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.

Thereafter, although he nearly lost the election of 1961, he had it easy – as did the country he governed. Australians who visited Britain in the Fifties were amazed, and sometimes gratified, to find so marked a contrast between the prosperity of the two countries. The graph of their own standard of living rose steadily. Migrants poured in; officials in Canberra spoke seriously of the possibility of a population of 60 million by the end of the century; pasture improvement, through the use of superphosphates, generously subsidised, seemed a magical way of turning the great brown country green; whenever anyone looked for a mineral they found it; vast schemes were begun designed to turn Australia into the rice bowl of South-East Asia; Australia’s own people’s car, the Holden (virtually General Motors), poured off the assembly lines. On a visit to Australia in 1872, Trollope concluded that ‘he who would see much misery in Melbourne must search for it especially.’ The same was true of all Australian cities eighty years later (though it is not so true now). The Aborigines were either ignored or maltreated in their humpys on the fringes of outback towns.

Two memories of those years – just about the time that Whitlam was entering Federal politics – stay in my mind. In Broken Hill, the mining town, some fifty miners were playing two-up at night, out in the open, and placing bets that would have been the equivalent of a couple of weeks’ wages for any British miner. Dubbo, a small country town, possessed sixty tennis courts. The aspirations of the working class – if the term had any meaning – were exactly the same as those of the middle class. They remembered the Depression, and took to the new prosperity with unrestrained enthusiasm. Rich and relatively poor sought their pleasures in exactly the same way: going to the beach, sinking a few beers, watching Australia’s triumphant sportsmen and women, and providing the material for a couplet by the poet A.D. Hope:

What they earn in their own time they spend
On their four-footed masters each weekend.

Every now and again the social fabric would give a rending sound as the wharfies, or the shearers, held their employers up to ransom. But although Australia was, and is, one of the most governed countries in the world – with its Federal government and bureaucracy, its state governments and their bureaucracies, and its state governors and Government Houses – few people showed the least interest in politics, especially Federal politics. Canberra, Whitlam’s birthplace, though rapidly expanding under Menzies, still had the air of a country town, with one hotel. A French diplomat at that time, asked what it was like to serve in the Australian capital, threw up his hands in horror: pas de restaurants, pas de protocole, pas de maîtresses. To the average Australian, of whatever social status, Canberra and its antics seemed very remote.

In this fashion, with Menzies dominating his country, Australia boomed but slumbered. Pockets of intellectual liveliness existed, usually clustered round small-circulation magazines, but the general populace shied away from abstract ideas, or indeed ideas of any kind, and so did the politicians. Menzies’s attitudes had been formed before World War Two, and did not change. The Labor Party stagnated. There had been a time when it was a party of ideas and ideals – owing more to Henry George than to Marx – but its leaders had long since ceased to believe in either the practicality or the desirability of socialism, and, depressed by the ease with which Menzies won successive elections, did not bother to search for anything to put in its place. The structure of the party was in as lamentable a state as its policy. Labor was run with Tammany Hall crudity, a sinecure for third-rate placemen.

The long sleep ended, as usual in Australian history, for external rather than internal reasons. Menzies when in political trouble played the Communist card. By the time the Vietnam War got going in earnest, it had been plain for two decades that the future of Australia’s security lay in the American, not the British, alliance. In April 1965 Australian combat troops were committed to Vietnam. In January 1966, Menzies retired. In February 1967, Whitlam was elected leader of the Labor Party.

Two things happened over the next five years, helping to turn the tide in Labor’s favour. American opinion reacted decisively against the war in Vietnam, so that Labor’s opposition to the war ceased to be an electoral liability, and the spectacular post-war economic boom began to show signs of coming to an end, with higher inflation and unemployment. By then, it was obvious that Labor had found a future prime minister, and possibly a man of the stature of Menzies himself.

Politically, although his opponents naturally endeavoured to portray him as a rabid left-winger, even a supporter of the Vietcong, Whitlam was really a sort of Antipodean Gaitskell, entirely out of sympathy with the left wing of his party – a man of the centre. He was an educated man with brains, and he believed in applying them to political problems. His origins and roots were in Canberra, not in the smoke-filled rooms and ‘hotels’ of Sydney or Melbourne. He was trained as a lawyer; had he eschewed politics, he would have become the leading light of the Australian bar. He radiated optimism and confidence. He loved making speeches, and could exchange insults with the best. By the time he became leader, he knew – as was obvious – that his first two tasks must be to reform the prehistoric party structure and to produce a new range of policies. These goals, against considerable party opposition, he achieved. Before long, the Labor Party could boast an efficient party machine, and programmes on everything. Australian politics attracts few first-rate people. Whitlam would have made his mark anywhere.

The young and hopeful responded to Whitlam as to a new messiah. But the liberal-minded middle-aged, too, were heartened by his programmes and rhetoric. Even the heartlands of conservatism were disarmed to discover that Labor had elected a leader who, as I recall one Sydney social leader saying among her chandeliers shortly before he became prime minister, ‘knew how to use a knife and fork’, and whose wife Margaret, as tall as himself, could be seen as an Australian version of Eleanor Roosevelt. And had not their son been awarded a scholarship by Harvard? Here was a type of Labor leadership to which Australia was wholly unaccustomed.

Whitlam’s memoirs describe with undisguised glee his first two weeks in power. You can still meet Australians, now in their fifties, who look back to those heady days as the dreamtime. Through a series of quirks, caused partly by the proximity of Whitlam’s election to Christmas, and partly by the peculiarities of the constitution of the Australian Labor Party, the messiah took over the government with only one other man, the party’s deputy leader, to help him. This duumvirate ran the country for two weeks, and it is entirely possible that no peacetime government anywhere has ever taken more decisions in such a short time.

During those 13 days, Whitlam and his deputy recognised China, ended conscription, restored an Australian passport to the Communist journalist Wilfred Burchett, freed seven draft resisters, recalled the Australian ambassador to Taiwan, instructed the state airline to lower fares, removed a tax on wine, began moves to scrap the honours list, ordered the Government of New South Wales to shut down the Rhodesian Information Centre in Sydney, lifted the sales tax on all contraceptives and put the contraceptive pill on the National Health Scheme list, released the film Portnoy’s Complaint uncensored, banned racially-selected sports teams from Australia, announced new funding for tertiary education, made new grants to the arts, prepared the withdrawal of all Australian troops still in Vietnam, gave rice aid to Indonesia, decided that Australia would go ahead with the purchase of 24 F111s, ended wheat exports to Rhodesia, and took the first moves to grant Aboriginal land rights. By day 13, the duumvirate had covered so much ground already that all they could find to do was to arrange for the swimmer Dawn Fraser to fly to Miami for a dedication ceremony at the US Swimming Hall of Fame.

‘A conservative government,’ Whitlam writes, ‘survives essentially by dampening expectations and subduing hopes. Conservatism is basically pessimistic; reformism is basically optimistic. The great tradition which links the American and French revolutions of the Age of Reason with the modern parties of social reform is the tradition of optimism about the possibility of human improvement and human progress through the means of human reason. Yet inevitably there will be failures, and the higher expectations rise, the greater likelihood of at least temporary failure to meet them.’

This was the philosophy. But despite the removal of sales tax on contraceptives and the release uncensored of Portnoy’s Complaint, Whitlam was not at all in sympathy with the Sixties anarchy and ‘permissiveness’ still popular in Australia when he took office. He tells us too little about the bizarre chain of events when Jim Cairns became Treasurer (the equivalent of the British Chancellor of the Exchequer) just as he was losing faith in the value of the entire Australian political, party and parliamentary system – a revelation that inspired him to tell his bewildered Treasury officials that their traditional economics were of little consequence in the great scheme of things by comparison with the ‘economics of love’. One senses Whitlam’s relief then in his prose now when he describes briefly how this ‘confused man’ left the Administration and subsequently established ‘links with the counter-culture movement’. Whitlam’s father was a public servant. His own early career, as a lawyer, had been much concerned with political legislation. The reforms he wanted were nothing to do with ‘lifestyles’: he sought to achieve his aims by drawing up new laws and securing their passage through the Parliament.

Undeniably, these reforms marked a large shift in Australian Federal policy. In his book, Whitlam surveys the work of every department during his period of government – international affairs, ‘the transformation of education’, the expansion of the health service, the abortive attempt to introduce a national superannuation scheme, the policies for transport, the cities, the Aboriginals, women, the arts, the environment, industrial relations and the economy. When the book was published in Australia, the cartoonist Tandberg drew an older and slightly flushed Whitlam reverently placing a wreath at the foot of a more youthful-looking statue of himself. One theme of the memoirs is that Whitlam was destroyed by the conservative forces in Australian society. Even the British are familiar with the manner of his ‘destruction’, and how he was dismissed by the Governor-General, Sir John Kerr, whom he himself had appointed. The ferocious arguments about the rights and wrongs of this dismissal have not been and, it is safe to say, never will be resolved. Both Sir John and Whitlam himself have written books on the subject. Perhaps understandably, Whitlam sees this unprecedented action by the Governor-General as the main reason why he is not still in office. His references to Sir John, a decade later, are of unconcealed scorn, and those to his successor are of barely suppressed scorn. When Malcolm Fraser became prime minister, Whitlam says, he turned the music room in the official residence into a lavatory – an action, Whitlam contrives to suggest, that symbolised Fraser’s attitude to the good things bequeathed to him by Whitlam.

But the fact is that Whitlam’s Government was disintegrating before he was dismissed by Kerr. The oil price rise occurred soon after he took office; by the time of the dismissal, his ministers and he himself had acquired a reputation for profligacy. The ‘loans affair’, when an inner cabal in the Government attempted to raise secret loans from obscure freelance financiers, had astonished both the nation at large and some members of the Cabinet, who discovered what was going on only by reading the newspapers. The ear-splitting rifts and rows in the Government had caused Whitlam, as he concedes, ‘great damage’, making even people of good will seriously question the Administration’s fitness for office. It should not be forgotten, either, though the Whitlamites rarely mention the point, that Whitlam was decisively rejected by the voters at the election that followed his dismissal.

Not have the conservatives dismantled all or even most of his reforms. Whitlam is in a difficulty here. He argues that the conservatives were totally hostile to his changes, which is why they (including Malcolm Fraser) ganged up to bring him down. Yet at the same time he wishes to emphasise the lasting mark his Government made on Australia, and so defends the efficacy of his reforms by pointing to their continued survival. Fraser was in power for seven years after Whitlam. It is a further awkward fact for Whitlam that the present Labor Prime Minister of Australia, Bob Hawke, has taken every care to distance himself as much as possible from Whitlam, both in his triumphant election campaign of 1983 and subsequently. The Hawke theme has been the need for a national ‘consensus’, Hawke’s favourite word. Thus he repudiates by implication the Whitlam doctrine that the interests of reformers and conservatives are irreconcilable. Hawke may be wrong and Whitlam right; but what is certain is that Hawke regards the memory of the Whitlam years as an electoral liability for Labor.

Whitlam does not discuss the part played by himself in his own downfall. He admits his relative indifference to economic questions – his mind was on higher things. On one occasion, when urgent budget matters had to be decided, his economic advisers, at last gaining entry to the presence, found they had been kept waiting while the Prime Minister, reclining on a chaise-longue, discoursed to a visitor about Indonesia. Whitlam made little attempt to encourage the loyalty of his Cabinet. Bill Hayden, the present Australian foreign minister, a former policeman, was often humiliated when the Prime Minister corrected his pronunciation. Had the Cabinet been consulted by Whitlam more often, some of the grosser errors of the Administration might well have been averted.

Whitlam says that one of his main aims was to put new items on the Australian agenda. In this he was certainly successful. He was the first Australian prime minister to take a consistent interest in Asia. By abolishing imperial honours and, after his dismissal, turning republican, he provoked a serious discussion of the possibilities – and the difficulties – of republicanism. Fraser reduced and renamed the Whitlam Government’s health service, but did not dismantle it despite the pressures of the powerful and self-centred doctors’ lobby. The Aboriginals, the arts and the environment all found a much more solid place in the Australian collective mind, and its politics, than in pre-Whitlam days.

In most of his policies and attitudes, Whitlam was not so much a great radical reformer as someone who was simply bringing Australia up to date after the long years of Menzies and post-Menzies inanition. He was not the first prime minister to try it, but he was the first to achieve any successes. The predecessor who made the most determined efforts in the same direction, the Liberal John Gorton, was soon dumped by his party.

Whitlam quotes Machiavelli: ‘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.’ He has placed this quotation at the front of his memoirs, and must think that it accurately states his own problem. But his supporters were, many of them, anything but lukewarm, and his enemies would have been less effective had he not repeatedly handed them the weapons with which to attack him. It is hard to resist the conclusion that if he had been a little less self-confident, a little more attentive to the economy, and a little less contemptuous of his critics, he could have been the dominant figure in Australian politics for almost as long as Menzies. Nevertheless, Whitlam was the principal political force in the transition from the mindless if agreeable Fifties to the much more alert, if more dangerously exposed, Australia of today.