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Vale: Gough Whitlam 1916-2014: A great Australian progressive

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Chris Ford
Chris Ford

Former Australian prime minister Gough Whitlam, who passed away at age 98 today, was and is one of the greatest, if not the greatest, progressive leader of all time in Australia.

Whitlam followed on the heels of Australian prime ministers John Curtin and Ben Chifley in seeking to build an Australia welfare state that would protect and include the most marginalised and vulnerable. Whitlam, who came to power within a week of the Norman Kirk-led Third Labour Government's own victory in New Zealand, ensured that his and Kirk's governments moved in lockstep with one another. They did so in both recognising the People's Republic of China; in withdrawing Anzac forces from Vietnam; in strongly challenging French nuclear testing in the Pacific; and in seeking greater independence from the United States and Britain in foreign policy.

Similarly, as much as Kirk did in Aotearoa, Whitlam wanted to establish a stronger sense of indigenous, home-grown Australian identity. This he did through seeking to change the Australian national anthem, granting greater support to the arts and cultural sector, scrapping British-style royal honours (re-introduced by Tony Abbott), and suggesting even that the flag be changed (sound familiar?)

But Whitlam will be remembered most of all for what he attempted on the domestic front. At the time of Labor's 1972 victory, Australia had endured 23 years of conservative Coalition Government. This meant that, unlike in New Zealand, the Australian Welfare State had not developed to the same extent it had here and elsewhere. Much of the Australian health care system was in either public or private hands and the education system was free up to only secondary school level, if that. Therefore, some of the greatest moves of Whitlam were to create Medibank as a means of ensuring that Australians had largely free health care and a schools funding system which saw the federal government contribute to educational funding for the first time. More importantly, a whole cohort of baby-boomer Australians came to benefit from free university education. This created a generation of well educated Australians from working and middle-class backgrounds who owed Labor their ticket to opportunity.

As the Third Labour Government did in New Zealand with Maori, indigenous Aboriginal peoples were granted greater recognition for the first time by the Whitlam Labor Government. Indeed, one of the most memorable images of the Whitlam years was of him pouring sand into the hands of a Gurindji elder in the Northern Territory when their land was returned to them in 1973. This marked a significant milestone in indigenous relations given that, in the 1970s (as is somewhat the case today) Australia was (and is) a fundamentally racist society. Along these lines, I also praise Whitlam (under the leadership of the legendary Immigration Minister Al Grassby - an Australian of Albanian descent) for ending the White Australia policy, effectively ushering in the multicultural society that I see whenever I visit that country. This multiculturalism has enriched Australian society greatly and Whitlam's ALP administration played a great role in fostering that policy.

However, it was the events of November 11, 1975 for which Whitlam's time will ultimately be remembered. While Whitlam and, more precisely, some of his ministers (such as Rex Connor) made huge misjudgements which led, among other things, to the Khamlani Loans Affair, it was the Tory political class who wanted Gough and his government gone. Through the agency of the Malcolm Fraser-led Coalition opposition and  its scheming with then Governor-General Sir John Kerr, Whitlam and his government were sacked by vice-regal command that day. This is remembered by all progressive leftists in this part of the world, at least, as a day of shame. While Whitlam's Government had become unpopular, the ALP were not given the chance to end the opposition blocking of supply in the Senate (and before the sacking there were signs that some Tory Senators were preparing to crack) and nor were they given the chance to see out their full term and be ejected from office democratically.

Still, today it was poignant to note that of all the tributes paid, the most effusive came from Whitlam's one time rival and later friend, Malcolm Fraser. Besides noting the beginnings of their unlikely friendship, the former Tory PM noted that both he and his predecessor had come to commonly lament that their respective parties had moved more to the right in line with the general shift of the political spectrum in that direction. For that reason, both Whitlam and Fraser should both be hailed as voices of reason in a country and a world which has seemingly turned its backed on social democracy.

Overall, Whitlam is, to me, a great Australian progressive. While I did criticise him some years ago in a blog for being somewhat aloof (which he could be), having watched some archival material on You Tube today I also came to the view that I was somewhat wrong - in fact he had more of the common touch than I had realised. This common touch is illustrated in a famous photograph of him having his hand kissed by an elderly Labor supporter on the stage of the Blacktown Town Hall at Labor's campaign launch in 1972. This image, amongst others, is being remembered today as Australia marks the passing of an incredible political figure in Edward Gough Whitlam.

RIP, Gough. Australasia is that little bit smaller for your loss. And one more thing - tell Norm Kirk you're sorry and I hope you two get around to having a good reunion wherever you are!



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