“LIKE the assassination of JFK, it’s one of the questions Australians over a certain age ask themselves: where were you when you heard Sir John Kerr had sacked Prime Minister Gough Whitlam in 1975?

This year, on December 2, it’s the 30th anniversary of Gough Whitlam’s legendary win at the polls, taking Labor to power after 23 years in opposition.

Now aged 86, the indefatigable Gough is still going strong. Sent from office in a constitutional crisis he has denounced since those famous words ”Long may we say God save the Queen, because no-one will save the Governor-General”, Whitlam has now been captured, docu-portrait style, in conversations with Labor Senator John Faulkner. The program, Gough Whitlam: In His Own Words, will go to air on SBS TV on Sunday at 8.30pm.

Gough has become an Australian icon. In spite of just three years as PM and running a government brought down as much by its own mistakes and largess as by its sacking and an international oil crisis.

This is partly because Gough has the scribes who make the history on his side, and partly because of the high drama attached to his political story. In his documentary, Faulkner admits that the dramas surrounding Gough have “created myths”.

Failure, though, has never been an impediment to greatness in Australian history. Our heroes come draped as much in struggle and defeat as with achievement whether explorers or politicians. In a country where so little of the extremes of human tragedy happen, the tale of the rise and fall of the Whitlam Government has elements of a Greek tragedy.

Faulkner’s dialogues with Gough are absorbing TV, yet it is wise for him to have called his documentary Gough Whitlam: In his Own Words. For it is very much a view of Gough as seen by Gough, who has never lacked vanity. Gough is without blemish, it would seem, in his own estimation. Watching and listening, the performance reveals a colossal but flawed ego, but one that captured, and continues to capture, the Australian imagination.

Gough turns every observation into a positive assessment of what he did.

Offering balance as he talks to Whitlam, Faulkner eventually suggests a few critical assessments for consideration. The Whitlam Governments made mistakes, Gough himself lacked judgment, for example, over Timor, and later Labor Governments had better economic credentials. Gough listens, barely raising an imperial eyebrow, then turns every observation into a positive assessment of what he did. Jim Cairns was to be praised as a Treasurer; in his relations with Mao’s totalitarian China he led Richard Nixon; he had lower unemployment and interest rates than Hawke or Keating (nothing is relative) and never a deficit like Beazley. “My third Treasurer, Bill Hayden,” he notes, “brought in a very good Budget.” Rose-tinted glasses, indeed.

Whitlam’s win in 1972 was a hysterical media moment and became the emblem of social change in Australia. But much is myth or overstatement. Early on, the Whitlam Government ended conscription, which set off the myth that he had brought home the combat troops from Vietnam when all combat forces had long before returned under McMahon. Whitlam didn’t end the White Australia Policy; it effectively came to an end under Harold Holt. Whitlam’s years in government had low immigration intakes and negligible numbers of these from South-East Asia. It was Whitlam’s conservative successor, Malcolm Fraser, who presided over the first real intake of Asians with the fleeing South Vietnamese whom Gough disparaged. Fraser likewise is the true father of multiculturalism in Australia with SBS and the Galbally report of 1978.

In December 1972, outsiders took over the parliamentary benches in Canberra. Jim Cairns had addressed moratorium rallies; Immigration Minister Al Grassby had continental sideburns. Grassby called his white gaberdine trousers and shirt with crepe sleeves and opal cufflinks “a new expression of Australian independence”.

But while abortion, state aid to non-government schools, social spending, equality for women, Vietnam and communist China attracted popular attention, economic policy was taking precedence. Whitlam had little interest in economics, his governments relying on prescriptions better suited to the ’60s.

Inexperienced in government, Labor became hostage to largess and expansionary Budgets as world recession took over. While technically Gough’s unemployment and interest-rate figures were lower than with Labor successors, they rose at unparalleled rates and, with raging inflation, brought on financial chaos.

And Gough liked to travel. But Professor MacMahon Ball (in The Age, November 15, 1974) summed up the frustrations of many: ”When so many people were losing their jobs or fearful of losing them very soon, so many parents deeply worried it is bad that the Prime Minister should have been jetting exuberantly in his Qantas aircraft to see the Niagara Falls and the pretend Parthenon in Tennessee.” In 1975, while interest rates rose and inflation at about 20 per cent ate into savings, Gough trekked the Inca Trail.

Perhaps the most telling comment from John Faulkner, in his documentary, is to ask Gough if his Government will be remembered more for the way it lost office than for its achievements. Whitlam will have none of this. But asked if he is comfortable being an icon, his last words suggest Faulkner has a point: “I hope that this is not just because I was a martyr but because I was an achiever.”

In the federal election that followed the Dismissal, Malcolm Fraser’s victory over Whitlam was resounding. Martyr Gough certainly was, in many respects, but clearly a great majority of Australians also felt they’d had enough.”

Article published in The Courier Mail

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