FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Australia and the Passing of Gough Whitlam

by

The punters know that the horse named Morality rarely gets past the post, whereas the nag named Self-interest always runs a good race.
Gough Whitlam, Daily Telegraph, Oct 19, 1989

Hagiography is the curse of the Australian Labor movement. It is a movement that searches for, and craves, mythical figures and myths. Such a phenomenon might be termed mummification, and detracts from closer examination. There is no greater mythic hero for that tradition than Gough Whitlam, who died at 98. In his brief period as Prime Minister, between 1972 and the infamous dismissal by the Governor-General in 1975, Australia nudged its way into something akin to revolution.

On November 13, 1972, Whitlam’s Labor policy speech at Blacktown Civic Centre emphasised the importance of the electoral decision to be made in December. It was “a choice between the past and the future, between the habits and fears of the past, and the demands and opportunities of the future. There are moments in history when the whole fate and future of nations can be decided by a single decision. For Australia, this is such a time.”

Whitlam’s victory stirred the Australian beast from what amounted to a colonial slumber, its cradle all so comfortable and comforting. In the words of former Australian Prime Minister, Paul Keating, “He snapped Australia out of the Menzian torpor – the orthodoxy that had rocked the country asleep, giving it a new vitality and focus.” Suddenly, a sense of geography was instilled – a location in the Asia Pacific, an awareness of its historical links with empire, but also with neighbours.

His domestic policy saw Australians obtain free education, a version of universal health care, the recognition of indigenous title exemplified by the handing over of deeds to part of the traditional lands of the Gurindji people at Wattie Creek. The Racial Discrimination Act was passed; no-fault divorce laws were enacted. In foreign policy, he recognised Communist China and withdrew troops from Vietnam.

But other features of his policies tend to be skirted over. Labor’s tradition of suicidal dysfunctionalism was established with ominous vengeance. Whitlam ran into budgetary problems, with the conservative opposition blocking moves for supply. The argument being made there was that Whitlam, with his ministers, had been rather cavalier with the purse and various financial dealings. The Khemlani loans affair, involving attempted borrowing of funds from Middle Eastern sources without the approval of the Loan Council, ostensibly to fund infrastructure and energy programs, cost him heavily. Ministerial heads began rolling.

There was also the “Iraqi money affair” in 1975, occasioned by a donation from Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party in Iraq for the election campaign. The equivalent of $2 million in today’s money never made it to Labor hands – it was stolen on its transfer route by an intermediary.

This is where the hagiography breaks down, dissolving before the pragmatic self-interest that comes with political survival. In a meeting between the now opposition leader, Whitlam, with United States ambassador, James Hargrove, on February 27, 1976, the ex-prime minister revealed how he had been “aware of the efforts to secure funds from Iraq”, being prompted by such figures as the leader of the Victorian ALP, Bill Hartley. Such moves enraged the then ALP president Bob Hawke, described as “a pro-Israeli fanatic”.

Indeed, the Hawke angle on this is often neglected, lost as it were in the ceremonial tribute to the Whitlam shrine. While Whitlam stumbled, another future prime minister was sinking a series of unsheathed blades into his leader. Hawke would make regular trips to the US consulate in Melbourne, happy to term Whitlam “politically crazy”. His approach to Israeli and Middle Eastern issues were deemed “beyond belief”. (The consulate document takes issue with Hawke’s language, which were found “not suitable for [a] family newspaper.”) That Middle Eastern policy had seen an erosion of funds from the Jewish base. But it also suggested that the ALP was always happy to keep Washington in the loop about its own internal dysfunctions. Hawke was merely the first in a long line, showing passing deference to a tyrant wife.

Questions are now being asked whether a similar, Whitlam-like figure would be fighting the wars of an obedient vassal, running with a child-like thrill into every distant conflict waged at the behest of empire. The question is a moot one, but is doing the rounds with flighty wings. Certainly, Whitlam did express understandable agitation at the role being played by US bases on Australian soil. Pine Gap had become a stain and target of Cold War fears, and Washington was hardly going to let the cat out of the strategic bag. Australia was growing up, and this was proving troubling.

Robert Lindsey’s The Falcon and the Snowman makes no bones about it. The election in 1972 of the Australian Labor Party after years in the wilderness of Cold War exile did not cheer the American intelligence community. “The [CIA] feared that a left-leaning government in Australia might reveal the function of the bases or, worse, abrogate the agreement and close down the facilities.” Keeping Malcolm Fraser’s government-in-waiting on call was certainly very much in Washington’s purview.

Where the hagiography struggles to get to grasp with Whitlam are the other, darker chapters of the foreign policy portfolio. Portuguese East Timor was steamrolled by a militant Suharto regime, and while Australia’s role in preventing the subsequent calamity was always going to be minor, its silence on this was deafening. Australian intelligence officials had uncomfortably intimate knowledge of the impending Indonesian invasion. But Whitlam preferred to see East Timor integrated into Indonesia, a policy of “obeisance” as opposed to self-determination. The territory was doomed to Australian indifference.

Histories strewn with the cloying language of martyrdom are not particularly insightful ones. But it says much about Whitlam that he managed to exert the hold for so long. To a large extent, the 1975 dismissal caused a good deal of the progressive movement to go into mourning. With such dashed hopes, Australia returned to a fairly dour conservatism that, in general, characterises it today, an attitude of affluence and fearful wonder at the outside world. It is a fear expressed as a concubine’s loyalty and the need for security, a variant of spreading one’s legs for empire.

The election of Fraser in a 1975 landslide doubled up as a confession and seal on the part of the Australian electorate. Reform had proven, to a large extent, indigestible. The world of Prime Minister Tony Abbott is, in truth, one of reversal – a return to the cradle, to the slumber, to a loss of memory. If conservatism suggests, as Whitlam himself claimed in his book on the years in office, a base pessimism, with reform being optimistic, then the forces of pessimism have the upper hand – at least for now.

Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge.  He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.  Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

More articles by:

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

Weekend Edition
February 16, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Jeffrey St. Clair
American Carnage
Paul Street
Michael Wolff, Class Rule, and the Madness of King Don
Andrew Levine
Had Hillary Won: What Now?
David Rosen
Donald Trump’s Pathetic Sex Life
Susan Roberts
Are Modern Cities Sustainable?
Joyce Nelson
Canada vs. Venezuela: Have the Koch Brothers Captured Canada’s Left?
Geoff Dutton
America Loves Islamic Terrorists (Abroad): ISIS as Proxy US Mercenaries
Mike Whitney
The Obnoxious Pence Shows Why Korea Must End US Occupation
Joseph Natoli
In the Post-Truth Classroom
John Eskow
One More Slaughter, One More Piece of Evidence: Racism is a Terminal Mental Disease
John W. Whitehead
War Spending Will Bankrupt America
Dave Lindorff
Trump’s Latest Insulting Proposal: Converting SNAP into a Canned Goods Distribution Program
Robert Fantina
Guns, Violence and the United States
Robert Hunziker
Global Warming Zaps Oxygen
John Laforge
$1.74 Trillion for H-bomb Profiteers and “Fake” Cleanups
CJ Hopkins
The War on Dissent: the Specter of Divisiveness
Peter A. Coclanis
Chipotle Bell
Anders Sandström – Joona-Hermanni Mäkinen
Ways Forward for the Left
Wilfred Burchett
Vietnam Will Win: Winning Hearts and Minds
Tommy Raskin
Syrian Quicksand
Martha Rosenberg
Big Pharma Still Tries to Push Dangerous Drug Class
Jill Richardson
The Attorney General Thinks Aspirin Helps Severe Pain – He’s Wrong
Mike Miller
Herb March: a Legend Deserved
Ann Garrison
If the Democrats Were Decent
Renee Parsons
The Times, They are a-Changing
Howard Gregory
The Democrats Must Campaign to End Trickle-Down Economics
Sean Keller
Agriculture and Autonomy in the Middle East
Ron Jacobs
Re-Visiting Gonzo
Eileen Appelbaum
Rapid Job Growth, More Education Fail to Translate into Higher Wages for Health Care Workers
Ralph Nader
Shernoff, Bidart, and Echeverria—Wide-Ranging Lawyers for the People
Chris Zinda
The Meaning of Virginia Park
Robert Koehler
War and Poverty: A Compromise with Hell
Mike Bader – Mike Garrity
Senator Tester Must Stop Playing Politics With Public Lands
Kenneth Culton
No Time for Olympic Inspired Nationalism
Graham Peebles
Ethiopia: Final Days of the Regime
Irene Tung – Teófilo Reyes
Tips are for Servers Not CEOs
Randy Shields
Yahoomans in Paradise – This is L.A. to Me
Thomas Knapp
No Huawei! US Spy Chiefs Reverse Course on Phone Spying
Mel Gurtov
Was There Really a Breakthrough in US-North Korea Relations?
David Swanson
Witness Out of Palestine
Binoy Kampmark
George Brandis, the Rule of Law and Populism
Dean Baker
The Washington Post’s Long-Running Attack on Unions
Andrew Stewart
Providence Public School Teachers Fight Back at City Hall
Stephen Cooper
Majestic Meditations with Jesse Royal: the Interview
David Yearsley
Olympic Music
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail