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Of myths and messiahs

There is much about the legacy of Whitlam that is reminiscent of Kennedy and Obama

29 November 2014

9:00 AM

29 November 2014

9:00 AM

Recent praise and criticism of Gough Whitlam evoke two American leaders who, like Whitlam, won office as messiahs of hope and change. John Kennedy, and his ‘Camelot’ of 1961, has entered mythology for Democrats. Barack Obama, broadly welcomed as a messiah in 2008, now disappoints, even for the left.

It should be possible to admire Whitlam yet see his limits, as now with Obama. In the weird world of the 1960s, Whitlam had the wit and courage to tackle the horny Marxists who ran the Victorian ALP. His victory over them was a tremendous achievement, bringing the 1972 victory.

As a young pro-Whitlamite fighting ‘unity tickets’ used by Communists to white-ant the ALP, I attended the 1965 state party conference in Melbourne as a delegate of the Meat Packers Union. The chairman declared, ‘all wars are a result of the free enterprise system.’ One hundred of the 400 union delegates at the conference had Communist secretaries. ‘Let’s get on with attacking capitalism,’ one speaker cried. ‘That’s what we are here for.’ Appalled, I wrote an article for the Australian and sent it to Whitlam, then deputy leader. He phoned: ‘Publish and be dammed!’ but he advised a pseudonym. It came out under the title ‘Class-War Crusaders in the Affluent Age’, by a Special Correspondent. ‘Is Labor politics only about the interests of the unionist,’ I wrote, ‘not at all about the interests of the housewife and the teenager?’

One lesson from Whitlam is there is a place for excitement and novelty in politics, but only in bursts. Kennedy was exciting in 1960-61, Whitlam a decade later. But the left in both the US and Australia erected a mythology around these two, at odds with the record. Neither was as left as his reputation.

Kennedy cut taxes, spent 9% of GDP on defence (Reagan was savaged by the left for spending 6%) and was viscerally anti-Communist. Whitlam hated the leftists in Melbourne, including Cairns, because they cared little about power.

Kennedy soared into folklore because he followed ‘dull’ Eisenhower and Whitlam soared up because he came after ‘dull’ Menzies. Both became magical figures because of their shocking end: Kennedy’s life ended by bullets in Dallas. Whitlam’s prime ministership ended by a shameful political ambush.

Did Whitlam transform the ALP, as Bob Carr says? If so, how could Hawke’s long steady reign be followed by the Gillard-Rudd spending binge and feuds? Whitlam’s triumph was to capture Australia’s support over the heads of his party. He culminated a transformation of Australian society that has been enduring, to the satisfaction of many and the distress of some.

China policy was Whitlam’s second great stroke. The breakthrough to Beijing made the Liberal Party look silly just as Federal Intervention in Victoria made the Labor left look silly. The myth of Whitlam as a great big leftist is amazing, as is the myth of Kennedy as a liberal. Gough’s ruling authority was reason not Marx. He was a social democrat who told me (and others) he would like to change the name of the Labor Party.

In foreign policy he was a liberal internationalist but quite naive. He brushed off cobwebs but did not renovate the room. As Hayden said of Whitlam’s crashing through to China, it took us ‘from zero to something.’ When Whitlam ran out of cobwebs (after recognizing China and North Vietnam and voting for anti-racist resolutions on Africa at the UN) he lacked any realistic vision for Australian foreign policy. Today, Obama’s multilateral rationality resembles Whitlam’s and is equally problematic.

In Beijing in 1971 it was hard for Whitlam to accept Zhou Enlai’s point that Chinese communists regarded Moscow’s communists as their chief enemy. Whitlam knew myriad details of world history and geography, including ancient Greece and Rome, but he wasn’t a strategic thinker. Gough was a man of charm, wit, and determination. Except for Hawke, he towers over later leaders. But he did not make the ALP ‘New Labor’ like Blair in the UK. It would have been impossible until he got rid of the cobwebs in Melbourne and won a national election. His contribution to Labor was simply to win after 22 years in the wilderness.

In the US the messiah halo has hindered, not helped the Democratic party clarify its policies. Kennedy cut taxes and supported robust defense, but Obama goes in the opposite direction. In Australia it’s sad – yet a tribute to Whitlam’s achievement in 1972 – that no subsequent leader, even Hawke, has ‘done a Blair’ and removed the ALP’s trade union domination or its obsession with factions.

During the Howard years, Tony Abbott, speaking of the Whitlam era, told me that when he was a teenager: ‘I remember a friend of Dad’s, he was a record company executive, and he loved New Guinea. At a dinner party, people joked that since the (Whitlam) government was giving money to everyone, he should apply for a grant to study native music in New Guinea and have a holiday there. Well, he got the grant – three grand.’

Grand gestures and big spending were irresistible to Whitlam as they are to Obama. Whitlam freed New Guinea, recognized an unwitting North Korea, wanted to start a government newspaper, and carved up the pie as if the Australian economy were El Dorado. Obama said his cause was to bring the Kingdom of God on earth, lower the sea levels, and ‘spread the wealth around.’ His second inaugural speech in 2013 featured gay rights and climate change more than national security, both unappealing to middle America. Don’t rule out, though, if Democrats are crushed in 2016, ‘white racism’ will be shouted by the left as the reason for Obama’s failures, equal to the bullets in Dallas; and the first black president will join Kennedy in the pantheon of heroes.

Politics has its limits as Whitlam found and Obama learns. Whitlam does not float into an imagined pantheon with Pharlap and Nellie Melba and Don Bradman, as some have said. He was a remarkable personality with two enormous achievements and many failures.

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Ross Terrill accompanied Whitlam to China in 1971 and his book 800,000,000 was Kissinger’s recommended reading to Nixon on his trip there in 1972.

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