Gough Whitlam

Edward Gough Whitlam, AC, QC (born 11 July 1916), known as Gough Whitlam (pronounced ˈɡɒf goff), is an Australian former politician and 21st Prime Minister of Australia.

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A member of the Australian Labor Party (ALP), Whitlam entered Federal Parliament in 1952, winning a by-election for the Division of Werriwa in New South Wales. In 1960 Whitlam was elected deputy leader of the ALP and in 1967, following the resignation of Arthur Calwell after a disastrous election defeat the year before, he assumed the position of Leader of the Opposition.

After falling short of gaining enough seats to win government at the 1969 election, Whitlam led the Labor Party to victory at the 1972 election after 23 years of Liberal-Country Party government. After winning the 1974 election, he was dismissed in 1975 by Governor-General Sir John Kerr following a protracted constitutional crisis, and lost the subsequent 1975 election. He is the only Australian Prime Minister to have been dismissed by the Governor-General, using reserve powers.

Although his government spent a relatively short time in office, many of the policies and institutions set up under it are still evident today. His ‘presidential’ style of politics, the socially progressive policies he pursued and the dramatic dismissal and subsequent election loss still arouse intense passion and debate.

Early political career

Whitlam’s impetus to become involved in politics was the Chifley government’s post-war referendum to gain increased powers for the federal government. He joined the Australian Labor Party in 1945 and in 1950 was a Labor candidate for the New South Wales Legislative Assembly: a contest he was later grateful to have lost. When Hubert Lazzarini, the sitting member for the safe Federal electorate of Werriwa, died in 1952, Whitlam was elected to the House of Representatives at the by-election on 29 November 1952.[6]

Noted since his school-days for his erudition, eloquence and incisive wit, Whitlam soon became one of the ALP’s star performers. Widely acknowledged as one of the best political speakers and parliamentary debaters of his time, he was also one of the few in the ALP who could hold his own against Robert Menzies on the floor of the House.

After the electoral success of the Curtin and Chifley years, the 1950s were a grim and divisive time for Labor. The Liberal-Country Party coalition government of Robert Menzies gained power in the election of 1949 and governed for a record 23 years. Chifley died in June 1951. His replacement, Dr H.V. Evatt, lacked Chifley’s conciliatory skills.

Whitlam admired Evatt greatly, and was a loyal supporter of his leadership, through a period dominated by the Labor split of 1955, which resulted in the Catholic right wing of the party breaking off to form the Democratic Labor Party (DLP). In 1960, having lost three elections, Evatt resigned, to be replaced by Arthur Calwell, with Whitlam winning the election for deputy over veteran Labor MP Eddie Ward. Calwell came within a handful of votes of winning the 1961 election, but progressively lost ground from that time onward.

The ALP, having been founded as a party to represent the working classes, still regarded its parliamentary representatives as servants of the party as a whole, and required them to comply with official party policy. This led to the celebrated Faceless Men[7] picture of 1963, which showed Calwell and Whitlam waiting outside a Canberra hotel for the decision of an ALP Federal Conference. Prime Minister Menzies used it to great advantage in the November 1963 election campaign, drawing attention to “the famous outside body, thirty-six ‘faceless men’ whose qualifications are unknown, who have no electoral responsibility.”

Whitlam was quick to respond, and spent years struggling for party reform—at one stage, dubbing his opponents “the 12 witless men"—and eventually succeeded in having the secretive Labor Party National Conference turned into an open public forum, with state representatives elected in proportion to their membership, and with both state and federal parliamentary leaders being automatic members.

Through the 1960s, Whitlam’s relationship with Calwell and the right wing of the party remained uneasy. Whitlam opposed several key Labor policies, including nationalisation of industry, refusal of state aid to religious schools, and Calwell’s continued support for the White Australia Policy. His stances brought him into direct conflict with the ALP leadership on several occasions and he was almost expelled from the party in 1966 because of his vocal support for government aid to private schools, which the ALP opposed.

In January 1966, Menzies finally retired after a record term in office. His successor as Liberal Party leader, Harold Holt, led the coalition to a landslide election victory in November on a pro-American, pro-Vietnam War policy. This crushing defeat prompted Calwell to step down in early 1967. Gough Whitlam then became Leader of the Opposition, narrowly defeating his rival, Jim Cairns.

Opposition leader

Whitlam swiftly made his mark on the ALP, bringing his campaign for internal reform to fruition, and overhauling or discarding a series of Labor policies that had been enshrined for decades. Economic rationalism was pioneered,[8] the White Australia policy was dropped, Labor no longer opposed state aid, and the air of grim working-class puritanism that attended the Labor Party of the 1950s gave way to one that was younger, more optimistic, more socially liberal, more intellectual, and decidedly middle-class.

Meanwhile, after Holt’s disappearance in December 1967, the Liberal Party began to succumb to internal dissent. They first elected Senator John Gorton as leader. However, Whitlam quickly gained the upper hand on Gorton, in large part because he was one of the first Australian politicians to realise and fully exploit the power of television as a political tool. Whitlam won two by-elections, then an 18-seat swing in the 1969 election. He actually won a bare majority of the two-party preferred vote, but the Democratic Labor Party’s longstanding practice of preferencing against Labor left him four seats short of bringing the Coalition down. In 1971, the Liberals dumped Gorton in favour of William McMahon. However, McMahon was considered well past his political prime, and was never able to get the better of the more charismatic Whitlam.

Outside parliament, Whitlam concentrated on party reform and new policy development. He advocated the abolition of conscription and Australian withdrawal from the Vietnam War, and in 1971 visited the People’s Republic of China (PRC), promising to establish diplomatic relations—much to the chagrin of McMahon, who attacked Whitlam for this policy, only to discover that President Richard Nixon was also working toward recognising the PRC. The 1972 federal election saw Whitlam lead the ALP to its first electoral victory since 1946.

Prime Minister 1972-75

Custom dictated that Whitlam should have waited until the process of vote counting was complete, and then call a Caucus meeting to elect his Ministers ready to be sworn in by the Governor-General. Meanwhile, the outgoing Prime Minister would remain in office as a caretaker.[9] However, unwilling to wait, Whitlam had himself and Deputy Leader Lance Barnard sworn in as a two-man government as soon as the overall result was beyond doubt, on 5 December 1972, the Tuesday after the Saturday election; they held all the portfolios between them (see First Whitlam Ministry). Whitlam later said: “The Caucus I joined in 1952 had as many Boer War veterans as men who had seen active service in World War II, three from each. The Ministry appointed on the fifth of December 1972 was composed entirely of ex-servicemen: Lance Barnard and me.” The full ministry was sworn in on 19 December.

Although Labor had a comfortable working majority in the House, Whitlam faced a hostile Senate voted in at the 1970 half-senate election, making it impossible for him to pass legislation without the support of at least one of the other parties – Liberal, Country, or DLP.

After 23 years of opposition, the Labor party lacked experience in the mechanics of government. Nevertheless, Whitlam embarked on a massive legislative reform program. In the space of a little less than three years, the Whitlam Government established formal diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China; assumed responsibility for tertiary education from the states and abolished tertiary fees; cut tariffs across the board by 25% and abolished the Tariff Board; established the Schools Commission to distribute federal funds to assist non-government schools on a needs basis; introduced a supporting benefit for single-parent families; abolished the death penalty for federal crimes. It also reduced the voting age to 18 years; abolished the last vestiges of the White Australia Policy; introduced language programs for non-English speaking Australians; mandated equal opportunities for women in Federal Government employment; appointed women to judicial and administrative positions; abolished conscription; set up the National Aboriginal Consultative Committee; amalgamated the five separate defence departments; instituted direct federal grants to local governments, and established the Order of Australia (Australia’s own honours system), as well as improved access to justice for Indigenous Australians; introduced the policy of Self-determination for Indigenous Australians; advocated land rights for Indigenous Australians; increased funding for Indigenous Australians’ welfare; introduced the Multiculturalism policy for all new migrants; established Legal Aid, and increased funding for the arts.

The Senate resolutely opposed six key bills and twice rejected them (however they were eventually passed at a joint sitting of parliament). The bills were designed to:

  • Institute a universal health insurance system to be known as Medibank (later under the Fraser government, Medibank was abandoned as a universal health insurance system).
  • Provide citizens of the Australian Capital Territory and the Northern Territory with Senate representation for the first time.
  • Regulate the size of House of Representatives electorates to ensure one vote one value (additional measures occurred later, as of the 1984 federal election which also introduced Group ticket voting in the Senate).
  • Institute government overseeing of exploitation of minerals and oil.

The repeated rejection of these bills provided a constitutional trigger for a double dissolution (a dissolution of both houses followed by an election for all members of both houses), but Whitlam did not decide to call such an election until April 1974. Instead, he expected to hold an election for half the Senate. To improve his chances of winning control of the Senate, Whitlam offered the former DLP Leader, Senator Vince Gair, the post of Ambassador to Ireland, thus creating an extra Senate vacancy in Queensland which Whitlam hoped Labor could win. This manoeuvre backfired, however, when the Queensland Premier, Joh Bjelke-Petersen, learnt of the scheme and advised the Governor of Queensland to issue the writs for the Queensland Senate election before Gair’s resignation could be obtained.

This “Gair affair” so outraged opponents of the Whitlam government that the Opposition Leader Billy Snedden threatened to block supply in the Senate, although he took no actual steps to do so. Whitlam, however, believing Snedden was unpopular with the electorate, immediately went to the Governor-General, Sir Paul Hasluck, and obtained a double dissolution of both Houses on 11 April, with the election set down for 18 May. Whitlam went to the polls asking for a mandate to “finish the job”, and the ALP campaigned on the slogan “Give Gough a Go”. At the election the Whitlam government was re-elected, though with a reduced majority. The DLP lost all its seats, but Labor failed to win a majority in the Senate. The balance of power in the Senate was now held by two independent Senators. In the short term, this led to the historic joint sitting of both houses, at which the six bills were passed. In the longer term, it contained the seeds of Whitlam’s downfall.

In its second term, the Whitlam Government continued with its legislative reform program, but became embroiled in a series of controversies, including attempts to borrow large amounts of money from the Middle East, using as an intermediary a man called Tirath Khemlan (the “Loans Affair”). Khemlani’s background was shadowy, but there were mentions of arms dealing. Whitlam was forced to dismiss Treasurer Jim Cairns and another senior minister, Rex Connor, for misleading Parliament.

Emboldened by these events, a weak economy, and a massive swing to them in a mid-1975 by-election for the Tasmanian seat of Bass, the Liberal-Country Opposition, led by Malcolm Fraser, argued that the Government’s behaviour in breaching constitutional conventions required that it in turn attempt to breach one of the most fundamental, that the Senate would block Supply (that is, cut off supply of Treasury funds).

Dismissal

  • Main article: 1975 Australian constitutional crisis

The crisis of 1975 was precipitated by the Senate’s refusal to pass the Whitlam government’s money (Supply) bill. In October 1975, the Opposition moved to delay consideration of the budget in the Senate. This delay would have resulted in essential public services ceasing to function due to lack of money; that is to say Whitlam attempted to govern without supply and no government had ever attempted such a course of action. Malcolm Fraser warned that the bill would not be passed unless Whitlam called an early election. Whitlam determined to face the Opposition down, and proposed to borrow money from the banks to keep the government running. He was confident that some of the more moderate Liberal Senators would back down when the situation worsened as appropriations ran out during November and December.

The Governor-General Sir John Kerr, a Whitlam appointee, was concerned about the legality of Whitlam’s proposals for borrowing money, and to govern without supply, although the Solicitor-General and Attorney-General had scrutinised them for legality.

On 11 November 1975, Kerr in accordance with Section 64 revoked Whitlam’s commission and installed Fraser as caretaker Prime Minister, with instructions to make no policy changes, no appointments, no dismissals and call an immediate federal election.[13] At 2.45 pm Fraser announced he was caretaker Prime Minister and was advising a double dissolution election.

On hearing the proclamation dissolving Parliament, which ended with the traditional ‘God Save the Queen’, Whitlam delivered an impromptu address to the crowd that had gathered in front of the steps of Parliament House. During the speech he labelled Fraser as “Kerr’s cur” and told the crowd: “Ladies and gentlemen, well may we say ‘God Save the Queen’, because nothing will save the Governor-General.”

In the House of Representatives Whitlam moved a motion ‘that this House expresses its want of confidence in the Prime Minister and requests Mr Speaker forthwith to advise His Excellency the Governor-General to call on me to form a government’. This vote of confidence in Whitlam was passed on party lines. News of this vote was delivered personally to Kerr by the Speaker of the House Gordon Scholes, but Kerr refused to see the Speaker until after his Official Secretary had read the notice of double dissolution at Parliament House at 4.45 pm.

In the lead-up to the resulting election, Whitlam called upon his supporters to “maintain your rage”. With co-instigators David Combe and Bill Hartley, he also called on Iraq for a $US500,000 gift to help fund Labor’s election campaign.[16] Fortunately for his reputation, the funds failed to materialise. Whitlam ran a bitter and passionate campaign but, despite this, the ALP suffered a 7.4% swing against them and Whitlam was to remain as Opposition Leader until his second defeat in the 1977 election.

Legacy

During its three years in power, the Whitlam government was responsible for a long list of legislative reforms, some of which still stand today. It replaced Australia’s adversarial divorce laws with a new, no-fault system; introduced the Trade Practices Act; slashed tariff barriers; ended conscription; introduced a universal national health insurance scheme Medibank (later abandoned (except as a private health insurer) by the Fraser Liberal government; gave independence to Papua New Guinea; made all university education free to its recipients (a policy later reversed by the Hawke Labor government); introduced needs-based federal funding for private schools; established the long-awaited “third tier” in Australian radio by legislating for the establishment of community-based FM radio (commercial FM radio would be established under his successor Fraser); and established diplomatic and trade relations with the People’s Republic of China.

However, critics of Whitlam identified what they believed to be substantial failings in his administration. During Whitlam’s term of office, economic decline characterised by adverse balance-of-payments figures and high unemployment, inflation and bank interest rates was evident. Many of these issues had been significant challenges for previous Coalition administrations,[17] and external factors such as the 1973 oil crisis and resulting higher world oil prices, as well as falling prices for Australian farm produce, were significant contributors. But some believed that the Whitlam government’s own economic policies, such as the decision on 18 July 1973 to reduce tariffs across the board by 25%, damaged Whitlam’s standing and contributed to the issues faced by the business sector.

On social matters his reputation has been tarnished by his complicity in refusing to act against the pro-separatist movement on Bougainville on 1 September 1975,[citation needed] just two weeks before Papua New Guinea’s independence on 16 September 1975; supporting Suharto government’s invasion of East Timor by Indonesia (see Indonesian occupation of East Timor). Whitlam and many government members also refused to allow South Vietnamese refugees into the country following the fall of Saigon in 1975, concerned that they would have anti-communist sympathies hostile to the Australian Labor Party.

The autocratic Whitlam’s “crash through or crash” style made many political enemies, and the various scandals afflicting the government cost it electoral support and momentum. His ‘crash through or crash’ style was also his Achilles heel surrounding the lead-up to the dismissal.

Some Australians regarded his dismissal by the Governor-General as an outrage, but the Australian electorate voted to replace the Whitlam government by a record margin, and the Labor Party would not be a serious candidate for government again until Whitlam was replaced as leader.

The Whitlam government was also greatly damaged by several highly publicised scandals, most notably the disastrous “Loans Affair” masterminded by Rex Connor, the series of controversies over the questionable conduct of Treasurer and deputy party leader Jim Cairns, and the Indonesian invasion of East Timor. However, Whitlam’s book The Truth Of The Matter recounts legal steps essayed in the attempt to obtain or bypass parliamentary supply.

In September 2000, the Department of Foreign Affairs released previously secret files that showed that the Whitlam Labor government encouraged East Timor’s integration into Indonesia by Suharto’s “New Order”.[19] Two months after the Portuguese military began to withdraw from East Timor, Whitlam suggested to Indonesia that it launch undercover operations to ensure East Timor’s incorporation into Indonesia. During September 1974 discussions with Suharto in Central Java, Whitlam described East Timor as “too small to be independent”. An Indonesian general is quoted as saying that the September 1974 meeting, “crystallised Suharto’s thinking on the matter”. An estimated 102,000 East Timorese died during the subsequent 27-year Indonesian occupation of East Timor.[20] Five members of an Australian television crew were killed, whom Whitlam subsequently described as “foolhardy”, and “the source of a long running media vendetta against Indonesia.”

See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gough_Whitlam















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