Gough Whitlam in and out of government

Jenny Hocking concluded the first volume of her Whitlam biography (2008) on the eve of her subject’s electoral victory in December 1972. Gough Whitlam had been the most effective and creative opposition leader in Australian history: since 1967 he had dragged a protesting Labor party into the second half of the twentieth century; provided the party with a contemporary social democratic agenda; broadened the appeal of the party beyond its historic working-class base; and seen off one Liberal prime minister, with another to follow. The challenge for Hocking in this second volume is to explain how this promise turned to dust and ashes within three years, with Whitlam’s dismissal by the governor-general, followed by electoral repudiation. Meticulous and thorough research, a broad understanding of both the personal and structural factors underlying his government’s failure, and a commanding narrative drive enable Hocking to meet the challenge. There is no better account of how the triumph of 1972 turned into the catastrophe of 1975.

Euphoria dominates the opening chapters: the Saturday evening realisation that, after twenty-three years, Australians had returned a Labor government; the flight to Canberra on Sunday to plan the immediate assumption of power; the swearing in of the duumvirate – Whitlam and his deputy, Lance Barnard – followed by a fortnight of unprecedented executive action by the dynamic duo that constituted the first Whitlam government. So heady was the atmosphere that The Australian ran a daily banner, ‘What the Government Did Today’. Ecstatic bedlam perhaps best describes the atmosphere when the Caucus met on 18 December to elect the second Whitlam ministry. The new ministers, their appetites whetted by the duumvirate, which made governing look dangerously easy, set out in haste to transform the nation after two and a half decades of conservative rule. If Whitlam and Barnard could do so much in two weeks, what could they not do in three years? The result was that, at the end of 1973, it took two hours for Whitlam to read ‘the entire list of his government’s undeniable achievements into the Hansard ’. Similarly heady was a new assertive nationalism reflected in criticisms of US policies in Vietnam, the ending of ‘colonial relics’ with Britain and the Crown, and a distinctively independent line within the United Nations.

Hocking argues that this early euphoria ‘masked’ the reality of the forces and flaws that were ultimately to undo the government. First there was the ‘stark institutional and political resistance that would confront the government from its earliest days’; secondly, there was the dysfunctional nature of Labor’s governmental structures; and above all ‘a slowly creeping inflationary pressure that would upset economic possibilities and recast the government’s reform expectations’. One of the pleasures of this book is how well Hocking retains these perspectives as she drives forward the narrative.

The political resistance derived from a conservative party, none of whose members had ever been in opposition, and who therefore found a Labor government unnatural; a temporary aberration to be dispatched as quickly as possible. And the conservatives possessed political institutions with which to help them achieve their objectives. There had been no half-Senate election in 1972, so the composition of the Senate, dating from 1967 and 1970, had been unaffected by the Whitlam floodtide, and was to prove implacably hostile to the new government. The premiers in the eastern states, particularly Joh Bjelke-Petersen in Queensland, and Robert Askin and Tom Lewis in New South Wales, were willing recruits to the conservative cause, mounting continual attacks on the federal government and its legislation.

A note of caution is necessary. By ignoring the Labor premiers – neither Don Dunstan of South Australia nor Eric Reece of  Tasmania rates a mention in the narrative – it is easy to ascribe the behaviour of the right-wing premiers to an atavistic conservatism. But the Labor premiers, too, despite benefiting enormously from the human services policies of the Whitlam government, were at times alienated by Whitlam’s centralist tendencies and by the incoherence of federal economic policies. It is worth remembering that it was Dunstan, in the close-fought state election of May 1975, who virtually disowned, with the prime minister’s reluctant acquiescence, the Whitlam government. The conflicts with the states are more complex than Hocking suggests.

Hocking would add to the conservative forces resistant to the new government the top mandarins of the public service. She writes, ‘Shaped by the unbroken years of conservative governments, the workings of these departmental heads were well established and difficult to recast, and simply continued in the Menzies’ framework.’ She believes that Whitlam should have yielded to the pressures within the party and his office and removed the top public service heads. But she also recognises that, being the son of a senior public servant, and with his belief in the impartiality and responsiveness of the public service, Whitlam would never have consented to a massacre of the mandarins à la Howard in 1996. Moreover, on her evidence – and with one noticeable exception – there does not seem to have been much reason for disquiet. Most of the suspect mandarins ‘worked well’ with or developed ‘an exceptional rapport’ with ministers, or came to ‘admire’ the prime minister.

The exception was Treasury, presided over by the quintessential public servant, the urbane Sir Frederick Wheeler, and his intellectual sidekick, the neo-liberal John Stone. Relations between Treasury and the government moved from mutual suspicion to outbursts of hostility, and finally to incipient civil war. At the heart of the conflict was the arrogance of Treasury, the assumption that they and they alone knew the answer to stagflation: a short sharp shock designed to expel inflationary expectations and dampen demand. No more nuanced options were provided by them to the government. There was no doubt that the Treasury answer was sharp, but the shortness was problematic and, anyhow, such action would fuel unemployment and derail pursuit of their mandate. So ‘poisonous’ did the relationship become that Wheeler and Treasury’s resolute resistance to the pursuit of shonky Arab loans was ignored, with results that led directly to the final confrontation between the Whitlam government and the conservative forces determined to bring it down.

If its enemies were legion, the internal structures of the Labor government were ill-equipped to deal with them. Hocking is scathing on the caucus decision that all twenty-seven ministers would meet at all times as the Whitlam Cabinet. ‘It consigned Cabinet to the inevitability of dysfunction and unworkability as its size, together with the opinionated persistence of its members, rendered it unwieldy and chaotic.’ Nor were ministers prepared to forgo the right to challenge defeat in Cabinet by appealing to the sovereign power of caucus. Moreover, whatever the quality of the performance of individual ministers, the ministry remained peculiarly static, all twenty-six surviving ministers being re-elected in the caucus ballot following the 1974 election. Although he could not select his ministers, Whitlam could certainly place them; although whether having placed them he could shift them from one portfolio to another, against their will, was a matter of dispute and led to a number of actual disputes. His ability to dismiss a minister, elected by caucus, was not confronted until his final months in power.

By the autumn of 1974, the Senate’s relentless destruction of government legislation dominated the political landscape. ‘In little over a year, the House of Representatives had passed more legislation than any other, and the Senate had rejected or deferred more legislation than any other.’ Many of the government’s major measures were stymied in the Senate. In these circumstances, Whitlam was driven to a Machiavellian ploy of dubious propriety, offering an ambassador-ship to the disgruntled DLP Senator Vince Gair in order to open up a sixth seat in Queensland, which would benefit Labor in the imminent half-Senate election. Hocking is too generous to Whitlam on the substance of this ploy, but is dead right in her assessment of his capacities: Whitlam was no Machiavel; ‘[i]n the oldest political art of intrigue, Whitlam was an ingénue’. His Senate opponents, abetted by Bjelke-Petersen, outwitted him.

Hocking sees Whitlam’s victory in the ensuing double dissolution election of May 1974 as his ‘apogee’, while recognising that it resolved very little. Despite being the first Labor prime minister to win consecutive elections, this achievement was overshadowed by Labor’s failure to gain control of the Senate. The continuing denial of Labor’s legitimacy was reflected in Billy Snedden’s absurdist claim, ‘We were not defeated, we just didn’t win enough seats to form a government.’ Senate obstruction continued unabated. During the next eighteen months, the Senate was to reject twice as many bills as in the government’s first eighteen months. Even the successful passage of stockpiled legislation in the joint sitting flowing from the double dissolution produced few immediate dividends, given the need for consequential legislation blocked by the Senate, and by non-cooperation and legal appeals by the conservative states.

It was at this point that the government began to unravel around the third and greatest threat to its survival – growing inflation. Courageous one-off attempts during its first year to dampen inflation were contradicted by an expansionist budget. Commenting on the 1973 budget, Hocking writes, ‘If [it] was a choice between Treasury and the program, Treasury never stood a chance.’ In 1974, with inflation now in double digits, Treasury demanded a set of draconian measures that constituted, in Hocking’s view, ‘a conservative political manifesto masquerading as economic strategy’. Nevertheless, Whitlam and Treasurer Frank Crean acceded to the measures, only to find Cabinet, alarmed by the unemployment implications, and led by Jim Cairns, now deputy prime minister, hostile. Cabinet overthrew the proposals, which were further gutted by the caucus. The result, as Hocking observes of the 1974 budget, was ‘inflationary, expansive and uncontrolled – a gleeful, unleashed blow-out’. In the following months, government economic policy was adrift, with Cairns, the de facto treasurer, unwilling to take formal responsibility, and with Crean, in Whitlam’s words, ‘too lazy or weak to put the Treasury line’, and Whitlam himself impotent on the sidelines. Not until November was the impasse resolved when Cairns was formally made treasurer.

As the government wallows, Hocking for once does so as well. This is partly due to her focus on the tortuous intricacies of the Arab Loans Affair, which leads her to neglect other significant events. Cairns’s removal from Treasury is obscure; his replacement by Bill Hayden is given half a sentence and we learn nothing of the latter’s budget until well into the supply crisis. This is because Hocking gives scant attention to Whitlam’s last major reshuffle, the most dramatic and traumatic of them all, and to its consequences. Again, while we have learnt that the New South Wales premier had broken the convention, prevailing since Federation, that a senator who retired or died during his term should be replaced by a member of the same party, and while there have been numerous references to a ‘tainted Senate’, it is only during the October supply debates that we learn that Bjelke-Petersen had breached the same convention in June.

Hocking regains her narrative balance with the coming of the 1975 supply crisis, devoting over a quarter of the book to this – the climax of Whitlam’s political career and the high point of her biography. She writes with restrained passion and is measured but unhesitating in her judgements, which are based on a firm grasp of the issues and sustained by detailed research. Though the dénouement is the best-known event in modern Australian political history, her hour-by-hour account of 11 November is compelling reading. Whitlam emerges as the tragic but flawed prime minister, and Sir John Kerr the dissimulating viceroy, assessments that are, on the evidence, difficult to quarrel with.

Much of the interest and energy of these chapters derives from her revelations of the role of Sir Anthony Mason, High Court judge and later chief justice. Conservative commentators have sought to disparage these revelations on the grounds that Mason had been ‘outed’ as the third man by Gerard Henderson in the 1990s. But, as Hocking argues, ‘Mason was not merely the third man: he was, in many ways, the man.’ Henderson’s Mason is a relatively innocuous creature, who ‘had more than one contact’ with Kerr in ‘his pre-Remembrance Day solitude’. But, according to Kerr, these contacts ‘did not include advice as to what I should do’. Indeed, Kerr asked Chief Justice Garfield Barwick (the second man) whether Barwick could check out Mason’s views concerning Barwick’s opinion handed to the governor-general on 10 November 1975. As Kerr had been talking to Mason for weeks, and as Mason was apparently present when Kerr made this call to Barwick, Hocking’s description of Kerr’s behaviour on this occasion as ‘disingenuous’ is generous.

‘Whitlam emerges as the tragic but flawed prime minister, and Sir John Kerr the dissimulating viceroy, assessments that are, on the evidence, difficult to quarrel with.’

Hocking’s Mason is a very different creature: an active and supportive presence in the weeks leading up to the dismissal. Even before there was any supply crisis, the archival records suggest that Mason met regularly with Kerr to plan with, counsel, and advise the governor-general on the actions he might take. According to Kerr, during the fraught month preceding 11 November he was confiding the details of every meeting with the prime minister to Mason in ‘a running conversation’ designed ‘to fortify myself for the action I was to take’. It was with Mason that Kerr discussed ‘the desirability’ of seeking ‘formal advice’ from the chief justice in defiance of the prime minister. And Mason’s role culminated with his authorship of the curt note of dismissal handed to the Prime Minister on 11 November. These hidden confabulations between the three lawyers – Kerr, Mason, and Barwick – explain the arid legalism of the outcome: as Hocking writes, it was ‘a notion of constitutionalism devoid of politics … The essence of constitutionalism is the interplay of law and politics; it cannot be reduced to legal reasoning alone.’ A question arises: If Bob Hawke had known of Mason’s role would he, indeed could he, have appointed him chief justice of the High Court?

In the miserable years immediately following the dismissal, Whitlam was a damaged and much diminished figure, his reputation further tarnished by the folly of the Iraqi loans scandal, ‘a re-run of the debacle of the Loans Affair’. He was an opposition leader surviving on borrowed time: he no longer commanded the House that he had dominated for two decades; the troops were mutinous behind him; his legislative record was being taken apart by the new government; and he had come to doubt the very principles that had guided his political life. In 1977 a second crushing electoral defeat put him out of his misery by ending his political career. There followed a stint in academia, very much a ‘second choice’ career, and one which he found ‘unutterably boring’. But it gave him an opportunity to write The Truth of the Matter (1979), and this ‘public skewering’ of Kerr and his version of events was probably a necessary catharsis to bring closure to 1975. His life was reanimated by his appointment as ambassador and permanent delegate to UNESCO in Paris by the newly elected Hawke government. The job was tailor-made for him. He championed UNESCO against the depredations of the Reagan and Thatcher administrations, which were uneasy at the shifting power balance within the agency towards developing nations and suspicious of its agenda. Although he failed to prevent the United States and Britain from withdrawing, he was active in the reform and revitalisation of the agency.

And then there is Margaret (‘my best appointment’), the rock on which he had built his life. Hocking captures with humour the travel partnership – the popular Whitlam study and cultural tours – developed in the autumn of their lives, in which Margaret is the dominant and organising partner and Gough the travelling pundit. But to do justice to Margaret’s role, fully covered in this volume, would require another review.

There is an irony in Hocking’s subtitle, His Time. Gough Whitlam’s tragedy was that it was not his time. As the most articulate and creative of Australian social democrats, he came to power at the very moment that the sun was setting on social democracy across the Western world. The apparent failure of Keynesian management, the rise of globalisation with its inhibitions on national economic policy-making, and dissatisfactions with the statist and bureaucratic character of advanced societies all undermined the appeal of social democracy in the 1970s. In this sense, Gough Whitlam was out of time, just one of the many victims of the fading of social democracy.

Published in November 2012 no. 346

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