Most people with even a vague understanding of Australian political history know who Gough Whitlam was. He was our 21st Prime Minister, sure, but that wasn’t what made him notable.
For the few who don’t know, I’ll keep it quick. Gough was the only Australian Prime Minister ever to be dismissed by the Governor-General, after a constitutional crisis in 1975. He’s not the lead singer of the Whitlams, that’s Tim Freedman.
Younger, less-informed Australians might think that the only way a Prime Minister can be dismissed is by their own party, and I can appreciate the history lesson they’d all get in the coming week if they ever bothered to watch the news on television or read a newspaper. Sadly, they won’t.
There’s a certain prestige and place-in-history for those who get fired from the post, and that’s probably why the ALP have continued the time-honoured tradition started by Sir John Kerr on that fateful day.
Bob Hawke still gets free beers wherever he goes (provided he chugs them), Kevin Rudd’s YouTube legacy is clear for all to see, and Julia Gillard? For me it’s hard to say, time will tell I guess.
History paints all Prime Ministers in different ways after their terms come to a close.
But this isn’t about what the party has become, this is about the passing of a true giant of Australian political history – not just in the way he was ousted but in the significant reforms he instituted.
Universal healthcare, free university education, the elimination of military conscription and capital punishment, ratifying the UN convention against racial discrimination – all this and more attributable to Whitlam.
Sure, he may have complied with Suharto’s annexation of East Timor as the Portuguese withdrew, but how was he to know? We were scared of small bands of communists for crying out loud! At least Indonesia liked us back then.
Not only that, he managed to institute these major, long-lasting political reforms all while facing an asshole-riddled, opposition-led majority in the Senate that constantly made things difficult for him (another tradition that is continued to this day).
While more recent Prime Ministerial removals have been more about fucking popularity contests, personality clashes and internal division, Gough was removed from his post thanks to acts of political bastardry from the other side. Sure, he had the triggers for and called a double-dissolution – but it didn’t help.
In many ways it was a cool and calculated assassination, but at least it came from the opposition. People were right to be outraged, particularly Gough himself. While YouTube videos of the speech are appalling quality, here’s the audio from that famous moment on the steps of Parliament house.
I can’t help but look at the current state of Australian politics and be saddened. Yes, Tony Abbott is an extremely conservative nonce for the most part, but it’s difficult to dispute that he was elected by the majority of Australians.
That’s not to say they don’t regret it now, much like they did in 07 with Kevin Rudd, but what’s done is done – though I’m just as sure there are a large chunk of people who did vote Liberal and don’t regret it at all.
Which is more likely, that Tony was elected because the Liberal party advertised genuine policies and social reforms that enticed the voting public? Or because the ALP presented such a divided farcical image that they practically handed it to him?
All they Libs had to do was scream ‘carbon tax’ and ‘boat people’ to win over the unthinking majority (the same majority who probably don’t know why Gough Whitlam was important), while the other side was too busy fighting itself.
People on the left scream and holler in their protest marches about how horrible Tony is – and I’m not here to debate that, but surely he wouldn’t have been elected if there was a viable alternative, no? Did people really not expect a tidal wave of conservatism to wash over us all under the pretense of national and economic security when the Libs came back into office? There is a somewhat cyclic nature to Australian politics, but the pendulum has been swinging much quicker since 2007. Instead of yelling about Tony, maybe yell about the standard of alternatives?
If anyone knows how to ensure that Tony is a one-term Prime Minister it SHOULD be the ALP, they’ve had two of their own in the last decade, they’re specialists!
Anyway, I’m getting off track.
Here’s to you, Gough Whitlam. You’ve showed us all that we should’ve paid much more attention and instituted political reforms back in ’75. Oh well, too late now. Jokes.
You showed us all that getting fired from your job can in fact be incredibly beneficial in the long run (I seriously doubt he would have lived to the whopping age of 98 had he served another term or two).
You achieved a lot in your short time as PM, much of which stays with us today.
And most importantly, you show us just how miserly the current qualities and standards of most Australian politicians, and Australian politics in general, really are.
If Kerr’s in political heaven too, you just know he’s getting kicked in the balls right about now.