The passing of former Labor Prime Minister Gough Whitlam at the age of 98 on October 21 provoked a wave of emotion from the community, both young and old. At a time when the federal government is trying to smash the remnants of the progressive reforms initiated during the Whitlam government — in office from December 1972 to November 1975 — the Whitlam era seems like a period from another political universe.
A letter to the Sydney Morning Herald on October 23 summed up the mood: "The death of Gough Whitlam not only provided an opportunity for political midgets such as Bill Shorten and Tony Abbott to become authorities on giants ... It also showed how these two agree on almost everything else. The contrast with the Whitlam era is complete.”
The election of Whitlam was greeted with widespread hope. An editorial in Direct Action newspaper of December 7, 1972, following the landslide victory of Labor in the December 2 election that year proclaimed: "Labor's return to power and its crushing defeat of the L-CP [Liberal-Country Party] government is a landmark in postwar political life. It will be a great boost to the morale and confidence of the labour movement and its allies as they press forward in their struggles against the employers and for an end to their particular oppression."
Some big reforms were introduced immediately. Direct Action reported: "Australian workers got some immediate benefits from dumping the Liberals. The call-up [conscription] was ended after 30 minutes of Labor government; the Labor government intervened [to support] the equal pay [for women] case; the sales tax on contraceptives was dropped and they were placed on the pharmaceutical benefits list; South African sporting teams were banned from the country; [left-wing journalist] Wilfred Burchett's passport was returned; and steps were taken to preserve Aboriginal land rights and culture."
During the three years of the Whitlam government, some of the big gains included: bringing the troops home from the Vietnam War, and ending conscription; recognising the People's Republic of China; abolishing the racist "White Australia" policy; ending tertiary education fees; introducing the universal national healthcare system Medibank (predecessor to Medicare); granting the first Aboriginal land rights; supporting equal pay for women, and funding women health centres and refuges; introducing law reform, including no-fault divorce; funding urban and regional development, including public housing and large-scale sewerage works; and expansion of financial assistance to the arts and cultural programs.
What prompted the government to make so many far-reaching reforms in a short period of time? The Whitlam Labor government came to power after 23 long years of Liberal-Country Party rule, ending an era of right-wing governments stretching back to the first Menzies win in 1949. The popular thirst for change was effectively captured in the ALP slogan, "It's Time!"
However, it is important to emphasise that the Whitlam victory occurred on the crest of a wave of popular mass struggles — most centrally the anti-Vietnam War moratoriums — and the rise of a new youth radicalisation that began on the university campuses and spread to broad layers of society from the 1960s to the early 1970s.
This upsurge also involved the new wave of women's liberation, the growing Aboriginal rights movement, the start of gay liberation, and the modern environment movement. The youth revolt also challenged traditional authority roles in the family, education, morality, culture and politics.
The Australian movement was part of an international political explosion, fuelled by the growing anti-Vietnam War campaign, but including the civil rights and Black Power upsurge in the US, the new rise of international feminism, and anti-colonial and anti-racist struggles around the globe.
Highlights of this period included: the May-June 1968 student revolution in France, the anti-bureaucratic revolt expressed in the Prague Spring, and the wave of student dissent in universities and high schools in most countries of the developed capitalist world.
In Australia, the anti-war movement grew from a small minority to a mass movement expressed in the Moratoriums of 1970 and 1971. General anti-war sentiment gradually increased to become a large majority by the time of the 1972 election.
It was in this tumultuous social context that the Whitlam Labor government came to power, carried on a huge wave of popular demand for real change. It was this mass pressure that forced the Whitlam government to initiate the reforms it brought forward.
However, Whitlam was not a left-winger in Labor. He established his authority in the party eventually, as part of the preparation for government, by intervening against the Socialist Left-controlled Victorian branch of the Labor Party.
As an article in Green Left Weekly from 1992, marking the 20th anniversary of the election of Whitlam, said: “Labor rode the anti-Vietnam War movement to power — though not before Whitlam had attempted to overturn former ALP leader Arthur Calwell's opposition to the war. In 1968, Whitlam almost lost the party leadership to anti-war campaigner Jim Cairns.
"Labor was elected also with considerable support from sections of the business elite —led by Rupert Murdoch's Australian — that considered Labor's foreign policy much more in tune with the reality of detente than was the Liberals' Cold War posture. Their hope was Labor would defuse the late 1960s mass movement and impose some form of wage freeze…
"With the recession of 1974-75 approaching, Labor gave grants to failing manufacturers, like the Leyland car-maker, but did little to save threatened jobs. It unsuccessfully proposed a wage-price freeze referendum in the face of soaring prices, and then introduced a rigged indexation scheme to cut real wages. It retracted pledges on child care and abortion rights.
"With unemployment around 300,000, the highest in decades, Treasurer Bill Hayden's 1975 budget cut public spending and raised taxes, initiating the austerity program later taken up by the Fraser Coalition government. And when Labor turned a blind eye to Indonesia's invasion of East Timor in 1975 — and the murder there of Australian journalists reporting the invasion — many former sympathisers knew time was up for the Whitlam dream.
"Even so, public anger at the November 11, 1975, Fraser-Kerr coup was palpable. But in the face of mass demonstrations and strikes around the country, ALP president Bob Hawke called for 'restraint' and for 'law and order'. 'We must not substitute anarchy in the streets for the processes of democracy,' he pleaded. And he accurately claimed: 'We [the ALP] came to power to save the system.' Is it therefore surprising that Labor lost the December 1975 election in such dramatic style?
"Labor's post-Whitlam leadership studied the whole 1972-75 experience with great intensity. Their conclusion: maintaining government means unflinchingly meeting the economic needs of capitalist big business, while at the same time holding down working-class pressures from below. The result; 10 years of Labor government under Hawke-Keating; 11 per cent unemployment; and real wages 20 per cent lower than a decade ago."
More recently, Whitlam and Fraser are reported to have reconciled. And Fraser recalls that they both regretted the move even further to the right by the Liberal and Labor parties.
Today, the Abbott Coalition government represents the most far-right government in decades in this country. It is seeking to substantially roll back the social gains, not only of the Whitlam era, but of the whole post-Menzies period.
This occurs in a period of growing crisis for the capitalist system in Australia and internationally. The bipartisan, neoliberal offensive of the past 30 years is seeking to turn back basic gains made by working people over generations.
Meanwhile, the labour movement is at a turning point. The trade unions are in a weakened state and under escalating attack.
The ALP, which remains the second party of capital, turned to by the ruling elite when the class struggle threatens to spiral out of control, has moved even further right under the leadership of Bill Shorten.
The Labor left is a shadow of its former self. During the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Victorian Socialist Left was a strong force, holding mass meetings in Collingwood Town Hall to discuss the Vietnam War and key domestic issues. Today, the Labor left is a hostage to the ALP right-wing and has shrunk to being a minor player.
The real legacy of the Whitlam era is mixed: Many of the key social gains we are defending today against the Abbott barbarians are an essential part of that legacy.
But the other side of the Whitlam legacy is the confirmation that the ALP is not an instrument for fundamental political and social change in Australia. We now need to accelerate the vital task of building an alternative political movement to eventually challenge the status quo of big business rule, and to struggle for a socialist society.