Modia Minotaur

Trawling the airwaves to spare you the agony!

Friday, November 11, 2005

The Legacy of the Whitlam Government

It's time, if you will excuse the pun, to add my comments on Edward Gough Whitlam. I have no more authority to do this other than the fact that I'm a Labor blogger and not Piers Akerman (whose disgraceful revision/demolition of the Whitlam legacy I won't bother linking). That's good enough for me.

(As a way of marking today's 30th anniversary of the Whitlam Dismissal, I was hoping to post my major Masters essay on the paradoxes of the Whitlam government - essentially, that Whitlam ruled in a top-down manner, but in order to facilitate bottom-up public participation - but alas, it appears to have gone missing, so you've been spared it, at least for now.)

The story of the Whitlam Government - like that of so many Labor leaders - is one of tumult and triumph, but also massive setbacks and obstacles. Despite its deeply subversive heritage (a good many Australians are, after all, descendants of Irish political prisoners), conservative government has been the rule since the beginning of European settlement. Reform has generally been incremental rather than sweeping, and despite seeing the first Labor government in the world, Australia's subsequent Labor governments have often seemed like quirks of nature.

Whitlam seemed inherently aware of this when he attained power, and his reforms occurred with a pace that suggested that he was somehow aware that he would have a limited time in which to introduce and implement them. This swiftness - famously labelled `crash or crash through' - has provoked some debate. Would Whitlam's sweeping reforms have been better accepted had they not been pushed through so vigorously? I would argue that Whitlam realised that they would not have been pushed through at all unless such a technique had been used.

It is worthwhile to remember the many achievements of the Whitlam Government - the foundations of modern multiculturalism; Medicare, free university education, Aboriginal reconciliation. Such reforms are, even today, revolutionary. It's a sad reflection on our current political climate that in a country which less than a generation ago provided free tertiary education to all is now debating whether these same students will have access to basic university services provided via student union fees.

Perhaps lesser known is Whitlam's attempts to invigorate grassroots politics by giving initiatives such as the Australian Assistance Plan (AAP), which provided funding to local community groups, and his push to grant constitutional recognition to local councils. This focus necessarily excluded or circumvented state governments, and for this, Whitlam was criticised as a centralist - yet paradoxically, his aim in doing so was to take power out of the hands of bureaucracy and put it into the hands of the people.

And now the $64,000 question.

It would be wrong to say the Dismissal was unconstitutional, because the reason it spurred a constitutional crisis is that there is nothing in the Australian Constitution addressing the dismissal of a Prime Minister. However, I remain of the firm belief that in a democracy, it is up to the people to select the party that leads them, not a delegated official. I do believe - it is perhaps an unpopular belief, but I think a realistic one - that the Whitlam government would have been voted out in the next election. However, this does NOT justify Mr Akerman's assertion (no, I'm NOT linking him) - that Sir John Kerr was doing the right thing as he was simply beating the people to the punch. The gravity of the situation cannot be underestimated. People who were there that day have told me that it would have only taken one person to fall over in the crowd; one person to fire a few shots in the air for blood to have been spilt that day. That's how tense the situation was, and how heated were the passions.

It is a terrible shame that Whitlam is best known for his exit from power rather than his remarkable policy achievements. Elements of Whitlam's character and achievements have been debated. What cannot is that many of the best aspects of today's Australia would not exist without Whitlam's initiatives.

So today, I salute you Mr Whitlam - for some of us, it will always be time.

10 Comments:

At 1:50 pm, Anonymous Guy said...

Ahhh nice post.

At the end of the day, thirty years ago, we had a situation where an unelected representative dismissed a government elected by the people.

And that's called democracy?? Pffft. All the other whinging by people that "he got voted out afterwards" and "he was such a bad economic manager" is besides the point.

I think Tanner's got a point, but I also tend to agree with Roxon. There are serious issues stemming from the dismissal that still, 30 years on, have not been resolved.

 
At 3:36 pm, Blogger Minotaur said...

When it comes down to it, a big gaping hole in the constitution is a big gaping hole in the constitution - and that's something better fixed than left broken.

I always felt the constitutional monarchists who ran the `if it ain't broke, don't fix it' line during the Republic debate were plumbing a pretty unproductive vein. The Australian constitution could do with plenty of fixing (that's a debate for another day) - something plenty of problems that have existed since Federation (the constant State-to-Federal buck passing, for example) have proven.

I do understand Tanner's reluctance to - and I use a term that's currently in vogue both within and outside the ALP - `navel gaze'. It's important to look foward rather than to be too introspective. A constant concern of all people involved in organised politics must be to ensure that the cause rather than the party comes first. But I also think Labor's rich history is one of its greatest strengths. The pride Labor has in its history is something that really gets up the nose of the Liberals. Alexander Downer's disgraceful demolition job on John Curtin earlier this year is a good demonstration of this resentment. They detest the fact that so many of us still revere Gough, when the Dismissal should have been their greatest triumph. As long as that's the case, I'm willing to keep waving it in their face. :)

(BTW - I'm sure you're checking out the Dismissal Anniversary action over at Larvatus Prodeo)

 
At 10:11 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'd really really really kill for that Ackerman link...Just to retort his claims - fear not there is no lurking Liberalism in me

 
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