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Gough Whitlam

Edward Gough Whitlam (born July 11 1916), Australian politician and the 21st Prime Minister of Australia, was Australia's first Labor Prime Minister for 23 years, and is the only Prime Minister to be dismissed by the Governor-General. He has been deified by his admirers and demonised by his opponents, and is one of the most controversial figures in Australian political history.

The Honourable Gough Whitlam
Term of OfficeDecember 5, 1972 - November 11, 1975
PM Predecessor:William McMahon
PM Successor:Malcolm Fraser
Date of Birth:July 11, 1916
Place of Birth:Melbourne, Victoria, Australia
Political Party:Australian Labor Party

Table of contents
1 Personal background
2 Early career
3 Opposition Leader
4 Prime Minister
5 The Dismissal
6 The Whitlam government assessed
7 Out of office
8 Further reading
9 External links

Personal background

Gough Whitlam was born in Kew, one of Melbourne's wealthier suburbs. (He has always been known by his second name, which is pronounced Goff.) His father, Fred Whitlam, was a federal public servant who served as Solicitor-General. Whitlam senior's involvement in human rights issues was a powerful influence on his son. Whitlam was educated at private schools in Sydney and Canberra before studying law at the University of Sydney. During the Second World War he served as a navigator with the Royal Australian Air Force, reaching the rank of flight-lieutenant. He completed his studies after the war and was admitted to the New South Wales bar in 1947.

He married Margaret Dovey in 1942 and had three sons and a daughter. One of his sons, Nicholas, became a prominent banker and a controversial figure in his own right.

Early career

Whitlam was interested in politics from an early age. He joined the Australian Labor Party in 1945 and by 1950 had already risen far enough to be endorsed as a Labor candidate for a NSW Legislative Assembly: a contest he was later grateful he didn't win. When Hubert Lazzarini, the sitting member for the safe Federal electoral seat of Werriwa, died in 1952, Whitlam was elected to the House of Representatives at the by-election on November 29 1952.

After the electoral success of the Curtin and Chifley years, the 1950s were a grim and divisive time for Labor. The Liberal-Country Party coalition government of Robert Menzies gained power in the election of 1949 and was destined to rule for a record 23 years. Chifley died in June 1951. His replacement, Dr H V "Doc" Evatt, lacked Chifley's conciliatory skills.

Whitlam admired Evatt greatly, and was a loyal supporter of his leadership right through the 1950s, a period dominated by the very bitter Labor split of 1955, which resulted in the Catholic right wing of the party breaking off to form the Democratic Labor Party (DLP). In 1960, having lost three elections running, Evatt resigned, to be replaced by Arthur Calwell, with Whitlam winning the election for deputy over veteran Labor MP Eddie Ward. Calwell came within a handful of votes of winning the 1961 election, but progressively lost ground from that time on.

The ALP, having been founded as a party to represent the working classes, still regarded its parliamentary representatives as servants of the party as a whole, and required them to comply with official party policy. This led to the celebrated Faceless Men picture of 1963, which showed Calwell and Whitlam waiting in the dark outside a Canberra hotel for the decision of an ALP Federal Conference. Prime Minister Menzies, in the November 1963 election campaign, used it to great advantage, drawing attention to "the famous outside body, thirty-six 'faceless men' whose qualifications are unknown, who have no electoral responsibility."

Whitlam was quick to respond, and spent years struggling for party reform—at one stage, dubbing his opponents "the 12 witless men"—and eventually succeeded in having the secretive Labor Party National Conference turned into an open public forum, with state representatives elected in proportion to their membership, and with both state and federal parliamentary leaders being automatic members.

Through the 1960s, Whitlam's relationship with Calwell remained uneasy: Whitlam opposed several of the key Labor policies, including nationalisation of industry, refusal of state aid to religious schools, and above all Calwell's continued support for the White Australia Policy, and he was almost expelled from the party in 1966. In January of that year, Menzies finally retired. His successor as Liberal Party leader, Harold Holt, led the coalition to a landslide election victory in November that year on the pro-American, pro-Vietnam War slogan "All the way with LBJ." This crushing defeat prompted Calwell to step down in early 1967. Gough Whitlam then became Leader of the Opposition.

Opposition Leader

Whitlam swiftly made his mark on the ALP, bringing his campaign for internal reform to fruition, and overhauling or discarding a series of Labor policies that had been enshrined for decades. The White Australia Policy was dropped, Labor no longer opposed state aid, and the air of grim working-class puritanisim that attended the Labor Party of the 1950s gave way to one that was younger, more optimistic, more socially liberal, more intellectual, and decidedly middle-class.

Whitlam proved himself a formidable campaigner, winning two by-elections and then a 17-seat swing and a majority of votes in the 1969 election. DLP preferences plus a peculiarity in the Australian electoral system proved decisive in preventing Whitlam taking office - the win did not translate into enough seats to form a government. (This is not uncommon in Australia. Other Opposition Leaders to win a majority of votes and yet not gain office include Andrew Peacock in 1990 and Kim Beazley in 1998.)

After Holt's death, the Liberal Party began to fragment, electing John Gorton as leader, then switching to William McMahon. Whitlam's parliamentary performances were devastating, and he quickly established the ascendancy, particularly over McMahon, who was well past his political prime. Outside parliament, Whitlam concentrated on party reform and on developing new policies. He advocated the abolition of conscription and Australian withdrawal from the Vietnam War, and in 1971 visited the People's Republic of China, promising to establish diplomatic relations—much to the chagrin of McMahon, who attacked Whitlam for this 'pro-communist' policy, only to discover that President Richard Nixon was himself working toward recognising the PRC. On December 2 1972, Whitlam led the ALP to its first electoral victory in 23 years.

Prime Minister

Whitlam was never a man to lose an unnecessary minute. In the ordinary course of affairs, he would have waited until the cumbersome process of final vote counting in the doubtful seats was complete, and then, with the exact composition of the House known, called a Caucus meeting to elect his Ministers ready to be sworn in by the Governor-General. Meanwhile, the outgoing Prime Minister would remain in office as a caretaker. (As a matter of longstanding party policy, ALP Ministers are elected by the entire Parliamentary Party—the 'Caucus'—with the Prime Minister only having the power to assign portfolios. Liberal Prime Ministers, in contrast, have traditionally had the power to nominate their own Ministry.)

Unwilling to wait even another couple of weeks after 23 years in opposition, as soon as the overall result was beyond doubt, Whitlam had himself and deputy Labor leader Lance Barnard sworn in as a two-man government: making Whitlam the Prime Minister, Treasurer, Attorney-General, Minister for Foreign Affairs, Customs and Excise, Trade and Industry, Shipping and Transport, Education and Science, Civil Aviation, Housing, Works, External Territories, Environment, Aborigines and the Arts! Barnard was the Minister for Defence, Supply, the Army, the Navy, Air, Postmaster-General, Labour and National Service, Social Services, Immigration, Interior, Primary Industry, Repatriation, Health and National Development! The duumvirate held office between the 5th and 19th of December, making several changes that were considered urgent, notably ending conscription and Australia's involvement in the Vietnam War. Whitlam later quipped:

The Caucus I joined in 1953 had as many Boer War veterans as men who had seen active service in World War II, three from each. The Ministry appointed on 5th December 1972 was composed entirely of ex-servicemen: Lance Barnard and me.

Although Labor had a comfortable working majority in the House, Whitlam faced a hostile Senate, making it impossible for him to pass legislation without the support of at least one of the other parties—Liberal, Country, or DLP. (Senate elections at that time were not synchronised with House of Representative elections: at the time Whitlam took office, half the Senate had been elected two years previously, the other half five years earlier.)

After 23 years of continuous conservative rule, the bureaucracy was unhelpful, and the conservative state governments were implacably opposed to reform. Nevertheless, Whitlam embarked on a massive legislative reform program. In the space of a little less than three years, the Whitlam Government:

The Senate resolutely opposed three key bills and twice rejected them. These were designed to:

The repeated rejection of these bills provided a constitutional trigger for a double dissolution (a simultaneous election for all members in both houses). Whitlam went back to the people in April 1974, asking for a chance to "finish the job", and was re-elected, though with a reduced majority. The DLP lost all its seats, but Labor failed to win a majority in the Senate. The balance of power in the Senate was now held by two independent Senators. In the short term, this led to the historic joint sitting of both houses, at which the three bills were passed. In the longer term, it contained the seeds of Whitlam's downfall.

In its second term, the Whitlam Government continued with its massive legislative reform program, but became embroiled in a series of controversies and scandals, including secret attempts to borrow large amounts of money from Middle Eastern governments bypassing the Treasury and correct constitutional procedures (the "Loans Affair"), and a very public extramarital affair between the Treasurer, Jim Cairns, and his personal assistant, Junie Morosi. Whitlam was forced to dismiss Cairns and another senior minister, Rex Connor, for misleading Parliament.

Emboldened by these scandals, a weak economy, and a massive swing to them in a mid-1975 by-election for the Tasmanian seat of Bass, the Liberal-Country Opposition, led by Malcolm Fraser argued that the Government's behaviour in breaching constitutional conventions required that it in turn breach one of the most fundamental, that the Senate would not block Supply (that is, cut off supply of Treasury funds).

The Dismissal

Whitlam listens to the proclamation of his government's dismissal

The Opposition would not have been able to follow this course if the Senate elected in 1974 had remained intact. Although one of the two independents joined the Liberal Party, the other, Steele Hall, was opposed to blocking supply, and this would have been sufficient to prevent such a course being followed. Fraser's break came with the death in 1975 of Queensland ALP Senator Bert Milliner. By convention, the Queensland Country Party Premier, Joh Bjelke-Petersen, should have appointed the Labor's chosen replacement, Mal Colston. Bjelke-Petersen, vowing to do his utmost to end the Whitlam government, hit upon the cunning strategy of appointing a ring-in named Albert Field, who, despite being a nominal Labor Party member, was willing to become Bjelke-Petersen's agent in bringing down Whitlam.

With Milliner's vote gone, the Opposition could pass Senate motions 30 votes to 29. Rather than blocking supply, they moved to delay consideration of the budget. Whitlam was determined to face the Opposition down, and proposed to borrow money from the banks to keep the government running. He was confident that some of the more moderate Liberal Senators would back down if the crisis was allowed to run its natural course.

Fraser also knew that the Senators were wavering, and he urged the Governer-General Sir John Kerr, to act. Kerr had been a Whitlam appointment, but he had developed a grudge against the Prime Minister, who he felt had ignored him and snubbed his wife. Kerr took advice from the Chief Justice of the High Court of Australia, the former Liberal Attorney-General Garfield Barwick, who, in a highly improper move, gave Kerr private advice that it was his duty to dismiss Whitlam.

So on 11 November 1975, without warning Whitlam (as convention would have dictated), Kerr dismissed the Whitlam government and installed the Fraser as Prime Minister. He then immediately granted Fraser a double dissolution, another constitutionally dubious act. The election resulted in a landslide win to the Coalition.

(See Australian constitutional crisis of 1975 for a more extensive discussion of this complex and highly controversial event.)

The Whitlam government assessed

During its three years in power, the Whitlam government was responsible for a long list of legislative reforms, most of which still stand today. It replaced Australia's adversarial divorce laws with a new, no-fault system, acted to improve the position of the Aboriginal minority, slashed tariff barriers, ended both conscription and the Australian involvement in the Vietnam War, introduced a universal national health insurance scheme (Medibank, later renamed Medicare), sponsored free university education, introduced needs-based federal funding for private schools, and established diplomatic and trade relations with the People's Republic of China.

Despite its many concrete achievements, its failings were substantial. The economy declined, with balance of payments problems, high unemployment and (by Australian standards) very high inflation. This was primarily due to external factors, in particular higher world oil prices and falling prices for Australian farm produce, but the Whitlam government's economic policies were far from convincing in the eyes of the voting public and the contemporary media and almost certainly were not helpful.

The autocratic Whitlam's "crash through or crash" style made many political enemies, and the various scandals afflicting the government cost it valuable time, momentum, and heavily damaged its credibility with the electorate. Many Australians regarded his dismissal by the unelected Governor-General as an outrage, but most Australians voted to replace the Whitlam government even so, and the Labor Party would not be a serious candidate for government again until Whitlam had been replaced as leader.

Out of office

Whitlam stayed on to fight the 1977 election, but there was never much chance that the Australian electorate would have him back. Labor was defeated nearly as heavily as it had been in 1975, and Whitlam resigned from Parliament in 1978. After a few years as a travelling lecturer, he bounced back when he was appointed Australian Ambassador to UNESCO by the next Labor Prime Minister, Bob Hawke. Although Whitlam knew this was partly a ploy by Hawke to get him out of the country, he hugely enjoyed the Paris posting and made a great impression on other UNESCO delegates. He has published several volumes of memoirs.

Even in old age, Whitlam was a larger-than-life figure in Australian politics, with a ferocious intellect, a razor-sharp and often disparaging wit, and a towering ego that he never troubled to camouflage. He remained a revered figure in the Labor Party, and reviled (far more, for example, than Bob Hawke) by the conservative side of politics. The sole issue over which he received sustained criticism from the left was his support, in the closing days of his government, for Indonesia's designs on what was then Portuguese Timor.

Whitlam turned 80 in 1996, but still made regular public appearances and continued to comment on some issues, notably republicanism: in the 1999 referendum, he campaigned together on this issue with his old enemy Fraser. He felt the Hawke government had wasted its opportunities to continue the great Whitlam reform programme, but was more enthusiastic about Paul Keating's government. After 1996 he was scathingly critical of John Howard, but also of Labor leader Kim Beazley.

Further reading

The world awaits a definitive Whitlam biography. Such a thing is probably not possible in Whitlam's lifetime.

External links

Preceded by:
William McMahon
Prime Ministers of Australia Followed by:
Malcolm Fraser

Preceded by:
Arthur Calwell
Leaders of the
Australian Labor Party
Followed by:
Bill Hayden