The Power and the Passion : The Whitlam Government in Retrospective

WhitlamWith his passing on 21st of October, 2014 and the memorial service on November 21, the story of Gough Whitlam's Labor government of 1972-75 has once again been brought into the public eye, not the least from Noel Pearson's eulogy speech. After 23 years of conservative rule, Whitlam and the Labor Party achieved power in late 1972 and then engaged in a modern reform program, and following Whitlam's broadening (some would sake 'breaking') the ALP from a union-based working-class party to participation from the rank-and-file membership and appeal the new suburban middle-classes.

Starting with a two-person ministry to carry out immediate measures, the Whitlam government established full relations with the People's Republic of China (and ended them with Taiwan), abolished conscription to the Vietnam war and brought the troops home, barred racial discrimination in sport, supported sanctions on apartheid South Africa and Rhodesia, abolished the death penalty in Federal law, established Legal Aid, abolished university fees, engaged in a massive urban renewal program (including a goal that no urban home be without mains sewerage), funded standard-gauge lines between the capitals, attempted to set up a new city at Albury-Wodonga, established 'Advance Australia Fair' as the national anthem (replacing 'God Save The Queen'), and replace the British Honours system with the Order of Australia.

All during this time, the government faced hostile states controlled by conservatives. In contrast to the Whitlam government's progressive foreign affairs program, the NSW government refused to close down the the Rhodesian Information Centre and the Qld would not consider changing the border with Papua New Guinea, which came within half a kilometre of the Papuan mainland. The government also had constitutional troubles with a 1973 referendum attempt to transfer wages and prices from the States to the Federal government failing. But it was the conservative-controlled Senate which cause the government the greatest grief, with numerous bills rejected multiple times. With the threat of blocking appropriation bills, Whitlam called a double-dissolution election in 1974 with Whitlam government was returned, albeit with a smaller majority. Uniquely making use of provision in the Australian constitution for a joint sitting of the two houses of parliament, the Whitlam government notably passed bills providing for universal health insurance (Medibank) and providing the Northern Territory and Australian Capital Territory with representation in the Senate.

World economic circumstances changed following the 1973 Oil Crisis, and the government's increases in wages also led to an increase in inflation (wages far outstripped inflation however). Part economic reform and part progressive foreign policy, the government reduced tariffs across the board by 25% , leading to an influx of imports and an increase in the trade deficit. The combination of factors led to a sharp increase in unemployment eventually reaching 5% and the country entering recession in 1974. Whilst these economic conditions have often generated claims that the government was profligate, hindsight has shown that the Whitlam government managed the economic conditions comparatively well. Tax cuts and spending increases announced in late 1974, especially in education. The treasurer, Frank Crean, was replaced by new deputy prime minister, Jim Cairns, who subsequently misled parliament over the loans affair and was replaced by Bill Hayden.

With the replacement of Billy Snedden with Malcolm Fraser as leader of the opposition in 1975, a new round of aggressive politics began. Nevertheless, the Whitlam government passed landmark legislation in this period, including the Family Law Act 1975 which allowed no-fault divorce and the Racial Discrimination Act which ratified United Nations conventions against racial discrimination. The Gurindji people of the Northern Territory were given title deeds to part of their traditional lands, initiating land rights reform, and independence was granted to Papua New Guinea. The latter in particular stands in stark contrast with the significant fumbling of the East Timor crisis, making it clear that he preferred Indonesia annexation under the violent Suharto regime control East Timor over the FRETILIN government. Five Australian journalists and over a hundred thousand East Timorese would die as a result of this vile Cold War pragmatism.

The trigger for the government's undoing however was the Loans Affair. Minerals and Energy Minister Rex Connor sought funds for massive state natural resources and energy infrastructure investment and initially proposed borrowing $4 billion USD. Whilst the Constitution required such borrowings go through the Loan Council, Whitlam, authorised Connor to seek the loan without involving the Council, with Whitlam later stating that the Council would be advised "if and when the loan is made". Connor believed that the monies could be acquired through Pakistani dealer Tirath Khemlani. As this was increasingly called in to question, Cabinet decided that only the Treasurer, Cairns, was authorised to negotiate foreign loans however Connor continued to do so. However it was revealed that Cairns misled Parliament by claiming that he had not given a letter to an intermediary offering a 2.5% commission on a loan. After this Cairns was sacked from Treasury.

The opposition claimed the Loans Affair justified the blocking of appropriation bills in the Senate to force the government to an early election. This would lead to the remarkable circumstances of the 1975 constitutional crisis and the dismissal of the Whitlam government on November 11. As a matter of timing, as Whitlam prepared to call a half-Senate election (which Labor could have one with the incoming Territorial Senators), the Governor-General, Sir John Kerr, dismissed the government and appointed Malcolm Fraser as caretaker Prime Minister, who quickly passed the appropriation bills before ALP parliamentarians were even aware of the change of government. When they did become aware, a motion of no confidence was passed in Fraser. Kerr then dissolved Parliament for a double dissolution election. By this stage the dismissal had reached the public's attention, and a large and angry crowd had gathered outside Parliament house, where David Smith, the official secretary of the Governor-General, read the proclamation from the steps of parliament house. Whitlam responded with one of his most famous lines:

Well may we say "God save the Queen", because nothing will save the Governor-General! The Proclamation which you have just heard read by the Governor-General's Official Secretary was countersigned Malcolm Fraser, who will undoubtedly go down in Australian history from Remembrance Day 1975 as Kerr's cur. They won't silence the outskirts of Parliament House, even if the inside has been silenced for a few weeks ... Maintain your rage and enthusiasm for the campaign for the election now to be held and until polling day.

The Labor campaign attempted to channel this rage to the ballot box, with massive rallies across the country. In three instances there was notable attempts at violence, with letter bombs send to Bjelke-Petersen, Kerr and Fraser; the former wounded two staffers. However, opinion polls indicated that the public had a thirst instead for political stability (even if the crisis was a product of the opposition's intransigent behaviour). Fraser would present various government scandals whilst avoiding policy detail; the result was a record win, with 91 seats for the Coalition to only 36 for Labor, suffering a 6.5% swing and losing half its seats. After the election, Labor continued to hound Kerr, with ALP parliamentarians boycotting the opening of the new parliament, and Whitlam rejecting all events at the Governor-General's residence.

Whilst Labor continued to hound Kerr, in 1977 Fraser initiated a set of referendum questions, and a plebiscite for the national song), two of which had relevance for the crisis of the preceding Whitlam government, a proposal for simultaneous elections (lost on the states, albeit with a large overall positive vote), and ensuring that Senate vacancies were from the same political party. Whitlam won a leadership challenge from Bill Hayden earlier in the year, albeit by only two votes, and at the end of the year, Fraser called an early election which resulted in only a marginal improvement for Labor (+1.10% on two-party preferred); the most important event of the election was the appearance of the Australian Democrats. Whitlam resigned as ALP leader after this election and as member of Werriwa; it was the definitive end of a political era.

One further matter of enduring consideration to the Whitlam government's dismissal is claims that the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) was involved. Kerr had been a member of the Association for Cultural Freedom for the previous nine years, an organisation which was later revealed to have received CIA funding. It is alleged that Whitlam threatened to close down Pine Gap if the U.S. acted against his government. John Pilger writes that the Victor Marchetti, the CIA officer who was involved in the set-up of Pine Gap, that "This threat to close Pine Gap caused apoplexy in the White House. Consequences were inevitable ... a kind of Chile was set in motion". Whitlam also claims that in 1977 United States Deputy Secretary of State Warren Christopher made a special trip to Sydney to meet with him and told him, on behalf of US President Jimmy Carter, of his willingness to work with whatever government Australians elected, and that the US would never again interfere with Australia's democratic processes.

The Whitlam government represented a modern and reformist government, bringing in numerous reforms that brought the country both up-to-date and even advancing it culturally and politically ahead of many its contemporaries, leaving behind enduring institutional legacies. Whilst Australia, as always as an export oriented country, was especially sensitive to changes in international trade, and although the economic downturn was certainly not as bad as what occurred elsewhere, that would be cold comfort among the electorate who would always want to target the decisions of a local government to blame. It was faced with very significant hostility from conservative forces, who did everything they possibly could to destablise the government engaging in an impressive level of dishonest politicking. In addition it seems quite possible, based on the evidence received, that certain outside governments also interfered in the process. All of this should be informative for political radicals who find themselves in the opportunity to make reforming changes; act quickly, decisively, keep a very tight ship, and most importantly, watch your back. Because those who believe they are born to rule do not take such people fairly or on the basis of reason - there is too much self-interest at stake, which can be more important to such people than democracy and the will of the people. To quote from A Very British Coup

You the people must decide whether you prefer to ruled by an elected government or by people you've never heard of, people you've never voted for, people who remain quiet, behind the scenes, generation after generation, yea even unto the Middle Ages.

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The Whitlam Industry - Romance and Labor in Government View the paper here:

The Whitlam Phenomenon - Romantic and Real View the paper here:

The Decade of Whitlam View the paper here:

ASIO on the brink: the story behind the dismissal, told by its own documents

The last year of the Whitlam government was one of turmoil and controversy, culminating in its dismissal by the governor-general, Sir John Kerr, on November 11, 1975. It was also a tumultuous year for ASIO, with the Whitlam government directing that relations with US intelligence were to cease, and with the sudden resignation of Peter Barbour as director-general of security. Meanwhile, the Royal Commission on Intelligence and Security, headed by Justice Hope, had begun its inquiries. ASIO knew that its outcome would have a fundamental effect on its structure, operations and perhaps even existence.