My mother used to say ‘If you can’t say something nice about the dead, don’t say anything at all.’ Of course, that does not stop you from saying the nice things first and then going on to list a few of the subject’s more obvious failings and giving him a send off, if he deserves it, as Gough Whitlam does.
That is pretty much the way I feel about Whitlam as I knew him and as his towering figure entwined its way around every step in my own modest political career; I was defeated in 1972 when people believed the Whitlam dream was attainable; I was re-elected in 1975, when everyone knew it was dead. On the one hand, you would have to be very mean-spirited not to acknowledge his endearing characteristics, not the least, of course, his wit and charm. But he also had some monumental flaws that ultimately brought him down and from which the entire country and people suffered immensely.
So this is the way I see Whitlam today, a charmer, but a loser. And no assessment of Whitlam can be honest or complete without giving an equal balance to these two competing pictures.
First of all, the wit and charm. Not only could he turn them on when required, but he had a unique quality of cementing in your mind the notion that this was all being done solely for you, that he had constructed a witty, throwaway bon mot not only to show how clever he was, but how important you were to him as the worthy recipient of his brilliance.
For instance, as a freshman I made my maiden speech on the virtues of foreign aid (I was young and impressionable at the time and still believed that governments could create heaven on earth). When it was over, Whitlam made his imperial progress to our side of the house and said: ‘You are a credit to the parliament.’ Not only was he a shrewd judge of political talent, but that was the way he wanted me to see him.
He was also someone who would give help if you needed it; moreover, he was genuine about giving it. Thus, having been elected in 1969 and defeated in 1972 I had to decide on the next step in my brilliant career. For a while, I contemplated diplomacy instead of the law and with what seems now like enormous gall I wrote to ask Whitlam if he could help. He telephoned to say he had instructed foreign affairs that when my application came up, parliamentary service was to be taken as a significant qualification for the diplomatic corps and he urged me to apply. I didn’t, but I should have followed his advice; I could have become Australian Ambassador to Kazakhstan by now.
It was the same with his wit. When I was re-elected in 1975, he took me aside at the swearing-in to say ‘You have a great future here. Your Second Coming is a good start.’ When I told him later that I was on a committee to look at the Torres Strait, he replied that he usually walked across it. And so on.
So that is the first half of my trial balance of Edward Gough Whitlam: witty, urbane, inspiring and gregarious, a nice man to have around when you were doing brass rubbings or studying Etruscan pots.
As with the wit and charm, so with the broad gesture, the noble ideal and the grand vision; they were all there, an answer to every problem, a scheme for every defect, a treaty to right every wrong, policies galore and all of them well motivated and genuinely held. And they struck a chord. So, in 1972, when the good people of Diamond Valley had a choice between me and Whitlam’s sewerage system, it was apparently an easy decision.
But I don’t join in the unqualified praise of Whitlam the statesman. In the first place it is grossly exaggerated. Why, I have just heard on the ABC that Whitlam introduced votes for women! The notion is also being promoted by Keating and others that the history of Australia can now be divided into two eras, before and after Whitlam; prior to his coming, we were in ‘the torpor of the Menzies era’, a smug backwater, the Dark Ages, a colonial outpost of bitter racists with no independence or national identity; now, of course, we live in an Athens of civilisation with art and culture abounding, but apparently only because of the new dawn that arose under Whitlam.
Apart from the fact that wild generalisations of that sort cannot be true, this particular one being generated by the left is doubly false. It smears the work of generations of Australians who created the wealth for Whitlam and his team to spend. Where the left claim Australians rejoiced en masse at Medibank, no fault divorce and human rights, those I remember are the people whose savings and businesses were destroyed, those in the dole queues and those hit by Whitlam’s corrosive interest and inflation rates. These were as much a part of the Whitlam era as Blue Poles. And I reserve a special place of condemnation for the Whitlam government in recognising the incorporation of the Baltic states into the Soviet Union.
But the other unpalatable thing about Whitlam, if you want it warts and all, is that he was weak. I asked his colleague Clyde Cameron in 1976 what he would have done had he been Prime Minister and Kerr had served the letter of dismissal on him, Cameron, and not Whitlam. Cameron did not hesitate: ‘I would have torn it up in front of him and said ‘What are you going to do now?’’
The big defence of Whitlam now is that he was such a stickler for constitutional proprieties that he averted a bigger constitutional crisis by letting Kerr sack him. Maybe. My point is that he has to be judged as a statesman. The good Machiavelli has told us that politics has nothing to do with morals, niceties or popularity, but everything to do with the exercise of power. From power comes your ability to do good.
But for all his charm, wit, and vision, this was the one thing Whitlam could not do, exercise power when the crunch came. It brought Camelot to an end.
Neil Brown QC is a former Deputy Leader of the Liberal party and Minister in the Fraser government.
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