I met a traveller from an antique landFor 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.
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
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.
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.