Wednesday, May 31, 2006

The Whitlam Years

In 1972, the Australian Labor Party formed government in Australia for the first time in 23 years. The government lasted just two elections and three years before being dismissed in the most controversial event in Australian political history. But the legacy of those three short years was immense. Australia was a vastly different country in 1975, although the electorate didn’t necessarily appreciate it and kept Labor out of office for another eight years.

Back in 1966, previous Labor leader Arthur Calwell had suffered his third successive election defeat (it was Labor’s seventh straight loss since 1949.) The following year, Labor turned to Edward Gough Whitlam to lead the party. Whitlam was Melbourne born and educated in Sydney where he studied law. He was admitted to the NSW bar in 1947. He was elected as a federal Labor MP in a 1952 by-election for the seat of Werriwa. He became deputy leader when Calwell became party leader. The Liberals crushed Calwell in 1966 on a pro-Vietnam war policy (PM Holt’s catch-cry was “all the way with LBJ”) forcing him to resign. Whitlam defeated his rival Jim Cairns in a party leadership ballot.

Whitlam immediately changed key Labor policies to remove the White Australia Policy and allow universal health insurance and state aid for religious schools. Whitlam brought a fresher, optimistic and socially liberal stance to the role of leader. He proved to be a natural TV performer and gifted campaigner. In his first election in 1969, he lost narrowly but gained a 17 seat swing from the government. The Liberals appointed a new leader in 1971 Billy McMahon who proved a disastrous Prime Minister. McMahon attacked Whitlam for recognising The People’s Republic of China but this strategy backfired when Nixon announced his visit to China. He proved to be a poor TV performer especially in comparison to Whitlam and with inflation rampant and the media against him it was no surprise when he lost the 1972 election.

Whitlam campaign slogan was “Its Time”. He set forth a vision of what he called the ‘New Nationalism’ a platform based on three planks: independence in world affairs, increased cultural activity and nationalism in the economic sphere. As well as Prime Minister, Whitlam appointed himself foreign minister and pronounced Australia ready to take advantage of Nixon’s Guam Doctrine and set Australia on a more independent course. The first step was to take Australian troops out of Vietnam. China, North Korea and East Germany were officially recognised. Major links with Britain were also removed. He replaced the British honours system with the Order of Australia and the national anthem was changed from God Save the Queen to Advance Australia Fair. Appeals of law would no longer be sent to London’s Privy Council as the ultimate legal arbiter.

Whitlam was the first Prime Minister to recognise Aboriginal culture as having a prior claim on the landscape. He saw treatment of Aboriginals as a ‘stain on the national honour’ and increased funding was a key policy plank.

In the area of law, Whitlam’s attorney general Lionel Murphy enacted the Family Law Act. It overhauled Australia’s family laws and allowed for ‘no fault’ divorce despite fierce opposition from the Roman Catholic Church and other conservative bodies. Whitlam appointed Murphy to the High Court in 1975 and unwittingly sowed the seeds of his own destruction. The Liberal NSW premier used his right to appoint an independent senator in place of Murphy. Having breached a precedent, the notorious Queensland premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen repeated the move when another Labour senator died in office. The balance of power was thus fatally changed in the upper house.

Prior to this, Whitlam had won a second term of office in 1974 but his double dissolution election failed to achieve his aim of an upper house majority. Economically his government was running into trouble. They were having difficulties funding some of their more ambitious electoral promises such as universal health care and the abolition of university fees. Whitlam appointed his longtime rival Jim Cairns as Treasurer in 1974. Cairns claims his appointment occurred just after the Loans Affair when Labor tried to borrow several billion petrodollars (dollars earned from oil exports) from the Middle East through an intermediary, a shady Pakistani banker named Tirath Khemlani. The deal went sour and Khemlani was never able to deliver the money. Khemlani disappeared to obscurity but not before leaving his nickname “old rice and monkey nuts” (due to fact he traded in commodities not money) as a Google Bomb gift to current Melbourne Herald Sun journalist Andrew Bolt.

Cairns’ role in this was not helped by a scandal which enveloped his love life in 1975. Although married, he had an affair with his Chinese born and Philippine educated secretary Junie Morosi. The fact that Morosi and Khemlani were ‘foreigners’ was used by the Opposition as they tried to turn the screws on Whitlam’s government. Their primary tactic was blocking supply. This meant that the hostile Senate would cut off supply of Treasury funds. Whitlam wanted to face down the Senate and borrow money from the banks. Opposition leader Malcolm Fraser was determined to keep the initiative and urged Governor-General Sir John Kerr to act. Kerr, although a Whitlam appointee, had developed a grudge against Whitlam due to perceived slights against him and his wife. The Chief Justice of the High Court advised Kerr that Whitlam’s loan moves may be illegal and told him it was his duty to dismiss Whitlam.

On November 11, 1975 Kerr gave Whitlam merely a moment’s notice before revoking his commission to govern. He installed Fraser as caretaker Prime Minister until a federal election could be held. He then accepted Fraser’s advice to call another double dissolution election. Whitlam delivered his famous impromptu address to the in front of the steps of Parliament House where he told the crowd: "Ladies and gentlemen, well may we say 'God Save the Queen', because nothing will save the Governor-General."

Unfortunately for him, despite outrage over the dubious nature of the dismissal, media and public opinion had gone against him. The string of ministerial scandals, the economic effects of the 1973 Oil Crisis and heavy tariff reductions all took their toll and the December election was a landslide defeat for Labor. Whitlam lost one more election in 1977 before resigning as leader.

His government’s legacy is immense. Most of his achievements still stand: the no fault divorce, Aboriginal rights, the Trades Practices Act, removal of tariff barriers, end of military conscription, universal health care and relations with China. Despite his brief stint in the sun, Gough Whitlam deservedly remains a giant figure in the Labor movement.

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