Thursday, January 22, 2009

Hagiography gone wrong

Gough Whitlam has apparently made some kind of achievement by now being the person who had at some time been Prime Minister to have lived the longest. Why this is particularly memorable I have no idea - it is not as if the job itself is noted for its impact on longevity, unlike (say) working with asbestos.

But it has created an excuse for another round of hagiography. The piece in the Oz contains this para;

Mr Whitlam's creation of the foundations of the modern welfare state, his promotion of multiculturalism, his establishment of the Family Court and Medicare are all still intensely debated in Australia today. His abolition of conscription, withdrawal from the Vietnam War and promotion of a university education for all who sought it made him a hero to many baby boomers.

It is wrong in so many ways. The first is that Gough did NOT create the foundations of the modern welfare state. In Australia the two big thrusts were the Deakenite settlement at the start of the century that built a foundation of protectionism and the minimum wage (the two being linked in ways the HR Nicholls Society conveniently ignores). But the second great wave was under the joint tutelage of the Chifley and then Menzies Governments following World War II.

Both Deakin and Menzies faced with the populrity of socialism and/or communism needed to accomodate the principles of social democracy and social justice or face a real competitive threat. Hence both Liberal governments took the big steps to create the foundations of the modern welfare state.

As to the specifics of the Whitlamite achievement, the Family Court was a great achievement but far greater was the supporting mothers pension. It is easy to forget that prior to that time women either had to stay with their husbands in fear because they economically had no way out. At the same time it was common for women to be abandoned by their partners with no support.

Whitlam did not introduce Medicare but Medibank. It has been such a popular scheme that after the Fraser government effectively killed it off and the scheme was re-introduced as Medicare by the Hawke government, the Howard government at most fiddled with the incentives for private insurance.

The greatest addition to the opportunity to participate in tertiary education was the massive expansion of the sector under Menzies. The much vaunted "free" education was ephemeral being ultimately withdrawn by another Labor government and replaced by HECS.

But two big achievements were economic and are too often forgotten. They were the 25% across the board tariff reduction and the Trade Practices Act. These were the two acts that set Australia down the course of an open competitive economy, a path that was followed through in a measured way by Hawke and Keating and that thankfully Howard did little to destroy.

Gough was a great man, but his single biggest flaw was the myopic belief that he had to continue to implement "the program" irrespective of the economic circumstances. This sounds familiar with the Rudd government still determined on delivering its election commitments.

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