21 October 2014

What sort of nation

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: "Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these life less things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away".

- Percy Bysshe Shelley Ozymandias
For much of human history, nation-states were organised on ethnic terms: here we are a people, and over there the dreaded foreigner does not speak as we speak, pray as we pray, eat or trade or whatever as we do. This often led to conflict.

By the 1930s, arseholes like Hitler or Franco could declare themselves to not only be the embodiments of their respective nations, but the very apogee of history: several millenia had led to those guys insisting on one right way of speaking, praying, eating or being, and on weeding out those who were doing/being wrong. Many people rejected this approach. Those who did so under those dictators ended up dead or in prison, while those with the freedom to do so re-examined what the nation-state was for. Plenty of big thought had gone into government and governance, but what with the rise of manhood suffrage and the fall of the economy during the Depression (two developments, alas, frequently linked at the time) things had changed.

The answers they came up with on what the nation-state was for had a common theme: the nation-state is where citizens get their services from. This was the philosophy behind Roosevelt's New Deal, the social policies of M J Savage in New Zealand, and in postwar Europe: the private sector runs the economy and pays taxes to government, which delivers services.

In Australia, the political system hadn't undergone that level of seismic shock. When the Depression hit the Labor Party fractured, experimenting with newfangled Keynesianism and other ideas but not getting anywhere. When you read the press accounts of this time (including Keith Murdoch's Herald) there are strong similarities with the 'chaos' narrative surrounding Rudd and Gillard. The 1930s was dominated by the risk-averse Lyons government, which wasn't as austere as the NZ government that preceded Savage but was less dithery (due to the lesser pressures upon it and a lack of curiosity about the outside world) than the Conservative British government of the time. Labor regained office in 1941 as the war was underway and adopted a pragmatic, anti-intellectual approach to governing in the face of the war. Its attempt at nationalising the banks in 1947 was half-hearted and badly considered, and helped kill adventurous policy for two decades.

The Snowy Mountains Scheme and the national copper-wire telephone network were about as far as big thinking went in this country: no national health scheme (except in fits and starts as with baby health programs), no national planning on the scale seen in postwar Europe or even in the US, often but not always initiated by left-of-centre parties and continued by right-of-centre parties.

The expansion of the university system and the CSIRO was proper nation-building stuff. It was undermined in effectiveness by patchy primary and secondary education and the strangled attempts at expanding access to education, owing to the prevalence of the myth that education is a gift rather than an essential service for a person to participate in the society of which they are a citizen. Ironically, those gushing thanks at Whitlam for giving them an education are reinforcing the idea of education-as-gift; the same mentality that has seen the Abbott government can the Gonski scheme.

For conservatives, dismantling the notion of Australia as an outpost of Empire and allowing for a multi-ethnic Australia was slow and patient work, like defusing a bomb. Unions had trouble organising non-English speaking workers who had been brought in specifically to do manual work, part of the complacency that would see them struggle to organise at all when the economy changed beyond their powers of recognition. It was parliamentary Labor under Whitlam who recognised that one could be Australian without having Anglo-Celtic heritage - or, under 'assimilation', putting up a front and keeping up appearances (e.g. changing hard-to-pronounce names). This is why Whitlam deserves credit for a multicultural Australia, but also why he stands on the shoulders of those who defused the potential for the sort of institutionalised racism and ethnic violence that has beset Britain.

Conservatives maintained the cultural high ground in Australia through superior education and the higher incomes that came with it, to patronise art forms they liked. Evatt aside, Labor's anti-intellectualism saw them disdain arts funding and policy as elitist. It was Whitlam who outflanked the conservatives in this regard, happily taking high art (like opera) and popular art (like film) from ambivalent conservatives. Whitlam was as well educated as Menzies, and a sharper and more polished intellect than the conservatives who succeeded Menzies. To pine for Menzies was to pine for someone as sharp and presentable as Whitlam, which was self-defeating for them and reinforced Whitlam when Labor would have otherwise been ambivalent towards him.

The Coalition government of 1949-72 achieved many good things, but they spread about four or five years' work over a 23-year period. When Whitlam came to office in 1972 he wasn't so much fizzing with new ideas as playing catch-up:
  • The Karmel report on education should have been completed when the baby boomers were toddlers, not when they were hitting adulthood.
  • The urban planning ideas should have been done and dusted in the 1950s; today, large-scale urban planning is a joke and big shiny visions like Melbourne 2030 are not so much plans as punchlines, fading weeks after launch and tweaked and relaunched to the point where ... more planning is warranted, and what happens bears no relation to what has been planned for. Albury-Wodonga, the Gold Coast and Monarto should have risen in parallel with Canberra, not as 1970s afterthoughts.
  • Had the Moomba-Sydney gas pipelines be completed earlier today's CSG debate would be very different, and this applies to other infrastructure as well.
  • The much-vaunted 25% cut to all tariffs is the economic equivalent of cutting your legs off to meet a weight-loss target. Winding back protectionism should have been completed by the mid-1960s at the latest, once it became clear that devastated Europe and Japan were not content to stay devastated and allow Australia less competition than it actually had by that time.
The recognition of Aboriginal land ownership and policies to conserve the environment arose from a recognition that there was more to Australia than cultivation of land and flogging the produce. As can be seen by the Fraser government, dominated by rural landholders, that notion had a way to go, but the development of those policies in Whitlam's time and his encouragement of them shows that he was not only playing catch-up, but looking forward too.

One clear error was his shoddy treatment of Vietnam veterans. McMahon withdrew all but a small number of Australian troops from Vietnam by the time Whitlam took office. Whitlam released the draft dodgers, but more powerful was releasing the youth of that time from conscription. There were, as the old song says at 0:32, no V-day heroes in 1973. Disparaging Vietnam vets had begun under the conservatives, blaming them for their policy failures. Whitlam should have been big enough to bring them back into the bosom of the working class and use the aegis of office to allow them their place as heirs to the Anzac legend. Politically, he would have outflanked the Jim Cairns-inspired freaks in his own party who portrayed returning service personnel as dupes and baby-killers.

The idea that the country should replace state and local governments with regions has been mugged by reality. We have jurisdictions about the size of Whitlam's regions - Tasmania, the ACT, the Gold Coast, all overgoverned and struggling endemically both to raise taxes and meet the service and regulatory needs of their populations. This is an idea Whitlam would probably have dropped given enough clear evidence. Support for the idea can only be described as sentimental nonsense.

Another was the economic embarrassment faced by all first-world governments in the 1970s, that easy growth and low unemployment would continue indefinitely. This was the start of the narrative that Labor can't manage the economy and the Coalition does it better. Part of that came from Whitlam's arrogance, but also Labor's negligence in not matching him with better candidates and assuming second-rate lags would grow into the job.

Chris Pyne's comments were both typical and silly, and grossly inappropriate for the very day of a man's passing. I remember when conservatives were stuffy, but had decorum when appropriate. The second-rate lags surrounding Whitlam all had it, even Freddie Daly. We really are being governed by boy-men who giggle through formal speeches and fart in church. Old-school stuffy conservatives accorded some dignity to that which they wished to conserve. This is why Pyne, Abbott and the gang sound so hollow when they claim to stand for things and preserve what's good about our country. Those who like Abbott claim he's clever, even erudite; but unlike Whitlam there is no evidence of it in his policy output. Consider Whitlam's first year as Prime Minister - and Hawke's, and Rudd's, and Gillard's, and compare them to Abbott, who flits from Newspoll to Newspoll, media cycle to media cycle.

The media loved Whitlam when he was Opposition Leader - read some of the biographies written by journalists at the time. They're embarrassingly gushy, full of you-had-to-be-there moments which they regard as punchlines. Once he got into the heavy policy agenda in 1973-74 the journos got bored. After Whitlam failed to achieve a strong majority in 1974 they began to seek out anonymous backbench natterings and talk up the tough-talking opposition. They loved him again once he was gone from politics, much as Julia Gillard is getting kinder press these days. Once the baby-boomer journalists who had boosted him in 1972 rose to the top of the Australian media, they set the narrative on the retired Whitlam, and that narrative has been kind.

Abraham Lincoln said that it took a good man to build a barn, but any old mule could kick it down. Whitlam built progressive institutions and put conservatives in the position where they had to destroy established custom and practice; a conservative who destroys established custom and practice undermines that which they might hope to preserve. Fraser came to realise this and stopped trying to dig his legacy out of its historical hole. Howard held office for three times longer than Whitlam and achieved slightly less. Abbott can't even get a budget through a hostile Senate, which Whitlam did twice (the third, in 1975, was passed by the Fraser government without amendment).

Whitlam was not just someone of his time, but for the ages. To consign him to some bygone age is silly, especially when this government is all about undoing the practical aspects of his legacy while a) pretending that it is the best friend of those things and b) trying to do so in a way that doesn't make them any more unpopular. Even the IPA, in urging Abbott on, could think of no higher praise for a reformer than to emulate Whitlam's boldness while undoing his actual legacy. Putting out a release like that is an act of misjudgment that colours all other judgments.

People fear that this government will undo Whitlam's legacy, but one thing is clear - they'll stuff that up, too.

All of history involves people deciding what aspects of our heritage are to be preserved, what set aside. Gough Whitlam knew this, he lived it in his work, and it is why he deserves to be regarded in a wide and long historical context. He deserves better than the born-in/educated-at/son-of stuff you see in the traditional media (and which they prepared years in advance, like supermarket frozen foods), or the rushed jobs from journalists who didn't even know who he was. He will get better treatment, and subsequent governments will advance the causes he promoted - but it will take time.

What sort of nation are we? What might we become? What is government for? If you look only at Abbott and recent history you might be entitled to despair. Whitlam at least enables you to start addressing those questions, whether or not you follow the path he had lighted - and which is still lit, if badly maintained.


  1. Thankyou Andrew for an interesting read although I disagree that Whitlam was 'arrogant'. Arrogant people are self-absorbed. Whitlam had a generous spirit and was interested in humanity in all its pursuits, great and small.

    As far as I am concerned he was the last politician in this country to speak compellingly about the National Good and act accordingly. The present day political obsession with individualism has shriveled national discourse to crude name-calling (girly-man) and cheap sloganeering (Stop the Boats).
    I once thought Malcolm Turnbull had the capacity to be another Whitlam and, indeed, he spoke compellingly about the man and his legacy yesterday.
    In more recent times I have been disappointed. Whitlam would have seen the NBN as essential nation bulding, a big, bold project for our future. Turnbull's 'vision' is a great deal less. And despite honeyed words to the contrary, Turnbull seems to support government moves to castrate the ABC.
    I firmly believe that this country is yearning to hear someone talk about The Country in ways which bind us. Team Australia is by its nature exclusionary. If you are not with us, you do not belong. Nasty and brutish.

    1. It is fair to say that Whitlam was a generous spirit, but the final sentence in your first par makes him sound like St Francis of Assisi which, allowing for generosity to the man in his passing, he wasn't.

      Turnbull began his career in service to Kerry Packer and ends it in service to Murdoch. He has been a disappointment but perhaps we were mistaken to have expected too much. This government is a waste of time and only reinforces the importance of much of what it disdains.

    2. Agree Andrew but I wasn't referring to Gough who would have been appalled at being relegated to second rank of sainthood when he walked on water.

      Clearly Gough only bound some of us, and many of those after his death. No I mean a Real Leader who puts the country first instead of sectional interests.

    3. Do you think Turnbull has been 'tainted' by the rest of the bunch? For a period his master seemed only to be himself; you are right he now works for Murdoch.

  2. What sort of nation are we and what do we want to become? Maybe yesterday's eulogies will serve a wider purpose if those in the ALP can begin to express their answers to these questions coherently and convincingly. From today's perspective the striking thing about the stories of Whitlam's progress was how he persistently articulated his vision – the Program – and brought people along with him.

    Well balanced piece Andrew, thank you.

  3. The gulf between Whitlam and Abbott shows the difference between the Nation state at its best, and the Market state at its worse.

  4. Thank you Andrew for another reminder of what a prat Christopher Pyne really is. Here's a simple test; who will be remembred in 100 years - Pyne or Whitlam? As for Sheridan writing in today's Oz that Whitlam was "the worst Prime Minister in our history", does he not remember Billy McMahon or Stanley Melbourne Bruce or even Kevin Rudd?

  5. The Herald-Sun was thrown over my fence this morning rather than The Age, so I had the (dubious) pleasure of reading Terry McCrann's opinion that Whitlam "was also Australia’s worst-ever prime minister — until Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard came along". He needs to get out more.

  6. Predictably the Lilliputians have swarmed around in the giant's shadow.

    Boy-men indeed.

    Thoughtful writing, as usual.

  7. I don't know why I was shocked by watching Pynes performance in Parliament yesterday, but I was...and shouldn't have been. What a juvenile, nasty little tosser he is.

    In terms of legacy, many are now saying that we have never seen the likes of Whitlam, since the 70's. I think this is untrue, and that the Keating and Gillard governments were also great reformers.

    Keatings legacy is already established in this regard. The legacy of the Gillard government will also be, in time. And just like with the Whitlam govt, reforms repealed by the conservatives will come back into legislation.

    It is interesting that the conservatives record of reform is SO POOR. The only thing I can think of is gun control (for which the Howard govt should be thanked). Oh, and I guess that govt tweaked financial market regulatory environment in a minor way (but the credit for a strong regulatory and prudential regime remains to the credit of the Keating government).

    I am sure there is more, but not much. Then again, conservative does tend to mean : maintain the status quo, so I get failure to reform goes with the territory. Not good enough.

  8. Andrew, I don't agree with your statement that people being thankful for a free tertiary education are gushing and see it as a gift. Those of us who were afforded this right are just thankful that it came our way when it did, as it has transformed personal lives and our nation. We should always be thankful to people who deliver things that improve the lot of all.

    Compare the Whitlam vision of ensuring dignity to all by providing free universal health care and a complete education available to all of ability to Andrew Bolt's twisted, mean spirited sense of what he wants Australia to become - to quote from his article "... The Abbott Government is even today dealing with the costly consequences and culture of entitlement bequeathed by Whitlam’s decisions to give free universal medical care and university education.." (And this is what Pyne & Abbott are working to achieve - shame on them all)

  9. I notice that the policy and legislative reforms he implemented that in particular had great significance for the lives of women, are being largely ignored in the mainstream media tributes. Here too. Is it important to leave women out of all the narratives?

    1. I suppose Andrew didn't discuss women much in his article; nor did he discuss First Nations people. I don't think he discussed people much at all.

      It's a little dry for that reason, and it does tend to focus on policies, but I don't think it is reasonable to expect everything be covered.

    2. Women aren't left out of all the narratives. All of that stuff above affects women; they bore the brunt of thousands of cases of PSTD, for example.

      Because I'm not a journalist, I won't dismiss your criticism out of hand. Can you link to pieces that particularly reference women and Whitlam's legacy for them?

    3. He did start the single mother pension, and no-fault divorce (which disproportionately affected women).

  10. You couldn't really have a bigger contrast than the one between between Whitlam and Abbott.They are both perfect examples , benchmarks if you will , one for intelligence the other for stupidity. I doubt Abbott will make 98 , he just doesn't have the heart.

  11. The introduction of the single parent benefit is an aspect of the Whitlam legacy that has not been given the prominence it deserves, from my point of view anyway. It one of the most important things Gough did for women, for freedom and to make our country great.

    The benefit came in just before I became a single mother in my teens and I am sure it is a good thing for both of us that I got to raise that baby myself. Perhaps one positive outcome of the numbers of single mothers is the increased understanding and respect that some young men raised by single women have for the women. But these young men would be the girlie men and not the boy men?

    The only jobs available to bad girls in such a situation were as housekeepers to some kind person. Of course the kind old men who were keen to give a fallen women a job and a bed would never think of insisting on other services as well as cleaning and cooking.

    Conservatives had no intention of giving fallen women a way of keeping their children as they thought that it was natural and a good thing for them to be able to adopt, to take the children of the poor, well the ones that lived up to their notions of genetic suitability. This way, the bad girls who foolishly got themselves pregnant would have a second chance at life so it was so much better off if they gave the baby up and got on with their lives.

    From their point of view, it is a great arrangement; the good people get a baby that God is denying them, and the bad woman gets a second chance at life, well, as long as she could keep it all secret.

    But of course secret keeping fits in with the Conservative need for privacy. They cloak this need to keep things secret from the ordinary people by saying that privacy is a right that everyone should have, but this is rubbish.

    Conservatives do not evah support rights for everyone.

    Clearly the real reason – the motivation behind their emphasis on privacy as a right - is because they or their ilk, do things that they know the ordinary people would not like. And it seems that these self-nominated superior people do have a need for the approval or tacit support of the ordinary people.

    Hence Barry Spurr and his desperate attempts to hide his naughtiness.

    Gough, I think coped with his real 'superiority' - intellectual and moral - by maintaining a superior manner that was very funny and was essentially, self-deprecating.

  12. Highgate Johnny22/10/14 8:53 pm

    Post war immigration initiated by Calwell and Chifley and followed by Holt under Menzies could have been mentioned as something bigger than the Snowy Scheme as post war reconstruction achievements.

  13. Thank you for this Mr Elder.

    The final paragraph in partcular jumped out and punched me right in the face.

    Maybe now is as good a time as any for Whitlam to leave.

    Perhaps, his passing might help remind us of all that we have, and shine that light upon those who now seek to destroy much of his legacy.

  14. Your last para has got me thinking Andrew. I could go on and on but rest assured I will not.

    I wonder sometimes if all the managerial speak has turned our politicians into automatons. Does thought inform speech or does speech shrivel thought.

    Our politicians conduct their daily business with a grab bag of tired slogans and banal utterances which conceal and/or confuse meaning.

    They are always 'moving forward', conducting 'dialogues' or even 'dialoguing'' with somebody. We all live in an economy and are consumers.

    Our leader talks about Stopping (insert relevant word), 'shirt-fronting', Team Australia and repeats every second word. He appears to be totally inarticulate despite being a university debater.

    Is he as tongue-tied as he presents himself or does he appear that way because he is afraid of saying anything?

    It does not leave a lot of room for The Vision Thing?

    Why are our leaders so frightened? Why are they spooked by the people they lead? Most of them appear to be completely ill-at-ease. Some of them don't seem to like their countrymen and women very much at all. We seem to be hectored an awful lot.

    God knows what we will become.

  15. George Orwell believed that speech shrivels thought.

  16. Whitlam was a God for many migrant groups especially The Greeks.

    The Neos Kosmos paper has him plastered on their front page this week as a comrade.

    Malcolm Turnballs speech was extremely poignant ending with the special relationship he had with Margaret and their special meeting place at Mt Olympus.

    I've never shed a tear for anyone in politics but with Whitlam he was one of a kind....

    May his spirit live on in another generation.

  17. Enjoyable read as always, Andrew. I think we are only now coming to realise, and appreciate, the Whitlam years, short as they were.

    He dragged this country kicking and screaming into a modern world and gave all its citizens the right to affordable, accessible healthcare and the opportunity, no matter our circumstances, to an education that would lift so many out of institutionalised poverty and lack of job opportunities.

    They are really his greatest legacies which the current government is desperately trying to remove and return us to the dust bowl of poor health, education and complete lack of vision so beloved by the conservative elite.

    The Rudd/Gillard governments were also visionary, if less eloquent than Whitlam. NBN, Gonski, NDIS, RET, carbon pricing etc were all policies designed to drag us kicking and screaming into the 21st century and beyond, while the current government's only "policies" are soley designed to drag us back to the intellectual wasteland that was the 1950s.