'It's time' for an honest reappraisal of Whitlam
A new book on the Whitlam Federal Labor Government (1972-75) - The Whitlam Era - reappraises this most controversial, yet short-lived federal government on its 50th anniversary.
The Whitlam Era: A Reappraisal of Government, Politics and Policy co-edited by Scott Prasser and David Clune and published by Connor Court Publishing.
The Whitlam Government came to office amid much euphoria and high expectations, but it fell less than three years later in unprecedented constitutional and political crises and suffered the ignominy of being dismissed by the Governor-General and then humiliated at the subsequent election.
There have been many books written about the Whitlam Labor Government, including by Whitlam himself, some of the participants, and numerous academics and commentators. Indeed, the Whitlam Government is the most studied and written about in Australia.
There was some justification for this past interest. There was the novelty factor as it was the first federal Labor government in 23 years. The style and demeanour of Whitlam himself looked and sounded young and dynamic compared to William McMahon the Liberal prime minister he defeated. Whitlam and Labor appeared modern and forward thinking in contrast to the Coalition which had run out of puff. Then there was the unprecedented never-ending stream of new policy announcements, massive spending increases (even more than during COVID), the intrusion of the Commonwealth government into so many areas of policy, the creation of new institutions, several referenda attempts and numerous royal commissions, sometimes into esoteric topics. Politics was on the front page every day in a way that had not happened for decades. The attraction of the Whitlam Government to the media, commentators and political scientists was understandable.
Adding to this interest were all the mistakes, scandals, ministerial sackings (three Treasurers in three years!), policy follies, the runaway inflation, increasing unemployment, numerous examples of government waste and extravagance, and Whitlam’s own hubris. The States too were antagonised and proper processes ignored, as highlighted by the “loans affair” when the Whitlam Government unsuccessfully and surreptitiously sought a large overseas loan from questionable sources via even more questionable and unorthodox intermediaries. It was to be its undoing.
The problem with many previous assessments of the Whitlam Government was that its achievements have been so mythologised, or alternatively demonised, that its performance in both policy and political terms has been hard to assess objectively. In explaining, or more accurately, excusing the Whitlam Government’s failure, admirers have lapsed too easily into the lore of the past, that the policies were right, but the circumstances were wrong: the 1970s oil shocks, lack of control of the Senate, incompetent ministers. Certainly, a further difficulty in assessment has been caused by the severity and intransigence of the assault on the Whitlam Government by its contemporary critics.
So, the fiftieth anniversary of the Whitlam Government’s election is an appropriate time to reappraise this historic and controversial government with the advantage of distance from the turmoil of the times, and the passions they aroused. That it coincides with a return to Labor in Canberra offers a means to compare the Whitlam Government to the new Albanese Labor Government is another bonus.
Despite all the mistakes, there was more to the Whitlam Government than novelty, controversy, and retrospective glorification and vilification by admirers and detractors respectively. It had substance, detailed policies based on research, expert advice and consultation in areas of identified need in contrast to today when policies are forged in focus groups to win elections, and being a small target is the name of the game. No-one could accuse Whitlam of that. That so many of Whitlam’s initiatives have had lasting impacts and continuity is another reason to revisit this government.
The Whitlam Era: A Reappraisal of Government, Politics and Policy seeks to provide a balanced, objective evaluation, with the advantage of hindsight and newly available information. It identifies the Whitlam Government’s successes, notes its failures, and seeks to understand its long-term impacts on Australian government, policy and politics. Contributors have been selected because of their expertise in their fields and have been asked to consider three core issues in relation to their chapter:
what did the Whitlam Government do?
how did it do it? and,
most importantly, what was the impact in the short and longer term – what survived, what didn’t and why?
The new volume has 20 chapters covering: elections, political narratives; key policy areas: health, social security, resources, rural industry, urban affairs, Aboriginal issues, foreign affairs; institutional issues like the public service, federal-state relations, public inquiries; constitutional issues, and impacts on subsequent Coalition and Labor governments.
The assessments you can read for yourselves and come to your own conclusions. Did the Whitlam Government fail because it tried to do too much, too quickly, or were there more fatal flaws in its policy agenda? By expanding government into so many new areas of policy has it created an unhealthy expectation of what government should and can do, or was it showing how government should be the prime agent for social change rather than relying on individual motivation and effort?
Leave a comment and let me know what you think.
Order a copy of The Whitlam Era from Connor Court Publishing here.
Listen to The Hon. Dr Andrew Leigh MP’s book launch speech here.
I’d be interested to know your thoughts Scott, as a Conservative economist (there aren’t too many around these days it seems) on the recent price cap on coal and gas?
Surely the caps will do more harm than good?