On the death of Whitlam

Maurie Mulheron

Whitlam’s death last month struck a chord with the community, and particularly with those who take an interest in education.

But too much of the commentary has meant that young people could be forgiven for believing that the program of social reform between 1972–75 was due to the imagination of one individual or one political party, rather than acknowledging that the ALP in 1972 reflected the broad social movements that had been building throughout the 1960s.

After the frightened ‘fifties, the campaign for nuclear disarmament morphed into the anti-war movement. This led to student radicalism, agitation for free speech, the counter-culture, women’s liberation, gay rights activism, concern for the environment, the push for land rights — and all these turned into a massive set of social movements that swept a reforming government into power.

Clearly his death triggered an inevitable comparison with the Australia of that period and what a reforming government can achieve, with what we are seeing under the Abbott Government of today. Michael Pascoe summed it up particularly well in the Sydney Morning Herald (October 23): “The optimism, the positivity, the change, the opening up, the justice, the independence, the betterment of the nation, the internationalisation that Whitlam sought and represented has been replaced after four decades with a more general negativity, with so little ambition, with a conservative determination to uphold the status quo or even return to some earlier imagination of it, with white-bread nationalism resplendent. I fear we don’t mourn Gough, but ourselves.”

The policy settings that became legislation under the ‘Whitlam Program’ were the product of agitation, social unrest and protest. The achievements have been extensively covered so I will refrain from listing them here but they cover so much — from free university education to universal health-care to environmental protections to equal pay for women to law reform and so much more.

On higher education, the Whitlam Government deserves to be commended. We also know of course that the Karmel Commission introduced massive increases in schools funding, for the first time giving Commonwealth funding to public schools and creating the Disadvantaged Schools Program, the first equity based scheme.

But we also know that the Karmel Commission brought in increased funding to Catholic schools and that this was part of the attempt to politically settle the State Aid dispute within the ALP. We know the consequences of this. After the ALP lost office, the record funding levels remained for non-government schools but declined for public schools.

Under the Whitlam Government’s special women’s grant, the NSW Teachers Federation applied for and was successful in having our Women’s Officer salary funded for two years by the Commonwealth Government. The Whitlam Government was also responsible for setting up the Trade Union Training program.

In the two years and nine months that the ALP was in government, over 93 pieces of legislation were blocked by the Senate, including an unprecedented blocking of the Budget Supply Bills, starving the government of money. This was extraordinary obstructionism.

Economics was the excuse used by the conservative forces at the time to push back against social reform. But the Dismissal had little to do with economics and everything to do with social policy.

The economic myths are still repeated such as the lie that somehow the Whitlam Government was good on social policy, but dreadful at economic management, whatever that means. We do live in a society, after all, not an economy.

These conservative commentators deliberately ignore the oil shock of 1973 when the OPEC countries, in response to the US giving military aid to Israel, increased oil prices by a massive 70 per cent. This had an immediate shock on economic systems right around the world.

There’s a myth that it was a big spending government (as though ‘big spending’ is a negative). It was a government of reform and the net debt was only 0.4 per cent of GDP. When the Fraser government lost office in 1983, the net debt was 7.5 per cent of GDP.

We should remember the role of Rupert Murdoch and his empire which had originally supported the Whitlam government. Getting the taste for being ‘King Maker’, Murdoch then turned the entire News Ltd Press disgracefully against the government. We have seen that behaviour repeated in every election ever since.

John Kerr was the unelected Governor-General at the time responsible for sacking a twice-elected government. Kerr had form. He had deep and long standing relationships with the American Secret Service and close connections with very right-wing political forces in this country.

Kerr was an unreformed Cold War warrior. He had been involved with a shadowy organisation called the Association for Cultural Freedom and had been on its Executive Board as far back as 1957. It is well-documented that this organisation was created during the Cold War as an anti-communist front funded by the CIA.

The seriously corrupt NSW Liberal Premier, Sir Robert Askin, had recommended Kerr for a knighthood reflecting the Liberal Party’s affection for Kerr. Whitlam, ignoring the unequivocal advice of many of his colleagues, in 1974 appointed Kerr to the position of Governor-General. It was an appalling appointment.

There is no doubt in my mind that there was a conspiracy, a coup occurred, and the ramifications of that are still felt in this country today.

A reform government that had been swept to power by the social movements of the day was destroyed so as to intimidate any party that might want to enact social reform in the future. Politics shifted to the Right.

We need look no further for evidence of this than in the recent comments of the current Federal Treasurer, Joe Hockey, who boasted, “We’ll find any way we can to take the money out of universities” (Australian Financial Review, November 4).

This teaches us one important lesson which we pass on to each generation: every achievement must be defended forever. This is why schools funding must and will be a permanent campaign.