“The Whitlam Government was extremely good at ideals, it was even extremely good at policy, but it was really bad at politics.” – Jane Caro
(Whitlam: The Power and the Passion, 2013)
Almost forty years after the dismissal, the legacy of the Whitlam Government is still extremely polarised. On the one hand, Whitlam is praised for being a heroic policy visionary who was let down by a team of inexperienced ministers. For others, he is vilified for being a reckless Prime Minister who gallivanted overseas and failed to achieve promised reforms.
My research project sought to analyse the reform agenda of the Whitlam Government through a lens that did not simply reflect this binary position. Also, as many historians and social commentators are attracted to studying the dismissal and continue to debate the actions taken by Whitlam, Sir John Kerr and Malcolm Fraser, it felt necessary to assess the government’s record as separate to the dismissal. Whilst many scholars, including Reid and Kelly, assert that the dismissal was a direct reflection of the Whitlam Government’s record, the research indicates that such a conclusion is too simplistic.
The Whitlam Government undoubtedly demonstrated poor political judgment and relied too heavily on Whitlam’s personality and vision. However, they also faced significant resistance from the Murdoch Press and had to manage a worldwide economic recession that no western government was adequately prepared for. Coupled with a hostile Senate that refused to accept the government’s legitimacy, I argue that it is remarkable that they continued to pursue a strong reform agenda, particularly in areas of education, health, rural development and women’s affairs.
As Hocking and Lewis argue, many of the reforms implemented during the Whitlam Government’s three year term appear commonsense to us today.
- Universal health insurance was implemented through the Medibank legislation, which was passed following the first joint sitting of parliament in August 1974. The initiative was highly criticised by the medical profession, who ran a large “scare” campaign. Even though the Fraser Government subsequently abolished it, Medibank was later re-vamped as Medicare, which remains in place today.
- The Family Law bill was proposed in 1973, which included the “no fault” principle for divorce and made separation more equitable. It was passed two years later following delays by the Senate, and today remains a fundamental element of family law.
- The Whitlam Government strongly advocated women’s issues. The Arbitration Commission’s case on equal pay for women was re-opened, the sales tax was removed for the contraceptive pill (which was also subsequently included on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme) and key women were appointed to new roles to ensure that issues relating specifically to women remained at the forefront of the government’s policy agenda.
- Fees associated with tertiary education were removed and accessibility to pre-schools and schools was significantly improved.
- The newly created Department for Urban and Regional Development oversaw the development of land commissions, growth centres and a complete re-distribution of resources. Even in 1972, many people living in rural areas still lacked basic amenities such as sewerage.
Faults of the Whitlam Goverment
From the beginning, Whitlam had a self-professed “crash or crash through” approach when it came to reform. After 23 years of conservative federal governments, the electorate remained largely skeptical of widespread and immediate change; something the Whitlam Government failed to take into account.
Furthermore, some ministerial appointments reflected poor political judgment. For example, treasurers Frank Crean and Jim Cairns had failed to adjust the budget in light of the economic recession and alienated the Treasury Department. Bill Hayden, who was sufficiently more competent, eventually replaced Cairns, however the appointment occurred too late.
Continuous political scandals, including the Morosi Affair, ASIO raids and Loans Affair all resulted from the actions of key ministers, and provided the Opposition and media with an opportunity to highlight the government’s failings. In particular, the Loan’s Affair was undoubtedly one of the most damaging events and preceded the dismissal.
Fig I: Herald article on the “Loans Affair” and Junie Morosi Affair
Finally, Whitlam made a huge error in imposing himself on all areas of government administration. As it was his vision and policies that enabled the ALP to gain power in 1972, very few were prepared to impose their own authority. Whitlam himself was also electorally popular, so most ALP Members of Parliament felt that he was solely responsible for promoting the government’s program.
- The Murdoch Press had strongly supported Whitlam’s election in 1972, but by mid-1974, it had switched its support to the Coalition. The immediate impact was that the government struggled to ‘sell’ its policies, with news of the scandals and state of the economy taking precedence.
- The Senate was not controlled by the ALP and continued to block key pieces of legislation. Almost all major reforms were delayed, thus prompting the 1974 double dissolution, which failed to sufficiently change the make-up of the Senate. Ultimately, the Senate’s decision to block supply in 1975 resulted in the government being dismissed and raised serious questions over their capacity to do so given that the government still had a popular mandate.
- The economy was in recession from early 1970s, which had been the result of stagflation (simultaneous increase in inflation and unemployment), US expenditure relating to the Vietnam War and the 1973 OPEC oil crisis. Undoubtedly, these factors led to significant economic downturn in Australia, which was exacerbated by Whitlam’s refusal to amend the legislative program and reduce spending.
The Whitlam Government undoubtedly made many political mistakes, but their reform agenda showed long-term vision and importantly identified policy deficiencies. Even though the government’s legacy is tainted, it is important to acknowledge their achievements, some of which remain important today.
Hocking, Jenny. Gough Whitlam; His Time. The Biography. Vol 2. Carlton: The Miegunyah Press, 2012.
Sexton, Michael. Illusions of Power; The Fate of a Reform Government. Sydney: George Allen & Unwin, 1979.
Whitlam, Gough. The Whitlam Government 1972-1975. Ringwood: Viking, 1985.
Whitlam and Modern Labor; It’s Time Again, edited by Jenny Hocking and Colleen Lewis. Melbourne: Circa, 2003.
Figure I – http://whitlamdismissal.com/category/loans