It's time to uncover the real Whitlam

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It's time to uncover the real Whitlam

By Kerryn Williams

Have you ever been in the middle of a free education rally and heard someone yell out from the crowd "Bring back Gough"? To some, former Labor Prime Minister Gough Whitlam personifies the "positive" aspects of the ALP and reformism. His record as PM from 1972 to 1975 is used to justify progressive people's membership of the ALP.

But Whitlam's legacy isn't as rosy as some make out. Whitlam's firm support for the brutal Suharto regime's 1975 invasion of East Timor sheds a more sober light on history. Likewise, while bringing an end to the racist White Australia immigration policy, Whitlam slashed the migrant intake by almost half. Even Whitlam's supposed commitment to working people is proved false by his response to the closure of car-maker Leyland in Sydney in 1974: he gave a huge hand-out to the company but did nothing to save any of the 3000 jobs lost.

Many of the positive reforms introduced by the Whitlam government were either never fully implemented or quickly eroded. Whitlam retracted some of his pledges on child-care provision and abortion rights, drove down wages and introduced a range of austerity measures which made the job easier for his Coalition successor Malcolm Fraser's "razor gang". Whitlam's trophy, the introduction of free education, was reversed by a Labor government in the 1980s.

Whitlam was no enemy of big business. In fact, he was elected with the support of many big capitalists who thought the ALP could calm down the mass movements that had begun in the 1960s, install a wage freeze and open up trade with Asia. It was only after the 1974 recession hit that big business decided Whitlam wasn't capable of carrying out the austerity measures it wanted, and turned against him.

The ALP clearly displayed its commitment to maintaining the undemocratic capitalist system when it did everything possible to hinder the mass demonstrations and strikes which occurred in response to Whitlam's sacking by the governor-general in 1975. In ALP president Bob Hawke's words, "We must not substitute anarchy in the streets for the processes of democracy". Labor believed it was more important to prevent mass mobilisations which could achieve real democratic change than to retain government.

The ALP's role since then, both in and out of office, has not changed. Thirteen years of Labor federal government (1983-1996) produced cuts to corporate taxation, fees for education, more restricted land rights, increasing unemployment and ongoing support for the murderous Indonesian regime.

In opposition, Labor supported many of Howard's policies, including most of his racist "10-point plan" on native title. The ALP still refuses to commit itself to closing the Jabiluka uranium mine or repealing of the Workplace Relations Act when it is next elected.

In NSW, Labor Premier Bob Carr continues to scapegoat young people with his "law and order" measures, and Labor's Peter Beattie made Queensland the first state to implement Howard's native title legislation.

Most importantly, the glorification of Whitlam's "reforms" denies one crucial fact — that progressive change is won through people fighting for it. Whitlam's few concessions to people's needs weren't the result of generosity; they were won by the mass social movements of the 1960s and '70s. In 1965, for example, Whitlam supported Australian military intervention in Vietnam. However, with the growth of a huge and active movement against the Vietnam War, he was forced to switch sides.

Gough Whitlam was no people's hero. The party he headed was then and remains today staunchly pro-big business and anti-people. Rather than look back longingly towards a dream that was never real, we have to build a political alternative to the ALP and parliamentarist politics which can not only win progressive reforms, but fundamentally change the way society is run.