Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Death of Gough Whitlam

Gough Whitlam was a towering figure in Australian public life. I think he was the greatest man to ever grace the Australian Labor Party, and the most influential Australian Prime Minister of the past fifty years. He did this after enlisting during the Second World War with the RAAF. This was of course a very dangerous thing to do - my father's older brother John, after whom I have my middle name, did this too, but did not return.

I was a year twelve student in 1972, and had a bright orange It's Time sticker on my school bag. I remember that after he won the election one of my schoolmates said to me that while he was keen for Gough to win, Gough would not be able to put an end to Australia's involvement in Vietnam, and to conscription, any time soon. I was crestfallen by this, and delighted when only a day or two later Gough's two-man Cabinet did precisely that.

His leadership and vision for Australia was one of the key things that inspired me to join the Australian Labor Party, which I did in 1974. It was against the run of play, as Gough's government was thrown out comprehensively at the end of the next year.

But his legacy has proved to be so longstanding that I think he can rightly claim to be the most influential Prime Minister of the past 50 years. It was such a monumental body of work that I cannot do justice to it, but there are a number of features of it which I want to single out. The introduction of free tertiary education. It made such a difference to the lives of so many. The more I look at it, the more I think it was a mistake to move away from that.

Medibank, which was of course the predecessor of Medicare. It gave Australia quite possibly the best health care system in the world, where everyone, rich and poor alike, has access to high quality health care.

The protection of the environment. Gough took the National government into the area of environment protection, preventing drilling of the Great Barrier Reef, ratifying the World Heritage Convention, the RAMSAR Convention, and passing the National Parks and Wildlife Conservation Act.

Indigenous Affairs. Gough passed legislation to abolish discrimination against aboriginal people, and granted land rights to indigenous people, and returned lands in the Northern Territory to the Gurindji people.

People will always draw on the aspects of someone's legacy that are consistent with their own views, and I am no different. In that vein I point out that in 1974 he wrote that traditional forms of democratic government are under challenge, and listed population growth as first among these. Later in that article he said “I do not envisage any dramatic increase in our present population, and indeed I would not wish to see one". I think he was absolutely right in that assessment. And indeed he cut migration numbers during his time as Prime Minister, which is perhaps not widely known.

I had a number of conversations with him, and there are two that stick in my mind. The first is when I rang him as a young Member of Parliament with an interest in fixed-term Parliaments and knowledge that Gough had championed this cause, including a proposal for simultaneous Federal and State elections. I was pleased that my call was put through, and astonished that Gough was able to rattle off, without any forewarning of my call and in the days before the Internet and Google, the electoral arrangements for many of the states of the USA.

Later on I won an afternoon tea with Gough in a Labor Party raffle. This time he did know I was coming, but it was 2002 and he was by then 86. I was again astonished to see that at the ripe old age of 86 he had gone to the trouble of looking me up on the Internet and coming to the afternoon tea extremely well informed about my background and interests.

No doubt Gough made mistakes. But the fact is that anyone in public life makes decisions every day, and it is unreasonable to expect every one of those decisions to be correct. And a Prime Minister makes hundreds, even thousands of decisions. Yes he was defeated decisively after three years, but that should be understood in the context of coming to power after a 23 year absence for Labor, and bumping into a world which had been shaped by and was dominated by his political opponents. After the change of government Malcolm Fraser acknowledged the need to make the Senate more representative and sponsored a referendum to require State Parliaments to fill Senate casual vacancies with the nominee of the Party the Senator had belonged to. And it should also be understood that Gough was newly in power when the OPEC oil shock of 1974 hit - this generated inflation and unemployment, and most Western governments unfortunate enough to be in power at the time did not last for long.

Gough's struggle with Malcolm Fraser was titanic. I remember United States commentators at the time remarking on the ability of the two men, and wondering why American politics was not throwing up leaders of comparable calibre.

The best thing we can do to honour Gough's monumental legacy is to protect it. Whether it is tertiary education, or health, or environment protection, or indigenous affairs, we should honour and protect his legacy. Most of all I hope we remember his commitment to politics as an honourable profession. It is unthinkable to imagine Gough taking on a job as a corporate lobbyist or company director in a post political career. The idea of using a parliamentary career as a stepping stone to a cushy corporate job would have been anathema to him.

I hope his life and example continues to inspire Australians to undertake public service, and to believe in the capacity of the political process to produce good outcomes, to make people’s lives better, for many years to come.

No comments:

Post a Comment