Former prime minister Gough Whitlam.The news of Gough Whitlam’s death on Tuesday has provided us with a significant opportunity to look back on the life of a man who led the country in the 1970s and gave his name to one of the most insidious Australian rock bands of the ’90s.
It has been a week of heady rememberings. From ending conscription and God Save the Queen, to starting free education and Medibank, introducing FM radio and taking sewerage to the suburbs – you would be hard pressed to find an Australian who did not cop the effects of the Whitlam era. On a personal note, I had the startling realisation that as the progeny of my father’s second marriage, I may owe my existence to Gough (thanks to his divorce law reforms).
As the tributes flowed – because they never trickle, ooze or surge when someone famous dies – we’ve also been reminded of just what a damn groovy song “It’s Time” was, of the power of a well-designed political T-shirt, and how magnifico Gough’s add for Leggos was in 2001 (“aggiungere la salsa!”).
Indeed, as we have looked back on Gough’s life, times and lines there have been a few grumpy comments that we don’t make politicians like we used to. Kevin07 inspired an okay T-shirt, but he had no song. And even when triple j remixed “Hope, Reward and Opportunity” last year with some phat beats it was still a churchy dirge.
Then we get to the language issue. Quite literally as the nation mourned the passing a man who made Paul Keating’s witticisms seem scruffy, we’ve had Finance Minister Mathias Cormann running around town calling Opposition Leader Bill Shorten an “economic girly man”. Apart from the fact that it is tediously sexist line, it was borrowed from the guy who played Kindergarten Cop. Needless to say, standards did not improve when Labor frontbencher Brendan O’Connor pitched in, saying Cormann sounded “like a dickhead”.
And then we get to the policy stuff. It is widely acknowledged that Whitlam’s government did not just change the country, it revolutionised it in many ways – from health, to education, women’s rights and foreign policy. As Malcolm Turnbull told parliament: “What is that thread, that narrative that emerges from history…? What people remember of Gough Whitlam is a bigness, generosity, an enormous optimism and ambition for Australia.”
In Australia at the moment policy debates do not objectively have a “bigness” about them. Exhibit A: the Abbott government’s announcement this week that it wants to reduce Australia’s renewable energy target. Or other measures like decreasing Australia’s humanitarian intake or cutting the aid budget.
Nor do we have much generosity if you think about the proposed six month wait for the dole, a cut in the rate of pension increases, university fee hikes and the $7 GP co-payment.
And there is not much optimism to be found, if you consider the way the government has responded to the revived terrorist issue, clamping down on personal, travel and media freedoms. And the doom and gloom narrative about the budget. (Then again, perhaps we can see scrapping the carbon tax as a sign of the Coalition’s optimism about the effects of climate change..?)
It is arguable that things were not much better under the Rudd-Gillard years. Yes, they saw big symbolic moments like the national apology and big reforms like the national disability insurance scheme. But they were also mired in more navel gazing than a belly button convention on a patrol boat.
One wonders if the way Whitlam’s death has been received and his legacy remembered has given any of the current crop pause for thought. 1972 to ’75 was a wild ride and not always for the best of reasons. The government ran out of money. Gough got sacked. And despite the public outrage at this, he was emphatically not re-elected. Twice.
This week, however, he was hailed by both sides of politics – and the Greens – as an Aussie political champion. As Prime Minister Tony Abbott said, “it was his vision that drove our politics then and which still echoes through our public life four decades on”.
Admittedly, you do have to wonder whether we also need to be a little kinder and gentler with the current crop of politicians. Whitlam inhabited a political culture that was radically different and more forgiving than today’s.
He worked in a time when the media moved (relatively) at a slug’s pace. Back in Gough’s day, if someone said “facebook,” they would have been talking about falling asleep while reading. Politicians had a lot more room to breathe, think and make mistakes. There were no hung parliaments, mid-term coups or Clive Palmers.
And yet, the take home message from the Gough years remains: who dares might lose elections really badly. But they ultimately win the history.
Judith Ireland is a Fairfax Media journalist.
This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.