18 May 2008

Counterfactual: If Whitlam had lost the 1972 election

The Liberals learned a lot from Richard Nixon's demolition of George McGovern in the US elections of that year. Young Sydney lawyer John Howard was dispatched to Washington to work closely with the Republicans, where he forged lifelong friendships with Dick Cheney and Karl Rove.

Howard returned and, with the help of his mentor John Carrick, worked with advertisers and speechwriters to go in hard against Whitlam's "dangerous socialism". The celebration of Australian actions at Long Tan and Firebase Coral made the Liberals appear to be champions of the national interest in war, and linked intemperate protestors to Whitlam.

When Whitlam admitted to visiting China and meeting Mao Zedong, Prime Minister Gorton shot back: "and did you at least ask him to please stop killing Australian soldiers in South Vietnam?". While Whitlam had a riposte for that in Parliament, and while history would show China did not have the impact on Vietnam that Domino Theory implied, Gorton inspired counter-protests on Vietnam which discouraged students from participating in protests. Vietnam had been positive for the Coalition in 1966, but by 1972 it was a muddied neutral.

Gorton had cleaned up his act since his near-death political experience in March 1971. He dispatched McMahon and his followers to the backbench and began addressing the areas that had lost support for the Liberals. He built bridges with the suspicious NSW division. He targeted electorates on the outskirts of the major cities, championing small-scale farmers while criticising state governments for providing too few services to new suburbs in these areas. Premiers Askin, Bolte and Bjelke-Petersen were livid but Gorton was only repaying them for their lack of support.

The 1972 election was a replay of 1961: a one-seat victory by the Coalition. Labor had turned a 39-seat deficit in 1966 to a 7-seat deficit in 1969, but the close-but-no-cigar effort made Whitlam and Labor despair of one another.

Labor experienced a generational change in 1973. Frank Crean, Lance Barnard, Frank Stewart, Charlie Jones, Jim Cope, Rex Connor, all of whom would have been ministers in the Whitlam government gave it away or were tapped on the shoulder. The Coalition did not clean out its dead wood to the same extent. Whitlam stayed as leader in 1973 due to a solid performance in the byelections. ACTU President Bob Hawke stood on the steps of Trades Hall in Melbourne and cried "do I have to come down there and do every bloody thing myself?", before announcing that he would run for Parliament.

1973: oil shock creates economic “perfect storm” that wrecks Liberal reputation for prudent economic management. Though the Gorton government completed its withdrawal from Vietnam, it failed to distance itself from US failure in the war.

Bob Hawke becomes Labor leader in 1974 and admonishes those who ostracised returning servicemen, recognising them as working-class heroes on par with returnees from other wars, deserving sympathy and support. This attracts conservative voters to Labor without alienating their base. Leftists reconcile to this by viewing Vietnam vets as victims of Yankee imperialism.

Gorton hands over to Fraser in 1974, who has an economic basket case on his hands and little room to manoeuvre politically. He tries bringing in new ministers but after 26 years in government he can only minimise losses.

Hawke leads Labor to government as a Wilson-style social democrat, doesn’t challenge tariffs or fixed exchange rates (let alone, God forbid, centralised arbitration) and spends like a drunken sailor. 1979 oil shock buggers the economy again. Hawke embarrasses self, party and nation with booze/sex scandals.

The adherence to US/UK political cycles continues when the Liberals come back to government implementing Thatcher-Reagan-style policies, deregulating and privatising. No Medicare, no car industry either. Early 1990s: Labor comes back to office with a Blair/Clinton “third way” agenda, possibly including Medicare. We would now be governed by a Bush-style conservative government.

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