The legacy of a reformist government – the Whitlam years

“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.

Argument

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.

Key Reforms

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. 

Image

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.

External Factors

  • 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.

Conclusion

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.

Further reading:

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

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6 comments on “The legacy of a reformist government – the Whitlam years

  1. Hi Edwina, I think one of Whitlam’s ongoing legacies is that he engaged citizens – women, migrants, and young Australians became politically active – not just as protesters but as politicized groups. Also, it’s amazing how many similarities there are with the recent ALP government – GFC, hostile media and a small target, negative opposition.

  2. frankdyball says:

    Having lived through those Whitlam years, and having only a passing interest in politics, i nevertheless recall the concern of the community at that time. After all, it had been comfortable for so long in the Menzies era and now, this reforming government,moving so quickly, put fear into the lives of many. Now, after almost forty years those same ‘frightened’ conservatives of the early 1970s must be pleased with the legacies you have highlighted, especially universal health care, no fault divorce and improvement in the status of women.

  3. cameronmclean says:

    Hey Edwina,

    No doubt that the Whitlam government was divisive. I think ultimately the actions his government took are really irrelevant in this day and age – The loans scandals and Medicare for example are important parts of our history, but most people don’t really remember that part – Only the Dismissal.

  4. Christy Doran says:

    An enjoyable, fascinating and concise read. Too often I find myself scrambling through pages and pages attempting to discern why Whitlam was removed. This blog provides an excellent brief, but informative account on the political setting in which Whitlam was working in. Nonetheless, in my opinion, Whitlam the reformist epitomized the social justice values in which Labor has to offer.

  5. Hi Edwina,

    I think this is a really interesting post not only because of the way you have approached the topic itself but also because it also really well relates to the idea of bringing academic scholarship to the world in a more relatable way.

    Your opening line in particular is great – “Almost forty years after the dismissal, the legacy of the Whitlam Government is still extremely polarised.” For me this is a great start to a blog because it not only speaks to the legacy of the Whitlam government but also speaks to ideas of memory and representation in history – how we (in particularly the Australian public) choose to remember, interpret and represent the past. And how history is often so politically motivated.

  6. hayleymx says:

    Hi Edwina,

    i admire the fact that you have harnessed the context of the time and assessed ideas about the ways in which it affected the Whitlam governments attempt to implement radical policy changes. Admirably, you have sought to engage with arguments about the failures of the administration and the man himself as well as the external factors which also inhibited the success and popular reception of his reforms.
    This is truly a fascinating piece. You have nicely captured the achievements of Whitlam whilst recognising that he did encounter problems which weren’t entirely of his own making.
    Love the argument!
    Hayley

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