EDITORIAL by Peter WestmoreNews Weekly
Gough Whitlam's tainted legacy
, November 8, 2014
For a man who was Prime Minister for just three years, four decades ago, the obsequious media coverage surrounding the death of Gough Whitlam has been extraordinary.
After 22 years in opposition, Whitlam led Labor to a narrow win in the 1972 federal election, defeating William McMahon, one of the most incompetent prime ministers since Federation. Whitlam was elected on a populist wave targeting the “baby-boomers”, who had been in the vanguard of the cultural revolution of the 1960s.
Whitlam, a powerful orator, was a striking contrast to the increasingly feeble and divided Coalition governments which had been in office since the retirement of the formidable Sir Robert Menzies in 1966.
Whitlam promised an end to conscription, which had been introduced before Australia became involved in the Vietnam war, and to introduce free university education, easier divorce, free universal health care and a rapid expansion of the welfare state.
He promised to repeal the “penal clauses” of the Arbitration Act, which had been a restraint on the extreme left in the union movement, and to amend the act to entrench union power.
After visiting China in 1971, Whitlam promised a new “independent” foreign policy characterised by a weakening of Australia’s alliance with the United States, the withdrawal of Australian forces from South Vietnam, recognising Maoist China as the legitimate government of China and abandoning Taiwan, and granting independence to Papua New Guinea.
After winning the 1972 election, Whitlam set about implementing what he called “The Program”.
The consequences were predictable. Whitlam’s neutralist foreign policy led to a major breach in Australia’s alliance with the United States, and prompted his Attorney-General Lionel Murphy to conduct a raid on the offices of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO). The result was a suspension of intelligence co-operation with Australia’s major allies.
The precipitate withdrawal from Vietnam contributed to the collapse in Western support for the struggling government in South Vietnam, which was facing invasion from communist North Vietnam, armed and equipped by the Soviet Union and China.
When South Vietnam was defeated in 1975, Mr Whitlam did not even assist the evacuation of those Vietnamese people who had worked with Australian military forces over the preceding decade. They were left to the tender mercies of the vindictive Vietnamese communists, whose vengeance was swift and brutal.
The Whitlam government’s social agenda entrenched the feminist network in the federal bureaucracy through the Office of Women’s Affairs; introduced no-fault divorce and the supporting parents’ benefit; politicised ethnic communities by bankrolling those who supported the Whitlam agenda; introduced free tertiary education (an initiative reversed by a later Labor government); and established Medibank, a free universal medical benefit scheme.
The effect of Whitlam’s spendthrift economic policies, coupled with the removal of restraint on union wage demands and an unprecedented 25 per cent cut in tariffs, was the simultaneous growth in unemployment and an acceleration in inflation, which soared from about 2 per cent in 1972 to nearly 20 per cent in 1975.
Within two years of being elected, the Whitlam government was in serious trouble, but the Prime Minister still wanted to pursue his grandiose schemes. In 1975, one of Whitlam’s ministers, Rex Connor, tried to raise $4 billion — then a huge sum of money — for national infrastructure through a Pakistani intermediary, Mr Tirath Khemlani, without parliamentary authorisation. The plan, which became known as the Khemlani Affair, unravelled, further discrediting the Whitlam government.
The opposition, then with a narrow majority in the Senate, decided to block Supply — the appropriation bills needed to spend money to keep government running — in order to force the government to an early election.
Mr Whitlam embarked on an exercise in brinkmanship by refusing to call an election, and prepared to continue to run the government without Supply by the unprecedented action of forcing the banks to lend money to the government.
In the meantime, with the approval of Mr Whitlam, Socialist Left Victorian Senator Bill Hartley secretly went to Baghdad, asking for $500,000 from Iraq’s Socialist Baathist regime, in which Saddam Hussein would shortly come to power, in order to bankroll the ALP’s 1975 election campaign. When the ALP national executive found out, it was appalled, and rightly insisted that “Baghdad Bill” Hartley’s gambit be abandoned.
The political crisis was resolved in November 1975, when the Governor-General, Sir John Kerr — a former NSW Chief Justice and Whitlam appointee — exercised the reserve powers of his office to dismiss the Whitlam government. He then commissioned the opposition leader, Malcolm Fraser, to call an immediate election.
In that election, the Whitlam government was routed, and the result was repeated in 1977, after which Mr Whitlam resigned from politics.
Despite all this, Whitlam continued to be lionised by the left and the “baby-boomer” generation which had been the main beneficiaries of his policies.
Peter Westmore is national president of the National Civic Council.