Born into impoverished circumstances way out in the Victorian Outback, my mother – descended from a First Fleet convict – would become the first member of her family to attend university. Intelligent, diligent and compassionate she could only have done this while Gough Whitlam’s reforms provided a free tertiary education for all. On the night of our 21st Prime Minister’s passing, my mother turned to me, teary-eyed, and told me, ‘Gough Whitlam changed my life’. With Whitlam’s policies on women’s rights, education, Indigenous land rights, legal aid and law reform, amongst so many other great reforms which transfigured this nation and which all bear his personal stamp, he changed the lives of millions in this country, then and forever.
For someone of my generation, born during the final gasp of the Cold War, and with no personal link to the tumultuous three years of the Whitlam government it is easy to take these reforms for granted, to view those years as just more pieces of abstract history to be studied and reflected upon whenever the inclination allows. The man himself, however, compassionate, courageous and fuelled with a deep-abiding faith in the uprightness of the human spirit, continues to transfix the mind’s eye, possibly as he was a politician so incongruous to our own times.
Last Wednesday at Politics in the Pub at the Uni Pub in the CBD, Labor MP Anthony Albanese hotly defended the Rudd/Gillard governments when one punter compared them unfavourably with the Whitlam era. He told the crowd that they were seeing those years in the rosy hue of hindsight and that, in 30 years’ time, we’d all be looking back on the period of 2007-2013 as a similarly blessed time for the progressive movement in this country. But his voice did not quite ring with conviction and when he cited, as an example, the support Labor had demonstrated for same-sex couples during those years, it was nothing less than a hollow revision of the facts. Throughout her time as Prime Minister, Julia Gillard flatly opposed gay marriage and it is nonsense to pretend otherwise.
Indeed, Gillard’s back-flip after her time in Parliament on the issue is another tawdry piece of evidence of the political opportunism and insincerity that reigned during the Rudd/Gillard period. Any comparison with Whitlam can only tarnish modern Labor’s credentials. No one can deny that Whitlam was nothing but ambitious, but he saw politics as a calling, not a career. His political story is a history of someone who constantly put his own power on the line to push through his ideals. On two separate occasions he risked a political career cultivated over two decades for these ideals; the first in 1969 when he clashed with the old guard of his party in a leadership ballot, and again in 1974, when he called an early election in response to a viciously recalcitrant Senate.
Jump to 2010, when Rudd, who always had the rhetoric but never the conviction, having declared climate change ‘the greatest moral, economic, and environmental challenge of our time’, slinked away from a double dissolution election and his own proposed Emissions Trading Scheme as soon as his poll ratings faced a dip. Gillard proved little better. During the 2010 election she declared, that if elected, she would hand over environmental policy to a Citizens’ Assembly of 150 people, delegating all responsibility on the matter and playing oblivious to the fact that such an Assembly already existed: Federal Parliament. This was a period of governance when policies were dictated by polling and the only grand plan was to cling onto power for its own sake. As former Labor Resources Minister Martin Ferguson sniped, ‘the problem was we had two people who went into parliament with one ambition and one ambition alone – to be prime minister’.
Comparatively, I am the same age as my mother when Whitlam came to power in 1972 though I doubt the years ahead will do much to gild the Rudd/Gillard story for me. Though I can admire the National Disability Insurance Scheme and the fight against Big Tobacco, both are issues which are more likely to enjoy the support of conservative and progressive voters alike, rather to inspire contention. For having twice as much time in power as Whitlam, it’s really not a profound legacy. But if the last Labor government has taught us anything, it has taught us this: the progressive movement needs a new Whitlam, someone who will stand up for the disempowered members of this country, and who has the will and the vision to drag Australian society into the 21st century.
Whitlam did many great things – too many to share here – but progressives need to carry on what he began. The ‘no fault’ divorce policy, while largely for the good, has shielded perpetrators of domestic violence; legal aid organisations in this country are overstretched and under-resourced; education is widely available, but we are not providing enough meaningful work for our youngest adults; we don’t have a national theatre company; we are failing our First Australians; and most bookstores in this country are still segregating Aussie authors under ‘Australian Fiction’ instead of stacking alongside their American and European counterparts.
All this must change, but for that to happen, the Labor party needs to change. It needs to give power to its rank and file in pre-selections and it needs to attract people of a high calibre into its fold. We need fewer union officials and full-time political staffers in our Parliament. We need outsiders like Whitlam, a man who entered politics because he wanted to make a difference, not because it was a promotion. Fortunately Labor already has such people: economist Andrew Leigh and international lawyer, Melissa Parke are intellectual heavy-weights who speak with passion and power. Labor needs more people of such calibre, because Labor needs to stop acting like it is a 19th century proletarian movement and transform itself into a social democratic party for the 21st century. The Whitlam legacy is something that is worth fighting for and now is the time.