlam did go to China before other world leaders but he was barely ahead of Henry Kissinger. Opening relations with China was hardly revolutionary. China itself was changing. When Whitlam visited in 1973, Deng Xiaoping had been released from detention and the power of the Gang of Four was being curtailed by Zhou Enlai.

In Australia, even the rabidly anti communist DLP had been grappling with how to recognise Red China as it felt the inexorable pressures mount. It eventfully agreed that Peking should be recognised as long as Taiwan's status was maintained, knowing this was an unacceptable condition.

Whitlam assembled a coherent narrative more comprehensively and enunciated it more eloquently than any Australian politician since. This took enormous self-confidence and intellectual breadth but the trends propelling him to office were already underway. Whitlam successfully surfed them to the shore.

Once in office, Whitlam's government lacked the skills to stay. Even on the day of his sacking, Whitlam went back to the lodge for a meal rather than confer with his senior ministers to avert being turfed from office. To the last, he proved unskilled at government. Bold ideas were not enough.

Kim Beazley senior, a minister in the Whitlam government and, to some, a superior prime ministerial prospect than Whitlam, offered a contemporary assessment. EGW, he said, stands for Edward Gough Whitlam not Eminently Greater Wisdom.

Paul Keating has been fond of referring to Whitlam as having dragged Australia from the torpor of the Menzies years. The conservatives of the late 1960s were a dour bunch but, facing them, were the likes of Calwell and Evatt.

To the extent Australia suffered from a political torpor of any sort, those fans of Stalinist Russia in the Labor Party who clung fervently to obsolescent views of a struggle between capital and labour made their contribution to how slowly Australia was adapting to a changing world. Their demise, to which Whitlam contributed mightily, was more important in extricating Australia from its sleepy past than the passing of Menzies and his successors.

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