Editorial: The legacy of the Whitlam government

The impressive reforms of the Whitlam government were the result of hard struggles fought by social movements over many years.
October 24, 2014

In the outpouring of grief over Gough Whitlam’s death at the age of 98 on October 21, many people remembered how their lives were changed by the reforms his government brought in.

In an age of worsening neoliberal attacks led by the anti-poor class warriors in Tony Abbott’s government, the reforms associated with Whitlam's twice-elected 1972-75 government can seem almost utopian.

The reforms included granting Aboriginal land rights for the first time, abolishing the racist “White Australia” policy, funding women’s health centres and refuges, free tertiary education, creating Medibank (forerunner to Medicare), bringing troops home from Vietnam and giving a large funding boost to Australian arts and culture.

These reforms were not simply granted out of the goodness of the Whitlam government's heart, but were the result of hard struggles fought by social movements over many years. They occurred in a context of growing social radicalisation, especially among young people.

But for many people, the Whitlam government was the personification of the hopes of those who wanted change. Whitlam also carried with him the aura of martydom because of the way his government was overthrown. On November 11, 1975, Governor-General John Kerr sacked the Whitlam government and appointed Liberal leader Malcolm Fraser as interim prime minister.

The overthrow of the Whitlam government — via grossly undemocratic “reserve powers” vested in the English monarchy's representative in Australia — was a violation of democracy.

Yet the fact remains, neither Whitlam nor his government were especially radical. That the Whitlam government stands out as a progressive beacon says more about the reactionary nature of all that came before and after. Whitlam came to power after decades of stifling conservative rule, and all governments since — Labor as well as Liberal — have worked hard to undermine the reforms.

The Whitlam government came in with a broom and modernised Australian society without seriously threatening the rule of the corporate elite — the capitalist class. Some of its reforms were wanted by capitalists, including measures like opening trade with China — which the Coalition couldn't do for ideological reasons.

There are few greater signs of the Whitlam government's fundamental loyalty to corproate rule than its support for the brutal pro-imperialist Suharto dictatorship. It gave Australian support to its genocidal East Timor invasion because, as a leaked document put it, Australian companies could expect a better deal on East Timor's oil. Whitlam and Labor remained supporters of Indonesia’s occupation right up until it ended.

When capitalists, with no more need for the reformist thrust of Whitlam's government, helped bring it down, the Labor Party refused to mobilise people in the streets. This was done through its control of the trade unions, with then-Australian Council of Trade Unions head Bob Hawke ignoring strong sentiment for a general strike.

Whitlam's death brings a chance to consider the lessons of his reforming government. The lesson learned by a traumatised Labor Party was to avoid rocking the boat.

Labor politicians saw how the capitalists used their economic power, control of media and representatives in the Coalition to destabilise and then bring down Whitlam, and concluded to do as little as possible in future to upset such interests. They chose power over principle.

The result is that later Labor governments undid many of Whitlam's achievements — abolishing free education among other things. These attacks paved the way for even greater attacks under Howard and Abbott.

But, for those who still believe in social change, there are different lessons. First, that progressive change is possible — if we could afford free education in 1974, for instance, we surely can now.

Second, that the corporate elite will not accept any challenge to its interests, however mild. It will violate democracy to protect its interests.

And third, that the Labor Party is not an appropriate vehicle to achieve social change. Faced with a challenge to its mild reformist agenda in the mid-70s, Labor capitulated.

We should remember the progressive gains from Whitlam's government, but remember they were not handed down but won by the struggles of ordinary people. And we can win them again — and more — in the future.

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