The Worship of Whitlam: Time To Look Past The Face

Originally published in the Semester 1 2015 edition of the Sydney Tory

As the five-month anniversary of the death of one of Australia’s most divisive and pivotal Prime Ministers, Gough Whitlam, fast approaches, we’re are once again reminded as a nation, that Australian politics is still, and seemingly forever will be, engulfed in a game of charisma, showmanship and foolhardiness. The Whitlam Era is not only remembered, rather foolishly, for it’s implementation of welfare and social reforms but for bringing about a new generation of politician: the infallible reformer: He who could do no wrong, he who was sadly destroyed by an establishment who couldn’t have an uppity politician from Werriwa “saving the people of Australia”.

Not only did Whitlam leave Australia in a worse position than when he entered, the real devastating legacy of his government is how much of the Australian public either does not know of his inability to govern, nor seem to want to know. In a world where social reforms, no matter what terrible cost they may have, are increasingly being placed at the forefront of political priorities above economic and national improvement, it is no wonder that they Australian public gives little thought to perhaps the worst prime minister in Australian history. Those who worship at the alter of the Great Gough have not only created a martyr of Gough and his work, but distressingly have made the Australian public believe them.

Ending twenty-three years of Liberal rule in Australia, Gough Whitlam was a giant in both physical and political stature. In the 1972 election against William McMahon with 52% of the vote, Whitlam rode the wave of a young baby boomer population who had perceived his predecessors as stuffy, static and out of touch with a young Australia. In fact his catch phrase “It’s Time” was good and clear indicator to the Liberal establishment that the young people of Australia were looking for a government who would promise big, grandiose and almost improbably promises to a populace who was becoming less and less informed about the problems of the real world.

Whitlam displayed qualities unlike other politicians before him. He was handsome unlike Gorton and he displayed a passionate rage unlike Holt. The Young Brolga, as he was known, created a persona and a show of being a “man with a plan” doing “what had to be done” and all the while keeping “Australia’s best interests at heart”. Unfortunately as we know the Whitlam Government of 1972-1975 serves as a kind of How To in governing poorly and ineffectively. He promised a sweeping array of social benefits and welfare for a young population yearning for handouts. Free Universities, the creation of Medicare and the liberation of those arrested for conscription were introduced among others in the hope of aiding Australians but with no real financial backing to allow for these “great” initiatives.

As in Roman times if the people were given bread (free university) and the Circus (Medicare) they would be happy and love the ruling establishment, little was different for the early months in Whitlam’s Australia. For the first two weeks in fact Whitlam and Lance Barnard ran the Australian cabinet completely by themselves, rushing through poorly thought out and poorly yielding policies such as recognising Communist China, which left the Taiwanese diplomatically in the dust, and decreasing import tariffs by a whopping 25% in an incredibly short amount of time, causing many Australian jobs to be cut and industries to fail due to the inability to properly prepare for the adaption needed to the new market.

His crazed obsession with popular opinion and maintaining his appearance as a man determined to save Australians from poverty no matter the cost or pain is still believed to this day. In fact Labor leader Bill Shorten would claim that Whitlam was the greatest Prime Minister in Australia’s history giving more Australians a “bigger shot” at attending university and yet failed to mention his destructive economic policies. Perhaps it was “Time” for a deficit blow out thanks to too much reform done too soon! Perhaps it was “Time” for inflation to soar by an astounding 20%, making the savings of most Australians worthless! Perhaps it was “Time” for Whitlam to increase wages by 28% causing so many jobs to be lost, as employers could no longer afford to keep them, allowing to the unemployment rate to triple in one year! But what did Whitlam care? Money was no object to him He could print his money or even borrow it from the Middle East by way of the Khemlani scandal or his attempt to borrow $500,000 from the Baathist party in Iraq (which would later be the party of one “S. Hussein”) in order to fund his 1975 election campaign.

Whitlam left Australia in a bleak situation that subsequently the Frasier and Hawke governments attempted to reverse much of what he had done.

Why The Legend?

Few remember, or want to remember, that a venomous Australia kept Whitlam out of power, twice (once in a landslide victory to Malcolm Frasier in 1975 and again in 1977 to the same opponent). Few remember the damning insult that was “Whitlamite” amongst the Labor ranks during the Hawke years. Few remember the lengths subsequent governments have gone to in reversing much of his “great works”, notably the Hawke/Keating reintroduction of University fees.

The worship of Whitlam only truly began once again with the 2007 election of Kevin Rudd. In fact the similarities between the two so uncanny that Rudd can be considered the second coming of Whitlam. Both were seen as fresh faces after long conservative governments, both came with catch phrases (“It’s Time” and “Kevin ‘07”) and both came promising big social and educational reforms, which ended up blowing the budget to bits. Both Kevin and Gough came with little to no idea on how they would afford their schemes but both said it with such big smiles that the Australian populace couldn’t see past their big pearly whites. But both were also egomaniacal who did anything they could to hold onto their power by themselves; Rudd’s shameless attempt to secure votes at the last minute with Gay Marriage and the Pacific Solution and Whitlam’s attempt at securing shady funds from Iraq. But where and when did this shift in political virtues happen? When did Australian’s one day refuse to look at economic and social reasoning and instead want someone who looked pleasing, spoke loudly and could carry themselves more as a used car salesman rather than an actual politician? The dismissal on the 11th of November 1975 was the best thing to ever happen to Whitlam and his legacy. It created a story, a myth in which the Left could rally behind. Had Whitlam been voted out without dismissal, the memory of Whitlam would have been sour and hate filled for the damage he did to average Australian then and today. The legacy of what, not who, Whitlam was, lives on in Australia’s apathetic and uninformed civic culture that would rather vote on predictable promises of handouts, good looks and a catchy phrase that would capture the Australian public.

But who cares about economic and social failures now, right? If you asked any young Australian or most baby boomers from the time they would adulate and swoon at the very mention of Whitlam. Ask them: “What did Whitlam do for this country?” and most answers will begin with: “He gave”, “Free”, “Fairer” and end with “University”, “Public Service”, “Healthcare” or “Rights”. Long gone are the days of Chifley or Menzies presenting their ideas of how to lower unemployment rates or inflation. Now the mentality is “What will the government give me this time round?” or “What will they take from me?” Whitlam’s creation of a welfare mentality is long lasting and the fact that his death has made any mention of his shortcomings or failures taboo is a great shame.

Photo: Flickr – used in accordance with the Creative Commons License

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