Dreamtime with Whitlam

Michael Davie

  • The Whitlam Government 1972-1975 by Gough Whitlam
    Viking, 788 pp, £17.95, July 1986, ISBN 0 670 80287 5

Towards the end of last year, shortly after Mr Gough Whitlam, the former Australian prime minister, had finished writing these memoirs, I had the pleasure of dining with him at the best hotel in Sofia. The occasion was less exotic than it sounds. Unesco was holding an acrimonious meeting in Bulgaria, and Mr Whitlam was present as Australia’s ambassador to Unesco. We met in the hotel foyer, among the polyglot delegates. Whitlam is a very tall man, with grey hair brushed back, well-dressed and genial. When he comes into a room, everyone knows he is there. I had heard rumours that with his beautiful official flat in Paris and his interest in culture Whitlam had become seriously Europeanised. These misgivings proved unfounded. He was talking to a group of his aides. ‘Have you met this bloke?’ he asked them. ‘He’s a Pom.’

Mr Whitlam is an excellent companion and host. He tells the story here of a previous Australian Labor leader who told Margaret Whitlam, his wife, that no one would ever get him going to South-East Asia: ‘You never know what you’ll catch.’ Mr Whitlam, by contrast, is rarely happier than when abroad. He translated the menu for me in Sofia, discoursing on the etymology of some of its words, recommended a wine, drew my attention to the calibre of the three-piece orchestra, and praised the service in the hotel. Every now and again he waved to his wife, who was dining at another table with the Whitlam Unesco staff. Unlike some other Australian politicians one could mention, Mr Whitlam is an abstemious man, confining himself during this two-hour meal to three glasses of wine. His tongue needs no loosening. He explained to me that Bulgaria was formerly the province of the Roman Empire known as Dacia, and outlined the origins of the modern Bulgarian state. Then he added: ‘Bulgaria is a remarkably heterogeneous society.’ Several weeks later, reading a newspaper report about a group of Bulgarians who had fled across the border to Greece, I learned that Bulgaria contains a million Turks who are being forced to change their names to conform to Bulgarian nomenclature, or suffer persecution. Perhaps this unimportant incident reflects one aspect of Mr Whitlam’s character – his not always justified self-assurance – that helped to bring his period in office to such a dramatic end.

Dining with this apparently happy man, or indeed reading his memoirs, which are in places hard going, it is not easy for any non-Australian to imagine either the excitement and euphoria that swept through some sections of Australian society when he was elected prime minister in 1972 – the first time that a Labor government had held power in Canberra for 23 years – or the profound and lasting bitterness provoked by his dismissal. Perhaps the elation might be compared to the mood among British Labour voters in 1945; or a better comparison might be with the United States in 1960, when the dazzling John F. Kennedy seemed to represent the beginning of a new age after what his supporters saw as the suffocating and mediocre years of President Eisenhower. The under-forties in particular, in Australia in 1972 as in the United States in 1960, suddenly felt – some of them for the first time in their lives – that their country held out the promise, after all, of becoming a modern, humane and intelligent society.

Before the Whitlam victory, it had seemed as if the democratic pendulum that is supposed to swing back and forth between left and right had jammed. Rarely has a Western political group found it easier to hold on to power than the Liberal-Country Party coalition found it after 1949. Australia ended World War Two with a Labor government, but there was no post-war urge in Australia, as there was in Britain, to create an all-embracing welfare state – partly because its welfare policies were already well advanced. The war had come and gone with few stirrings of the political imagination. It was a sign of the times that a utopian political novel which envisaged revolutionary change – Marjorie Barnard Eldershaw’s Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow– was allowed to be published only after it had been crudely censored.

The post-war Labor leader, Ben Chifley, the son of Irish immigrants, and an engine-driver by trade, made only one plunge in a socialist direction, when he tried to nationalise the private banks: a disastrous move that struck the average Australian voter as a threat to his freedom of choice. Australian elections are usually won and lost on economics. In 1949, the banking alarm and the Labor Government’s continuation of petrol rationing were the drab issues that put Menzies into office.

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