Gough Whitlam has died

by John Q on October 23, 2014

Gough Whitlam, Prime Minister of Australia from 1972 to 1975, died on Tuesday. More than any other Australian political leader, and as much as any political figure anywhere, Gough Whitlam embodied social democracy in its ascendancy after World War II, its high water mark around 1970 and its defeat by what became known as neoliberalism in the wake of the crises of the 1970s.

Whitlam entered Parliament in 1952, having served in the Royal Australian Air Force during the War, and following a brief but distinguished legal career. Although Labor had already chosen a distinguished lawyer (HV Evatt) as leader, Whitlam’s middle-class professional background was unusual for Labor politicans

Whitlam marked a clear break with the older generation of Labor politicians in many other respects. He was largely indifferent to the party’s socialist objective (regarding the failure of the Chifley governments bank nationalisation referendum as having put the issue off the agenda) and actively hostile to the White Australia policy and protectionism, issues with which Labor had long been associated.

On the other hand, he was keen to expand the provision of public services like health and education, complete the welfare state for which previous Labor governments had laid the foundations, and make Australia a fully independent nation rather than being, in Robert Menzies words ‘British to the bootstraps’.

Coupled with this was a desire to expand Labor’s support base beyond the industrial working class and into the expanding middle class. The political necessity of this was undeniable, though it was nonetheless often denied. In 1945, the largest single occupational group in Australia (and an archetypal group of Labor supporters) were railwaymen (there were almost no women in the industry). By the 1970s, the largest occupational group, also becoming the archetypal group of Labor supporters. were schoolteachers.

Whitlam’s political career essentially coincided with the long boom after World War II, and his political outlook was shaped by that boom. The underlying assumption was that the tools of Keynesian fiscal policy and modern central banking were sufficient to stabilize the economy. Meanwhile technological innovation, largely driven by publicly funded research would continue to drive economic growth, while allowing for steadily increasing leisure time and greater individual freedom. The mixed economy would allow a substantial, though gradually declining, role for private business, but would not be dominated by the concerns of business.

The central institution of the postwar long boom, the Bretton Woods system of fixed exchange rates, was already on the verge of collapse by the time Whitlam took office in 1972. The proximate cause of its collapse was the inflationary surge that had begun in the late 1960s and reached its peak with the oil price shock of 1973.

So, Whitlam was living on borrowed time from the moment he took office. His ‘crash through or crash’ approach ensured that he achieved more in his first short term of office (eighteen months before being forced to an election by the Senate) than most governments did in a decade. The achievements continued in the government’s second term, but they were overshadowed by retreats and by a collapse into chaos, symbolized by the ‘Loans Affair’ an attempt to circumvent restrictions on foreign borrowing through the use of dodgy Middle Eastern intermediaries.

The dramatic constitutional crisis of November 1975, and the electoral disaster that followed, have overshadowed the fact that, given the economic circumstances, the government was doomed regardless of its performance. The Kirk-Rowling Labour government in New Zealand, also elected in 1972 after a long period of opposition, experienced no particular scandals or avoidable chaos, but suffered a similarly crushing electoral defeat.

Despite his defeat, and repudiation by succeeding leaders of the ALP (and of course his conservative opponents), it is striking to observe how much of Whitlam’s legacy remains intact. Among the obvious examples (not all completed by his government, and some started before 1972, but all driven by him to a large extent)

* Aboriginal land rights
* Equal pay for women
* Multiculturalism
* Greatly increased Commonwealth spending on school education
* Medibank (now Medicare)
* The end of colonial ties to Britain
* Welfare benefits for single parents
* Extension of sewerage to Western Sydney
* Reduction of the voting age to 18
* No fault divorce

In all of this Whitlam is emblematic of the social democratic era of the mid-20th century. Despite the resurgence of financialised capitalism, which now saturates the thinking of all mainstream political parties, the achievements of social democracy remain central to our way of life, and politicians who attack those achievements risk disaster even now.

With the failure of the global financial system now evident to all, social democratic parties have found themselves largely unable to respond. We need a renewed movement for a fairer society and a more functional economy. We can only hope for a new Whitlam to lead that movement.



MPAVictoria 10.23.14 at 1:37 pm

“We can only hope for a new Whitlam to lead that movement.”

From your mouth to God’s ear.


Eskimo 10.23.14 at 3:34 pm

How do you say his first name? “Guff”?


Sev 10.23.14 at 5:52 pm

John, how much credence/weight do you give to rumors of US/CIA involvement in the dismissal, or conditions leading up to it?


Thomas Lumley 10.23.14 at 7:42 pm

@Eskimo “Goff”


Emma in Sydney 10.23.14 at 8:03 pm

It’s been a strange week of reminiscences. He changed so much and lived so long that many of his old enemies came round to seeing his importance in Australian history. I’ve been trying to explain to younger folk the glow that still surrounds my childhood memories of his election, and my Labor parents’ joy and resolve at that time. There’s been precious little to rival it since.


Peter K. 10.23.14 at 8:14 pm

Thanks for writing about this. As a provincial American I had no idea. His Wikipedia page says “The Whitlam Government implemented a large number of new programs and policy changes, including the termination of military conscription, institution of universal health care and free university education, and the implementation of legal aid programs.”


Emma in Sydney 10.23.14 at 8:36 pm

That’s right, Peter. He took Australia out of the Vietnam War in the first days in office. And JQ and I among many others both got free educations, unlike our kids.


peter 10.23.14 at 9:58 pm

As well as doing his best to end Australian colonial ties to Britain (not quite ended, even still), Whitlam’s Government also granted Independence to Papua New Guinea.

Perhaps his only serious blemish was apparently accommodating Indonesian designs on East Timor.


ChrisB 10.23.14 at 10:16 pm

Pronounced ‘Goff’.
CIA involvement in the dismissal? Well, possibly – except that I can’t really see that they could have had that much influence; all that they could do was push rightwing bastards to do something that said bastards were perfectly willing, and indeed eager, to do anyway.


John Quiggin 10.23.14 at 11:50 pm

Agreeing with Chris B, I don’t think the CIA was important. They undoubtedly welcomed the dismissal, and might have encouraged contacts in the opposition party to block supply (the starting point for the crisis), but they had done the same thing eighteen months earlier so they didn’t need pushing. Kerr, the Governor-General who dismissed the government, had already revealed himself to be a self-important rightwinger with inflated ideas about the role of his office, though this only became apparent in retrospect. Not one of Whitlam’s wiser appointments.


floopmeister 10.23.14 at 11:52 pm

Thanks for acknowledging Gough’s passing. The mood here has been quite interesting – particularly as his death reminds everyone of the void that has replaced principled politics in this country. First Dog’s cartoon in The Guardian sums up the bittersweet feelings beautifully:


Another of his great achievements was that he was the first Western politician to recognise Communist China – some time before Nixon, I might add. I’ve always wondered how that must have gone down in Langley… For an (admittedly fictionalised) account of CIA involvement in his removal watch the film The Falcon and the Snowman

Vale Gough.


floopmeister 10.23.14 at 11:58 pm


Helen 10.24.14 at 2:21 am

The CIA certainly did have a minor role in setting up the sheltered workshop for grumpy old white men contrarians, Quadrant magazine. A breeding ground for the kind of Culture Warriors who have been pushing back against Gough’s visions ever since.
From Wikipedia:

The magazine was founded in 1956[3] by Richard Krygier, a Polish-Jewish refugee who had been active in social-democrat politics in Europe and James McAuley, a Catholic poet, famous for the anti-modernist Ern Malley hoax. It was an initiative of the Australian Committee for Cultural Freedom, the Australian arm of the Congress for Cultural Freedom, an anti-communist advocacy group funded by the CIA.


Royton De'Ath 10.24.14 at 2:22 am

There were two social justice giants in the Antipodes in those heady, heady days: Gough and Norm Kirk in NZ (both used “It’s Time” as an election slogan). So much to remember about those times; the sense that’s as real now, as then, of an opening of skies and horizons, a coming home: turangawaewae, a place to stand.

Both the Australian and NZ governments recognised PRC pretty well simultaneously in December ’72. But. PRC had been recognised in 1950 by the UK government, with Sweden and Denmark fairly hot on the heels of the UK in the same year.

(And it seems very odd that a large country, embedded in the Pacific and Asia, has “western politicians” at the helm. Gough and Norm weren’t really cut from that “particular cloth”, I’d have thought, given their programs – and – what had preceded them, post war).


BBA 10.24.14 at 4:21 am

From this American’s viewpoint, the resemblance between the Australian constitutional crisis of 1975 and the US government shutdown of 2013 is striking – though Medibank wasn’t as central to the Australian crisis as ACA was here, and of course the crises’ resolutions were dramatically different.


floopmeister 10.24.14 at 4:49 am

Royton De’Ath: I stand corrected! Thank you… it seems we Australians are forever overlooking the NZ contribution.

A failing I have heartily criticised in other Australians, of course… :)

Regarding ‘Western’ – perhaps that’s more applicable to Australian politicians than NZ ones? It does just seem to be one long procession of pakeha running Australia, after all.


reason 10.24.14 at 10:58 am

Which of this list of acchievements doesn’t fit.

hint: Why is a national government concerned with the Western suburbs of Sydney.


Doug 10.24.14 at 2:19 pm

I think the other former Labor PM Paul Keating put it well:

“I mean Australia was a post imperial outpost, effectively, in the post war years. In the years of the Menzies torpor, it was like sort of wading in molasses, you know. And to shock the system and change it, to change Australia’s idea of itself is what Whitlam did. ”

I am definitely to the right of JQ but I thank God Whitlam got in and did his thing in the 1970’s, so I could benefit growing up in an Australia in the 1980s and 1990s that wasn’t a cultural wasteland.


Shirley0401 10.24.14 at 2:46 pm

Thanks for posting. As another American, I know embarassingly little about this apparently very impressive man.


js. 10.24.14 at 4:06 pm

Why is a national government concerned with the Western suburbs of Sydney.

At least as importantly, what was going on with the Western suburbs of Sydney that they didn’t have sewerage until the mid-70’s!?

Anyway, this is a nice piece about something I know nothing about. Thanks!


Ralph Bird 10.24.14 at 8:18 pm

Hey, Aussies! Canada started diplomatic relations with China in the fall (October) of 1970, under PM Pierre Trudeau.


Chris Warren 10.25.14 at 12:17 am

You’re banned on my blog, and that extends to my posts on CT.


John McGowan 10.25.14 at 1:52 am

I would love a clear explanation of Bretton Woods and how it’s collapse contributed to the post 1970 transformation of the Western economies.


Paul C 10.25.14 at 6:21 am

I read Augie March’s last single to be the story of Australia since the Whitlam years, and particularly during the Abbott years – something that pretends to be greater, but is somehow smaller, meaner. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PXED2xHu3OQ


NomadUK 10.25.14 at 3:53 pm


brian stagoll 10.26.14 at 12:54 am

good to see the great Gough getting some international notice. His major world diplomatic triumph was to visit China, and open diplomatic channels , just before Nixon /Kissinger were doing this secretly. For Australians,he and Margaret were our Eleanor and Franklin.We all mourn the loss of this giant.


Norwegian Guy 10.26.14 at 8:09 am

Isn’t it a bit too defeatist to say that social democratic parties were bound to lose elections in the mid-70’s? For instance, in West Germany the SPD-FDP government was reelected in the 1976 federal elections, even despite the chancellor resigning after a scandal midway through the previous term.

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