For many it was if the prophesied Messiah had finally arrived while others feared the anti-Christ had descended upon the earth.
It wasn’t Donald John Trump but Edward Gough Whitlam whose electoral victory on December 2, 1972 ended 23 years of benign Liberal-Country Party rule.
While some Australians were ecstatic others harboured serious reservations about the man sent to lead them.
Australia was a nation divided by its 10-year involvement in Vietnam and seven years of conscription.
Whitlam’s slick campaign convinced Australians ready for a change It’s Time, though time for what they were yet to properly discover.
Like Trump, Whitlam was an apparent contradiction of values.
Private school and classical university education, he was from a privileged middle-class background who unusually for the time was by family circumstances already a Canberra insider.
Like Trump, Whitlam was an ego driven narcissist with a fundamental self-belief in his right if not destiny to rule, overcoming the innate hostility to them from within his party.
Whitlam was elected with a nine-seat majority in the House of Representatives but not controlling the Senate. It’s always the Senate.
Imperious Whitlam impatient to rule immediately began implementing his agenda, ignoring the convention an outgoing prime minister should stay in a caretaker role until the polls were declared.
He also defied his own party conventions by appointing himself and his deputy Lance Barnard a ruling duumvirate without consulting caucus, since that body’s composition would not be known until all poll results were in on December 15.
Officially the First Whitlam Ministry, the two were sworn in by Governor-General Sir Paul Hasluck on December 5.
Between them they held 27 ministries and immediately began implementing Labor’s agenda by administrative fiat where legislative change was not required.
By some assessments it proved to be too much too soon.
Whitlam suspended diplomatic relations with Taiwan while negotiating relations with China.
Barnard as Minister for Defence exempted everyone from national service obligations and set free those jailed for refusing to serve.
The pair barred visiting sports teams selected on the basis of racial discrimination and directed Australian representatives to vote in the UN for sanctions against South Africa and Rhodesia.
They removed sales tax on contraceptives and appointed a female representative to the Commonwealth Conciliation and Arbitration Commission to argue for equal pay for males and females.
They announced major grants for the arts and appointed an interim schools commission to investigate schools funding.
Although Australia’s combat forces in Vietnam had been withdrawn gradually by firstly prime ministers Gorton then McMahon, the duumvirate ordered the withdrawal of the few remaining advisors and logistics’ support so they could claim ending Australia’s involvement in that war.
They did not end the war but hastened the fall of South Vietnam’s administration which would lead to one of Whitlam’s later, most shameful directions.
Quietly but less noticeably Whitlam arbitrarily ordered the 1973 New Year’s “Imperial” Honours list be withdrawn, despite intended recipients having been advised of their impending awards.
Hundreds were disappointed if not humiliated by this vindictive decision.
He also announced there would be no further national recommendations for such awards, which had a cataclysmic effect on defence personnel.
Those who were approaching eligibility for long and meritorious service awards after 18 and 22 years were suddenly disenfranchised, with no offered alternative.
Some missed out on qualifying for those awards by mere days.
It was seen in the ADF as a betrayal by two World War II veterans who had already exploited the ADF for political advantage over its involvement in Vietnam.
Whitlam also ordered the cancellation of all pending overseas military postings whether training or operational.
This even impacted on some who were already in transit with their families.
Whitlam was making implacable enemies in the uniformed services even among those who identified politically with him.
It didn’t help that he was incorrectly blamed for changes which adversely impacted the ADF’s unique superannuation scheme, changes recommended by the previous LCP government.
Whitlam’s Werriwa electorate included Australia’s then most concentrated military bases at Ingleburn, Holsworthy, Moorebank and Casula.
After 14 days the second Whitlam ministry was sworn in, embarking on a radical mostly complimentary reform agenda.
Where McMahon’s 27-member ministry had a cabinet of 12, all Whitlam’s 27 ministers were included in his.
They then demonstrated all the cohesion, intellect, loyalty and cohesiveness of a One Nation branch meeting.
What followed was a disaster.
Whitlam introduced core Labor promises such as Medibank, abolished university fees, poured federal funds into urban renewal, established Advance Australia Fair as the “national song” and cut traditional ties with Britain and the Crown.
He spent millions on the controversial artwork Blue Poles.
Ill-disciplined ministers including Lionel Murphy and a hostile senate conspired against Whitlam’s government.
The half senate election due in mid-1974 became a double dissolution election in which Whitlam’s plans to be able to replace one Queensland senator with a diplomatic sleight-of-hand were thwarted by Queensland’s wily premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen.
In what proved to be a mid-term election Labor lost seats though the senate was sufficiently adjusted to pass contentious legislation in a joint sitting.
An international oil crisis on top of an economic slump and rampaging inflation caused by Whitlam’s wage profligacy saw the Australian economy stagnate.
In 1975 Whitlam’s greatest acts of personal bastardry were regional.
He insisted South Vietnamese refugees would not be welcome in Australia simply to appease Vietnam’s new communist government.
Whitlam then gave Indonesia the nod to invade East Timor after the Portuguese revolution.
The drama of the high Cs – Crean, Cairns and Connor – a new opposition leader not to mention governor general were all conspiring against Whitlam.
The October supply crisis further infuriated defence personnel who were told they would be the first not to be paid if supply was withheld.
What happened next is history.
In effect Whitlam was impeached by Sir John Kerr and adversely judged by the jury of Australian voters who rejected his plea to be returned.
It was an unhappy end which has been bitterly condemned by his supporters ever since.
Since they largely comprise those who so vocally oppose US President Trump, it would be ironic if he were to suffer an unequally unhappy end.
Even more so if Trump’s determination to emulate Whitlam’s example by attempting to ram through as much of his political agenda as possible in the early days of his presidency by personal decree becomes the catalyst for that eventuality.
Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.
Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.