18 March 2012

Learning from Margaret Whitlam

Margaret Whitlam died yesterday after living a full life of ninety-two years. I didn't know her though I offer condolences to those who mourn her. A well-written obituary by Malcolm Farr is available here and the eulogies at her impending funeral will doubtless be corkers.

It must be said that her passing was an event that would have gone by without contribution from me until the dopey passing barb from The Situation forced a reassessment.

Margaret Whitlam was the first modern Prime Minister's wife:
  • Australian Prime Ministers' wives from Jane Barton to Dame Pattie Menzies operated in an environment where the media, and the population at large, was respectful of their role as behind-the-scenes support for their husbands (Dame Edith Lyons' political career in its own right only took off after her husband had died, and even then you should read some of the condescending tosh written about her at the time).
  • Zara Holt would have been a hoot were she around today; but in her time she was of the old school where, in public, her guard was up and her upper lip was stiff and appearances were utmost.
  • John McEwen was a widower during his short period as Prime Minister.
  • Bettina Gorton used her husband's time at the Lodge to get the degree that she had left incomplete for marriage and children, but otherwise played little role in public affairs apart from escorting her husband to functions.
  • Sonia McMahon was eye candy, the funkiest thing about her husband by a long shot. That said, if she was as flaky as was widely believed, and if he was only using her as a beard, that marriage would not have lasted as long as it did.
  • Journos had their suspicions and their rumours about the three marriages described above; they stayed out of the papers and off the air, but they limp into history showing what a poor first draft journalism can often be.
At a time when the roles of women were undergoing great upheaval, Margaret Whitlam showed that a woman in public life need not be mousy and hidden, like a support beam within a building. She showed that a woman can engage in all of the compromises necessary to maintaining a long-term relationship with a powerful man without being a doormat or a sell-out, and that harangues about the patriarchy were not a necessary part of being a modern woman. Since Margaret Whitlam:
  • Tamie Fraser preferred to take a lower profile than her immediate predecessor, but she spoke out and advocated her own causes to a far greater extent than those of her predecessors she would have known personally Damie Pattie, Zara, Bettina or Sonia.
  • Hazel Hawke championed social welfare issues to a far greater extent than Whitlam, a former social worker, had done in her husband's government. This would have upset a few of Hawke's ministers but hopefully they're over it.
  • Annita Keating's championing of the arts is straight out of the Margaret Whitlam playbook.
  • Jeanette Howard was the anti-Margaret Whitlam, preferring to be the hidden strut to her husband. Even though she underwent cancer treatment while living in Kirribilli House she felt herself under no obligation to advance treatment or understanding of that disease for anyone else one iota.
  • Therese Rein running a global business - with significant social welfare interests - while her husband was PM was a continuation of Margaret Whitlam's insistence on being her own woman.
Tim Mathieson has his own issues as First Bloke, and is blazing a trail for other men to come in that position. The next woman to serve as Prime Minister's wife (Margie Abbott, Lucy Turnbull, Chloe Shorten - take your pick) will be judged, however indirectly or even unfairly, against the standard set by Margaret Whitlam.

As Malcolm Farr pointed out, Whitlam had her own career as a social worker. From 1964 to 1967 was the only person of that profession working at Parramatta Hospital, then one of Sydney's major hospitals. While raising her own children, she would have been there when the babies of unmarried teenaged mothers were taken and adopted out. She would have been there when Aborigines would have been treated officially as non-people, even though their need for medical attention is part of their humanity. She would have seen workers from the James Hardie plant at nearby Granville dealing with the early stages of mesothelioma. I wonder what she thought of all that.

She later hosted a chat show on the ABC. Reruns of the show reveal her to be welcoming and appreciative of her guests without being gushy, and neither know-all nor facile in discussing their work; achieving a tricky balance in what might appear to be a simple format. The Coalition at the time criticised the national broadcaster for giving the Prime Minister's wife a plum role.

Much has been made of her participation in the arts, and she spoke eloquently of art in its various forms being indispensable to the life of a nation as well as a form of nourishment to individuals. She showed arts administrators that their role was to build a community around their companies rather than just hustle the government for ever more money. In their eighties, she and her husband insisted on entering the Sydney Opera House via the open stairs, as per Utzon's vision, rather than the cramped escalator off the carpark that was part of the abomination of Utzon's vision but which most people use.

Less has been made of her role as an athlete. She represented Australia as a swimmer in the 1938 Empire Games, a fact mentioned in passing but worth considering. Had war not prevented international sporting competitions from 1939 to the late 1940s it is entirely possible that Margaret Dovey (as she then was) would have played an important bridging role in Australian women's swimming between the pioneering efforts of Annette Kellerman and Fannie Durack, and the dominance of Dawn Fraser and successive generations who came after her.

Look at the video of Tony Abbott paying tribute to Margaret Whitlam (following Gillard doing so). It's clear he doesn't want to do it but he can't get over himself enough to throw himself into the task. He manifestly doesn't care that people are mourning her loss, and cares even less about her patronage of the arts. There is none of the for-whom-the-bell-tolls humility that comes from a recognition death and mourning as universal all-conquering human experiences. Taking a swipe at Gough Whitlam and his government on the way through may have been minor, but it reveals a character fundamentally too weak to become Prime Minister.

On the day before he dismissed the Whitlam Government, Sir John Kerr attended St Ignatius' College Riverview to give out prizes. He gave Tony Abbott some sort of consolation award for coming second in his class (beaten by someone who is unmarried and never had kids, but let's not go there). By the time Abbott enrolled at Sydney University the following year, Whitlam occupied the office that he holds today. Abbott might have developed his political position in reaction to Whitlam, but in his prime - and even afterwards - Gough Whitlam would have had Tony Abbott on toast had the latter been so stupid as to tackle him directly. Whitlam achieved what he did by leaving smarter and more principled people than Tony Abbott in the dust. The idea that Abbott should take a swipe at Whitlam on a day surely more devastating to him than all of 1975 put together is sickening.

Sickening, but not surprising. Had Margaret Whitlam died while Abbott was an undergraduate, a graceless comment from undergraduate Abbott might have been forgiveable - but not now. After numerous addresses-in-reply to foreign dignitaries and other formal occasions when addressing Parliament, we've seen that he can't resist getting a dig in at the cost of whatever message he's meant to be getting across. That lack of decorum and a sense of occasion in the context of what it means to be Prime Minister renders irrelevant all those people who insist that Tony is a lovely guy when you meet him face-to-face.

When blow-ups like this occur Abbott fans roll their eyes and say, "it's just Tony being Tony", and maybe it is; it won't be the last one, either. We're not obliged to have this joker as Prime Minister.

OK, so Abbott's comments about the Whitlam government weren't very nice. A lot of things in politics that aren't nice can be justified on the basis of being politically smart, the means justified by the ends of winning votes and holding power. Abbott won no votes at all by going after the Whitlams in that manner, at this time. No voter who is doubtful about the incumbents is encouraged to vote Liberal/National on account of that comment. From the perspective of hard-headed politics, every word that comes out of Abbott's mouth should reinforce Coalition voters in their inclination and discourage Labor/other non-Coalition voters in theirs. Any topic of conversation not conducive to those ends should not be uttered by him. Abbott has not only failed a test of decency, but also of politics at its most pragmatic.

John Howard is meant to be Abbott's role model, and even people who loathe Howard admit that he would have observed propriety on an occasion like this and would never have stooped so low as Abbott did. The first election I was involved in was 1987, and even as a Young Liberal I noticed that a lot of Labor voters were disappointed in Hawke. Come election day, even the biggest whingers rallied to their cause: because Howard had threatened to gut Medicare and the Conciliation & Arbitration Commission, and end race-neutral immigration, Labor people redoubled their efforts. By 1996 Howard had learnt that lesson and there was scant fuel for a Labor scare campaign.

Abbott might think he's jamming it up Labor by having a go at Whitlam on he day his wife died, but he underestimates how positive it will be for him or his party. Liberals too overestimate how easily small stuff like this doesn't vanish from the public mind but accumulates to the point where it's toxic to swinging voters going Liberal: just because it disappears from "the news cycle" doesn't mean that people will forget, and won't use it against Abbott in judging who should become Prime Minister. Abbott should want Labor discouraged by bad polls and stuff-ups, not fired up from a broadside on one of their icons as he mourns. You could point out that this is how it's done, but too late.

Margaret Whitlam (and her husband) showed that class need not be defined in economic terms. "Working class" had been clear enough but Labor failed in its historic task to monopolise their votes, and by any measure that "class" is dissolving and fragmenting to the point where it can barely be defined effectively, let alone represented. At the same time, in Australia the ruling-class has always been so thin and so fluid it consisted largely of those who stepped up and had a go.

No, "class" in Australia is something else entirely. Margaret Whitlam had it in spades and showed how it could be applied to help people and society/nation more broadly. That's why people who never met her are sad at her passing. Tony Abbott does not have nearly enough of it to maintain his current position, let alone ascend further. That is why people, whether they've met him or not, are sad that Abbott is occupying a job for which he's unfit and won't give over to someone who does have the class necessary for high office in this country.


  1. Listened to Phillip Adam's interview with Margaret Whitlam from a decade ago. You capture in your piece the essence that is on display in that interview - an amazingly gracious and talented person. Abbott's comments were simply unnecessary, even for a perpetual campaigner. How will he ever learn to flick that switch to diplomat and/or leader of the nation?

    1. He wants to be Opposition Leader and he'll stay in Opposition. The Liberals expect more from him and more fool them.

  2. One of your best, Andrew. Abbott is so insecure in his beliefs that he has to wheel out this stuff to show them, and show his apparent commitment on every opportunity. I thought it strange when I heard of Margaret's death on ABC News that the only condolence mentioned was that of Abbott, but with no mention at all of his poor judgement.

  3. Sadly, Andrew, I fear that as the Working Class of old is being replaced,as you say. It is being replaced with a group of people that lack class. It is this group of CUBs (Cashed Up Bogans), that Abbott is harvesting the votes of. That which Howard cultivated(whilst holding his nose, as the Suburban Solicitor in all our lives is wont to do when having to deal with them for his bread and butter),for 12 years.
    The Suburban Solicitors of this nation, and their 'Aspirational'(and wasn't Howard a master for tapping a bell that rang clear throughout the electorate?), Middle Manager brethren, will always vote Liberal, because that's what you do when you get a bit of money in the bank & a few Investment Properties, plus a parcel of Shares and a Self-Funded Retirement Account. The Liberal vote goes hand-in-glove with it all.
    No, the extra 10-15% in 2PP vote that the Coalition have harvested has come entirely from the Tradie CUB demographic, that Abbott plays to relentlessly. You know the ones. People for whom Ray Hadley is their icon, and a studied nonchalance about the Arts, or any form of cultural sophistication for that matter, is worn as a badge of honour.
    On the other side of the spectrum, The Greens have been sucking up the cultured and concerned vote. Though I must say, all I can remember from them yesterday, by way of comment on Margaret Whitlam's death, was Christine Milne's Tweet that she was sad to hear the news as she put in a day's work in the garden. A very 'Green' angle, to be sure.
    This all leaves Labor very much in the lurch. When not even the partner of one of their 20th century icons can be paid due respect, it sort of just contributes to the dunning of their political legacy in that subliminal way that Tony Abbott is very successful at.
    What's even sadder is that, despite your eloquent argument about how nasty & horrible the prospect of him as PM is for the country, according to the opinion polls, 55-60% of the country wants him to lead them down that path. As the leader of the nation.
    Margaret Whitlam will no doubt be rolling in her grave at the prospect.

    1. Bushfire Bill18/3/12 5:32 pm

      The best thing to do would be pointedly NOT invite Abbott to the funeral service.

      If anyone asks, tell them Gough thought it'd be a bad idea.

    2. HS, I've seen the same demographics data used against the Liberals and it really is tosh. The polls should have blown out for Labor with their recent civil war, but the fact that it hasn't is real news: opinions are pretty much fixed, with the difference being Gillard is lifting while Abbott just can't.

    3. Bill, you know Gough has too much class for that. Besides, he'd collar Abbott on the church steps.

  4. Lachlan Ridge18/3/12 5:08 pm

    Class in Australia as a measure of social stratum is largely a tribal affair; as any visit to a playgroup, sporting club, large workplace or public event will testify. The ALP is a tribal affair, and they bury their own with a powerful dignity. Gough is old and his name has weathered well, this could be the last time we see him in public. State Funerals have become meaningless since Kerry Packer got one, but I wouldn't be surprised to see the Prime Minister at Gough's elbow when we bury Peggy Whitlam.

    The English language is a beautiful thing in your hands Andrew - your movement to the other meaning of class was superb. Like all those old student politicians The Situation lacks it in spades, There's nothing wrong with these preppy no-hopers that a real job wouldn't fix.

    And I wouldn't be too hard on the Greens, they don't really understand the ALP at all, or the furnace it is forged in. And Hillbilly, don't sweat the bogans, when they get in the cubicle with the pencil they will put a 1 next to self interest, and that will be Gillard, J.

    As for Prime Minister's wives, you left out Beth Chifley, who had to put up with the old train driver being a bit of a pants man around the Kurrajong Hotel by some accounts.

    It's a funny old country this...

    1. Thanks Lachlan.

      I left out both of the Betty-Stay-At-Homes with whom both Curtin and Chifley were stuck. That said, you might be right about the tribalism. The Coalition were always going to win when Labor just gave up, and they get frustrated when Labor jump up and dish it back.

  5. The first thing that came to my mind was Abbott's Bernie Bantum slur. It shows that this man is consumed by the 'game' and seems to view everything through the murky lens of his ambition. The graceless twat.

    1. That's what prompted me to think of Hardies and mesothelioma - see Anon's post three below.

  6. Danny Lewis18/3/12 8:26 pm

    Abbott is simply appalling.

    He is not, never has been, and never will be, Prime Minister material.

    You either have it in you or you don't. Howard had it; Rudd had it; Gillard has it - shit, even BRENDON NELSON has it - but Abbott does not.

    He is up there with Costello as the person whose peak ability does and always should land them in second place.

  7. A dispassionate, clinical analysis, Andrew, and I join with Lachlan Ridge in applauding your segue to class.

    There's one word that you missed when describing Abbott and his performance, and I shall make you a present of it: egregious.

    Meanwhile, to more tasteful subjects. Vale Margaret Whitlam, a woman of class in the best possible sense, and an inspiration to so many. My heart is with Gough Whitlam, their children, and all their many friends and admirers.

  8. Great piece.

    James Hardie's factory was at Camellia, not Granville - I doubt Margaret Whitlam would have seen many mesotheliomas at Parramatta Hospital from there in the mid 60s. Although the disease had been recognised in Australia in 1962 from Wittenoom, it was still rare before 1969.

    In any event those contracting the disease in the 1960s would most likely have been exposed in the 1930s given the latency of the disease just like Banton was exposed in the 1960s while a James Hardie employee and contracted mesothelioma in 2007.

  9. Would that Abbott's "consort" had the same effect on her husband as Margaret Whitlam had on Gough - ie keeping it all in perspective. Mrs Whitlam was a person of grace and integrity, Tony Abbott is a failed human being. Lucky for the Catholic Church he realised he was not up to even its standards.

  10. Abbott can't resist trying - and failing - to score political points every time a foreign dignitary rocks up on our shores.

    He couldn't resist making a joke about dead people with some MMM chuckleheads in Adelaide - even while the corpses were still being dragged up from the bottom of the ocean floor.

    And now he can't resist trying - and failing - to score political points on the day one our Prime Minister's wives dies.

    I don't think there are many people left in Australia who think this man is Prime Minister material. One day the media in this country will hold him to account for what he says and I hope that day is not far off.

  11. And this thing where the Opposition has declined to grant Craig Thompson a pair while he's in hospital shows what a pack of grubs they are.

  12. As DiNatale said the Liberals better be careful what they wish for because a number of National Parliamentarians have been granted pairs so they could campaign in Queensland

  13. Excellent observation! The mainstream media disgusts me the way they cover up for this graceless fool.

  14. And ABC24 inform us that the President of the AMA is 'bemused' by the Opposition's questioning of the veracity of the medical certificate. I doubt that the President, Dr Steve Hambleton would agree with that characterisation. So much for balanced reporting.

  15. The swipe at Gough Whitlam aside, surely Margaret Whitlam is worthy of consideration for her own merits and achievements rather than as her husband's appendage?

    Abbott seems to be incapable of judging women on their own merits. They must always be contextualised as someone's wife or someone's mother. (A work colleague who met him told me he would only converse with her on her impending motherhood and her marriage, not her work or career achievements, which, as she met him in a work context, was a little bit more relevant than her personal life.)

    I think this is one of the major reasons women instinctively dislike him. We do not like being marginalised - I live my life as myself, not my husband's wife, thank you very much.

  16. We should also remember a time when Tamie Fraser was far from low profile. Malcolm Fraser was struck down with influenza; This Day Tonight was making a big deal about how he was avoiding awkward questions, when Tamie strode into the ABC's Canberra studio, administered a quick verbal chopchop to the reporter's neck, and retired with flying colours.

    It was a devastatingly brilliant performance.