Monday, July 04, 2011

Gough at 95

An interesting column in The Monthly by (another) child of the Whitlam era Lindsay Tanner as a Gough retrospective at 95.

I'm with Tanner in agreeing that the Whitlam Government is often misrepresented as being economically negligent and careless in foreign affairs. Tanner is right to note how turbulent the times were, but he perhaps also fails to remind us that 1972-75 oil shocks were not only due to oil embargoes arising from the Yom Kippur War but were also a simple conscious economic act of "monopoly" pricing by the oil cartel that was OPEC.

The fact that Whitlam shared with every other Western Government the inability to deal with the consequent "stagflation" is conveniently forgotten. The fact that the very first piece of removing economic rigidities that was the correct response to stagflation was the 25% tariff cut is also underplayed. The conservatives don't want to admit it was an essential pre-condition for all the reforms that came later, and the left cannot accept ownership of it.

The coalition didn't especially revile the Whitlam Government because of the way they obtained power - it is always the nature of incoming Government's to critique their predecessor. Maintaining Whitlam as leader and being prepared to run the 1977 election on the same basis of 1975 was the ALP's choice. If Gough had stood aside immediately for Bill Hayden, the man widely credited as having renewed credibility to the Whitlam Government, 1977 would have been an election on Fraser's record, not Gough's.

In the praise of the Whitlam Government there is also a little too much of the "great man" view of history. Gough's Government was as much a product of the times as it was of any action by a single leader. In the west there was a "revolution" in 1967-68. Only in a few places (like Paris) did the revolution resemble earlier revolutions (like 1948) where the forces for change won the war without winning any battles.

Evidence of this can be found in the reformist zeal that infected even parts of the coalition, the Government of John Gorton giving particular expression to it. That forces of conservatism in the coalition destroyed Gorton simply showed the error in the ways of those conservatives.

The same factors underpin why the Government of Malcolm Fraser ultimately did so little to dismantle the Whitlam legacy - it amended at the edges but never the core.

Footnote: Gough and Margaret Whitlam were at Sydney University with my parents. My aunt Barbara Manton (nee Glasgow) gets one small reference in Susan Mitchell's Margaret Whitlam: A Biography.

Footnote 2: I can also recall exactly where I was when I heard Gough had been dismissed, I had jost crossed City Road on the over-bridge from Wentworth to Carslaw, and my Physics I tutor John Gerofi told me the news.

Novae Meridianae Demetae Dexter delenda est

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