Both sides of parliament rose to eulogise Whitlam, but neither shares an enthusiasm for his reforming agenda. By Paul Bongiorno.

Claiming Gough’s political legacy

There were extraordinary scenes in the parliament this week. The heirs of the parties that nearly 40 years ago tore down Gough Whitlam stood to pay him generous tribute. Liberals wept as they addressed the house. The only democratically elected prime minister to be dismissed from office, who died on Tuesday, was acknowledged as “a giant”.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott ordered flags be flown at half-mast. The scheduled work of the parliament was suspended as a mark of profound respect. Condolences from all sides reminded the nation of the debt it owed him. The Greens tried to co-opt his legacy, the Liberals tried to make peace with it, and Labor sweated to re-engage it.

“He was only prime minister for three years – three tumultuous years – but those years changed our nation,” Abbott said, “and one way or another, set the tone for much that has followed.” Rising to the occasion as the nation’s chief mourner, he continued: “Gough Whitlam is gone, but not forgotten. He will never be forgotten.”

Soon after news broke of the death, word went out from the prime minister’s office that the Labor legend’s memory would be honoured without rancour or partisanship. No one, the message insisted, should step out of line. A marked contrast to Abbott’s pitch, during the last election campaign: “Some say this is the worst government since Whitlam, but this is very unfair to Whitlam, who was utterly incompetent.”

Government leader of the house Christopher Pyne did his best to comply but couldn’t resist a mischievous anecdote. When news of Whitlam’s sacking came through, he remembered, he was watching Adventure Island on television and noticed his mother was crying. “She wasn’t crying out of sadness when she heard the Whitlam government had been dismissed,” Pyne told the house, recalling his eight-year-old self. “She was crying out of joy.”

By November 1975, the Whitlam Labor government had become a shambles, rocked by scandals and dodgy deals. The Liberals’ subsequent landslide win showed Mrs Pyne’s relief was shared by millions.

It is all the more remarkable that four decades on, this short-term prime minister, cut down by the Liberals and Nationals’ brutal use of senate numbers, sacked by the duplicity of John Kerr, a man he himself had appointed, and despite his own flawed government management, achieved so much. He turns on its head Shakespeare’s irony in Julius Caesar: “The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.”

Deputy Prime Minister Warren Truss praised Whitlam as the father of the modern welfare system, who “took away the shame or embarrassment of receiving a pension or welfare assistance”. He drew chuckles from the Labor side when he went on: “He ... abolished imperial honours, changed the national anthem … many of these changes were highly controversial at the time.”

Of course the controversy was mainly stirred up by Truss and his conservative mates, but he concedes, “they are pretty well universally accepted now. Indeed, they are taken for granted as part of the Australian way of life, our identity, our sense of fundamental fairness.”

The irony here is that so many on this government’s frontbench have spent so long at war with Whitlam’s legacy. When the teenage Abbott was told by a shop assistant that Whitlam had been sacked, he described the news as “fantastic”. He is uneasy with much that came from Whitlam’s reform agenda. At university, he organised rallies in support of the governor-general who dismissed Whitlam. But strange things happen in death. Whitlam’s most ardent bashers now raise their voices to praise him.

His legacy has a strange potency, and when the nation mourns it mourns not just for him but for his agenda. Bill Shorten tapped into that sentiment as Labor continued to oppose $11 billion in budget cuts to families, pensioners and the unemployed. “What we see is that 40 years on from the Whitlam era, once again Labor is in the trenches defending the vulnerable, the low paid, the ordinary Australian families.”

1 . Greens use image

But laying claim to the Whitlam legacy can be fraught for contemporary Labor. The Greens hit a very raw nerve when their education spokesperson, Lee Rhiannon, put up a picture of Gough on her Facebook page with the text: “1 January 1974 Gough abolishes university fees. Gough Whitlam’s legacy for a progressive Australia will be remembered.” In the corner was a Greens party logo.

Labor’s Anthony Albanese was outraged. “They are clearly trying to appropriate Gough Whitlam’s legacy for the Greens. Gough Whitlam not only was not a member of the Greens, he campaigned against them.”

His colleague, Tim Watts, went further: “What happened yesterday, just hours after Gough’s death, was no better than political grave robbery.” He slammed it as inappropriate and opportunistic. Rhiannon pleads not guilty and says she was only paying tribute to the great man. Labor’s calls to take down the image were ignored.

Ironically, it was a Labor prime minister and not a Liberal who dismantled this piece of the Whitlam architecture. Bob Hawke and his treasurer Paul Keating introduced the HECS system, where graduates have to pay back a percentage of their course costs when they start earning money.

But it is not only the Greens who have appropriated Whitlam’s free university policy. The Palmer United Party has grabbed it, too. Its founder, Clive Palmer, was full of praise for it: “I know I was a beneficiary of free university education when Whitlam was prime minister.” He went even further, revealing he had been in difficult circumstances, and without Whitlam’s assistance he wouldn’t have become a successful businessman, “able to contribute the billions of dollars I have to the nation’s exports”.

There is another piece of the Whitlam agenda to which contemporary Labor pays lip service, and that Abbott is still fighting tooth and nail – the establishment of an Australian head of state. Integral to Whitlam’s vision of a proud, independent Australia, was an Australian republic. He tried to rid us of the Queen of England by dubbing her the Queen of Australia. Monarchists were delighted.

The defeat of the 1999 referendum dealt the cause a severe blow and while Abbott remains prime minister the question will not be revisited. Indeed, he surprised the nation by unilaterally restoring knights and dames to the Australian honours system. This from a man who during the referendum attacked the model on offer as elitist and a politicians’ republic.

This prime minister clearly doesn’t share Whitlam’s optimism that an Australian republic would define our identity as a self-confident democracy. He believes the British monarchy is some kind of mystical guarantee of our freedom. Former prime minister Keating, the last Labor leader to really push for the change, thinks Abbott is happy keeping Australia a post-imperial outpost.

The Whitlam template would be to appeal to Australians’ patriotic pride. Republican champion Malcolm Turnbull told parliament, “What people remember of Gough Whitlam is a bigness, generosity, an enormous optimism and ambition for Australia. That is something we can all subscribe to.” He revealed he encouraged Gough and his erstwhile bitter political opponent, Malcolm Fraser, to campaign together for the yes vote.

2 . Rightward shift

Fraser bemoans the shift to the right in Australian politics. “I see the Liberal Party as having moved leagues to the right, and I see the Labor Party having moved leagues to the right of Gough Whitlam’s period,” he said. “The whole political spectrum is entirely different from what it was in my time and in his time.”

Fraser disappointed hardliners on his own side by not dismantling many of Whitlam’s initiatives, especially when he had the numbers in both houses of parliament. But he explains he had “a pretty common view” with the deposed prime minister on race, discrimination, land rights, the integrity of the media and on the idea of Australia’s place in the wider world. Besides, he was acutely aware the dismissal had dangerously polarised the nation.

Keating blames it for souring the system to this day. “All the goodwill disappeared after 1975,” he told the ABC. The Liberals were unwilling to allow Labor to govern after 23 years in office, and sought to tear Whitlam’s government down at the first opportunity. Keating points out the Liberals have never given up the power to refuse budgetary bills. The whole time the Hawke and Keating governments were in power, the coalition simply didn’t have the numbers to block supply. The balance-of-power Australian Democrats ruled out ever supporting such a move.

There’s no doubt the three years of minority government, and the Gillard–Rudd rivalry and leadership merry-go-round, saw a re-emergence of polarising and ugly politics reminiscent of 1972-75. Labor paid the price by being bundled out of office after two terms, just like Whitlam. But it seems Abbott is himself paying the price for his uncompromising boots-and-all politics. The average of the four latest published opinion polls has his government trailing the opposition 53 per cent to 47. And this after two months of the political focus being on national security, terrorism and troop deployment.

3 . Shorten's hopes

But Shorten is taking out insurance against expectations that he can do in one election what it took Whitlam to achieve in two, and win back power. “He was opposition leader for five-and-a-half years before he became prime minister,” Shorten said on ABC Radio. He could have added that Whitlam also faced a sclerotic, tired government, bereft of ideas after two decades in power. Still, the surprisingly poor performance of the Abbott government has hope springing eternal in Labor hearts.

They will need more than wishful thinking. Shorten says there are lessons to be learned from the way Whitlam conducted himself in opposition. “He did his homework. He spent years and years preparing his and Labor’s ideas for government.”

Shorten is promising to come up with policies and a vision for the country out to 2024. He believes this is where Tony Abbott is vulnerable: “Be it climate change, be it infrastructure, be it the internet, be it healthcare, be it universities – this government isn’t thinking about the future.”

But Whitlam also did something Shorten doesn’t seem to have great stomach for: he took on the vested interests within the party and delivered substantial reform. Fifty years later, there is more to be done. Just ask Labor’s elder statesman, John Faulkner. This is where Gough’s example of courage and conviction comes in. His “crash through or crash” style is certainly scary for political leaders constantly guided to be bland and scripted by focus groups and opinion polls.

Shorten seems to get it. He told parliament “great leaders can create national values”. His one-time rival for the job, Albanese, summed it up neatly: “Gough Whitlam leaves a great legacy to the nation. He taught us to be brave – brave about our reform ambitions, brave in the face of our critics and unstintingly brave in the pursuit of the greatest ambition any of us could ever pursue: justice and opportunity for all.”

It’s fitting, perhaps, that an orator such as Whitlam might see a bout of fine rhetoric in Canberra this week. What’s needed though, especially for Labor, is action.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 25, 2014 as "Claiming Gough’s political legacy".

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Paul Bongiorno is a columnist for The Saturday Paper and a 30-year veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery.

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