Week 43: Hero – Gough Whitlam

by George_East on October 27, 2014

Oz_HeroThis Week’s Hero of the Week is the former Australian Labor Prime Minister Gough Whitlam, who sadly died last week.

Gough Whitlam has been called the Australian Clement Attlee. That comparison is fully justified, both in his political importance and in terms of the radical policies he was responsible for introducing.

Whitlam, led the Australian Labor Party out of the wilderness in 1972, becoming the party’s first Prime Minister since Ben Chifley lost the 1949 general election. His government, which was in office from 1972-1975, introduced universal health care and free university education to Australia, and was responsible for the institution of legal aid. His administration is, by a distance, the most radical in domestic policy terms that Australia has ever produced.

He was responsible for the beginning of aboriginal land reform with the landmark transfer of the title deeds to the Guridji people of the Northern Territory of parts of their ancestral lands, and implemented the Racial Discrimination Act, which ratified the UN Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination. No fault divorce became law with the Family Act 1975.

Also, like Attlee, Whitlam was a decoloniser, granting Papua New Guinea its independence in 1975, though his copy book was less impressive over East Timor in respect of which, in the wake of the Portuguese revolution in 1974, he supported the claims of Indonesia over the independence movement (a movement which would be bloodily put down by Suharto’s regime).

The circumstances of Whitlam’s fall, in a constitutional coup orchestrated by the opposition leader Malcolm Fraser and the Queen’s representative as head of state, the Governor General, Sir John Kerr, is probably the most disgraceful episode in Australian constitutional history.

Against all convention the Australian upper house, the Senate (controlled by a right wing majority), in echoes of the 1909 People’s Budget crisis in the UK, voted down finance bills passed in the lower House by the Whitlam government. This led to constitutional deadlock, which was resolved (for the only time in Australia’s history) by the governor general dismissing the Prime Minister – even though he continued to command a majority in the House of Representatives. It is one of those examples that should act as a reminder of the continued powers of the monarchy and the deeply undemocratic nature of the constitutional arrangements under which we (and the Australians) continue to live.

After the fall of his government and his subsequent resignation as Labor’s leader in 1977, Whitlam remained an active figure in Australian public life. He was appointed by Bob Hawke to be an ambassador to UNESCO in 1983 on the return to office of Labor, and continued his work well into his 90s.
His death last Tuesday marked the passing of one of not just the major figures of Australian politics but one of the towering figures of the post-War left. Sadly the likes of politicians like Whitlam (like Attlee again) seem beyond the boundaries of what is any longer possible for progressive political parties to produce.

Gough Whitlam 1916-2014 RIP.

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