I read with sadness of the passing of Gough Whitlam – one of the truly great figures of Australian politics. It’s strange that I should feel such sadness about his death – after all, I was born more than 5 years after the tumultuous Whitlam government and all the changes that it brought about in both the political and cultural landscape in Australia. And yet, I do feel that there is a real sadness in Gough’s death – the passing of a great labor warrior is a sad day for everybody who believes in the labor movement, or even more broadly in the vision for a better future.
The bare details of the Gough story are well-known: elected as the first labor prime minister for many, many years. The raft of changes. The hectic pace of change. The small ‘kitchen cabinet’. The interference of the governor general. The fighting words on the steps of Old Parliament House. And the legacy that in many ways divided a nation: to some, Gough was a cultural warrior of the highest order – his mission was to radicalise Australia, and that is what he did. To others, though, Gough and his government was the very model of bad economic judgement – such terribly poor judgement that Australia was almost lost. To whom? I’m still not sure.
Other, better writers than me have reflected upon the constitutional law that underpinned the challenge and the sacking of the government; certainly, it’s not the place for a 400 word blog post. Instead, I wanted to reflect on why Gough captured – and perhaps still captures – the hearts and minds of so many young people – and those who are not so young, too, of all levels of interest in politics. I think there is something about Gough that speaks to Australians – all Australians – much more than the bluff beer and gambling persona of Bob Hawke or the xenophobia of John Howard.
That something is the hope of a better future – a future that we can command and change. A mission, if you will, that we are all engaged in, to improve the social and cultural fabric of the land. In an age where politics has seemed to become limited and simplistic, concerned with niggles and motion of order and political point scoring, Gough seemed to suggest a much more whole, encompassing and visionary future. And he worked towards this vision like he meant it – hence the abolition of conscription, the start of legal aid, the beginnings of medicare, and, of course, tuition free university fees – perhaps the one platform that he is remembered most fondly for, especially by anyone who was fortunate enough to have benefitted from it. He was, if nothing else, a man with a vision and the power to carry it out.
It is this hope and vision that Kevin Rudd tapped into back in 2007, and his vision shared some of Whitlam’s hope for a better future. His work for the environment and the apology to the stolen generations seemed taken straight from Whitlam’s ideas. And, of course, Rudd’s fall from grace, indeed, the whole sordid affair of the Labor party between 2009-2013, mirrored the worst part of the Whitlam government. For all his greatness, Whitlam was well and truly human – he made mistakes, he had blind spots and weaknesses, and I think his stubbornness ultimately drove people to abandon him: a lesson that it would appear the Labor party is still learning.
So what should we take from Gough’s legacy? I think that there is only one thing that we need to focus on: Australia is an inherently conservative nation – why wouldn’t we be? Life for most Australians is pretty good. But – and this is what Gough showed us – that’s not good enough. It can be better – whether through infrastructure development (he founded the Department of Urban Planning) or race relations (his meeting with Lingiari is rightly famous) – and the work of government and, indeed, all Australian people is to make that vision of a better future a reality.