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Gough Whitlam

Gough Whitlam (born July 11, 1916) was leader of the Australian Labor Party from 1967 - 1977 and the 21st Prime Minister of Australia from 1972 until 1975. (Although his full name is Edward Gough Whitlam he is always known by his second name, Gough, which is pronounced Goff.)


Gough Whitlam
21st Prime Minister of Australia
Whitlam was born of moderately wealthy parents in Kew, a suburb of Melbourne, and educated at private schools in Sydney and Canberra before studying law at the University of Sydney. During the Second World War he served as a navigator with the RAAF, reaching the rank of flight-lieutenant. He completed his studies after the war and was admitted to the New South Wales bar in 1947.

Early career

Whitlam had been interested in politics from an early age. He joined the Australian Labor Party in 1945 and by 1950 had already risen far enough to be endorsed as the ALP candidate for Sutherland, unsuccessfully standing for the NSW Legislative Assembly in that seat.

When Hubert P. Lazzarini, the sitting member for the safe Federal electoral seat of Werriwa, died, Whitlam won ALP pre-selection, and was elected to Federal Parliament in a by-election on November 29, 1952.

After the electoral success of the Curtin and Chifley years, the 1950s were a grim and divisive time for the left-wing of Australian politics. The Liberal-Country coalition government of Robert Menzies gained power in the election of 1949 and was destined to rule for a record 23 years. Labor leader Ben Chifley, a softly spoken former engine driver, died in June 1951. His replacement was Dr H.V. "Doc" Evatt[?]: a Queen's Counsel with a commanding intellect, a razor tongue, a passionate commitment to justice, but who lacked Ben Chifley's conciliatory skills, calmer temperament and common touch.

Whitlam admired Evatt greatly, and was a loyal supporter of his leadership right through the 1950s, a period dominated by anti-communist hysteria and marked by the very bitter Labor split of 1955, which resulted in the far-right of the party breaking off to form the DLP and taking the parliamentary balance of power in the Senate for the next two decades and effectively barring Labor from Government through giving their preferences at each election to the Coalition.

In 1960, having lost three elections running, Evatt resigned, to be replaced by Arthur Calwell, with Whitlam winning the election for deputy over veteran Labor MP and then-Father of the House Eddie Ward[?]. Calwell came within a handful of votes of winning the 1961 election, but progressively lost ground from that time on.

The ALP, having been founded as a party to represent the working classes, still regarded its parliamentary representatives as servants of the party as a whole, and required them to comply with official party policy. This led to the celebrated Faceless Men picture of 1963, which showed Calwell and Whitlam waiting in the dark outside a Canberra hotel for the decision of an ALP Federal Conference. Prime Minister Menzies, in the November 1963 election campaign used it to great advantage, drawing attention to "the famous outside body, thirty-six 'faceless men' whose qualifications are unknown, who have no electoral responsibility".

Whitlam was quick to respond, and spent years struggling for party reform—at one stage, dubbing his opponents "the 12 witless men"—and eventually succeeded in having the secretive ALP National Conference turned into an open public forum, with state representatives elected in in proportion to their membership, and with both state and federal parliamentary leaders being automatic members.

Through the 1960s, Whitlam's relationship with Calwell remained uneasy: Whitlam opposed several of the key Labor policies, including large-scale nationalisation of industry, refusal of state aid to religious schools, and above all Calwell's own White Australia Policy, and he was almost expelled from the party in 1966. In January of that year, Menzies finally retired after a record term in office. His successor as Liberal Party leader, Harold Holt led the coalition to an election in November that year on the pro-American, pro-Vietnam War slogan 'All the way with LBJ' including inviting Johnson over to visit Australia during the height of the election campaign: it was a landslide win for Holt, which prompted Calwell to step down in early 1967. Gough Whitlam then became Leader of the Opposition.

Opposition Leader

Whitlam swiftly made his mark on the ALP, bringing his campaign for internal reform to fruition, and overhauling or discarding a series of Labor policies that had been enshrined for decades. The White Australia Policy was dropped, Labor no longer opposed state aid, and the air of grim working-class puritanisim that attended the Labor Party of the 1950s gave way to one that was younger, more optimistic, more socially liberal, more intellectual, and decidedly middle-class.

Whitlam proved himself a formidable campaigner, winning a number of by-elections and then a 17-seat swing and a majority of votes in the 1969 election. DLP preferences plus a peculiarity in the Australian electoral system proved decisive in preventing Whitlam taking office - the win did not translate into enough seats to form a government. (This is not uncommon in Australia. Other Opposition Leaders to win a majority of votes and yet not not gain office include Andrew Peacock[?] in 1990 and Kim Beazley[?] in 1998.)

After Holt's death, the Liberal Party began to fragment, electing John Gorton as leader to begin with, then switching to Billy McMahon. Whitlam's parliamentary performances were devastating, and he quickly established the ascendancy, particularly over McMahon, who was well past his political prime. Outside parliament, Whitlam concentrated on party reform and on developing new policies. He backed the Vietnam Moratorium[?] movement, and in 1971 visisted mainland China, promising to reestablish diplomatic relations—much to the chagrin of McMahon, who attacked Whitlam for that 'pro-communist' policy, only to discover that United States President Richard Nixon was himself working toward recognising China.

On December 2, 1972, Whitlam led the ALP to their first electoral victory in 23 years.

Prime Minister

Whitlam was never a man to lose an unnecessary minute. In the ordinary course of affairs, he would have waited until the cumbersome process of final vote counting in the doubtful seats was complete, and then, with the exact composition of the House known, called a Caucus meeting to elect his Ministers ready to be sworn in by the Governor-General. Meawhile, the outgoing Prime Minister would remain in office as a caretaker. (As a matter of longstanding party policy, ALP Ministers are elected by the entire Parliamentary Party—the 'Caucus'—with the Prime Minister only having the power to assign portfolios. Liberal Prime Ministers, in contrast, have traditionally had the power to nominate their own Ministry.)

Unwilling to wait even another couple of weeks after 23 long years in opposition, as soon as the overall result was beyond doubt, Whitlam had himself and deputy Labour leader Lance Barnard[?] sworn in as a two-man government: making Whitlam the Prime Minister, Treasurer, Attorney-General, Minister for Foreign Affairs, Customs and Excise, Trade and Industry, Shipping and Transport, Education and Science, Civil Aviation, Housing, Works, External Territories, Environment, Aborigines and the Arts! Barnard was the Minister for Defence, Supply, the Army, the Navy, Air, Postmaster-General, Labour and National Service, Social Services, Immigration, Interior, Primary Industry, Repatriation, Health and National Development! The duumvirate held office between the 5th and 19th of December, making several changes that were considered urgent, notably ending conscription and Australia's involvement in the Vietnam War. Whitlam later quipped:

The Caucus I joined in 1953 had as many Boer War veterans as men who had seen active service in World War II, three from each. The Ministry appointed on 5th December 1972 was composed entirely of ex-servicemen: Lance Barnard and me.

Although Labor had a comfortable working majority in the House, they faced a hostile Senate, making it impossible for them to pass legislation without the support of one or another of the other parties—Liberal, Country, or DLP. (Senate elections at that time were not syncronised with House of Representative elections: at the time Whitlam took office, half the Senate had been elected two years previously, the other half five years earlier.)

After 23 years of continuous conservative rule, the bureacracy was unhelpful, and the conservative state governments were implacably opposed to reform. Nevertheless, Whitlam embarked on a massive legislative reform program. In the space of a little less than three years, the Whitlam Government:

  • Took responsibility for tertiary education over from the states and abolished tertiary fees, opening up the prospect of further education to all Australians.
  • Established the Schools Commission to distribute Federal funds to assist non-governmemnt schools on a needs basis.
  • Introduced a supporting benefit for single-parent families.
  • Abolished the death penalty for Federal crimes.
  • Reduced the voting age to 18 years.
  • Abolished the last vestiges of the White Australia Policy
  • Acted to improve media services for immigrants and minority cultures generally by establishing what would later become SBS .
  • Introduced language programs for non-English speaking Australians, and
  • Mandated equal opportunitie for women in Federal Government employment; appointed women to to judicial and administrative positions.
  • Set up the National Aboriginal Consultative Committee.
  • Amalgamated the five separate defence departments.
  • Instituted direct Federal grants to local governments.

The Senate resolutely opposed three key bills and twice rejected them. These were designed to:

  • Institute a universal, free health insurance system to be known as Medibank.
  • Provide citizens of the ACT and the Northern Territory with Senate representation for the first time.
  • Regulate the size of House of Representative electorates to ensuring one vote one value[?].

The repeated rejection of these bills provided a constitutional[?] trigger for a Double Disolution (a simulteaneous election for all members in both houses). Whitlam went back to the people in April 1974, asking for a chance to "finish the job", and was re-elected, though with a reduced majority. The DLP was destroyed as a parliamentary party, 19 years after its creation and ceased to be a force in Australian politics. Crucially, however, the Coalition retained the balance of power in the Senate. In the short term, this led to the historic joint sitting of both houses, at which the three bills were passed. In the longer term, it contained the seeds of Whitlam's downfall.

In its second term, the Whitlam Government continued with its massive legislative reform program, but became embroiled in a series of controversies and scandals, including secret attempts to borrow large amounts of money from Middle Eastern governments bypassing the Treasury and correct constitutional procedures, and a very public extramarital affair between the Treasurer, Jim Cairns[?], and his personal assistant, Junie Morosi.

Emboldened by these scandals, a weak economy, and a massive swing to them in a mid-1975 by-election for the Tasmanian seat of Bass, the Liberal-Country Opposition argued that the Government's behaviour in breaching constitutional conventions required that it in turn breach one of the most fundamental, that the Senate would not block Supply (that is, cut off supply of Treasury funds). This it duly did, delaying consideration of the budget in order to force an election. This was acheived when in a highly-controversial action, the Governer-General time dismissed the Whitlam government and installed the opposition leader Malcolm Fraser as caretaker Prime Minister pending an the election which resulted in a landslide win to the Coalition.

During its three years in power, the Whitlam government was responsible for a massive list of legislative reforms, most of which still stand today. It replaced Australia's adversarial divorce laws with a new, no-fault system, acted to improve the position of the Aboriginal minority, slashed tarrif barriers, ended both conscription and the Australian involvement in the Vietnam War, introduced a universal national health insurance scheme (Medibank, later renamed Medicare), sponsored free university education, introduced needs-based federal funding for private schools, and established diplomatic and trade relations with the People's Republic of China.

Despite its many concrete achievements, its failings were substantial (and regularly mentioned by Australia's conservative forces who still dislike Whitlam passionately). The economy declined, with balance of payments problems, high unemployment and (by Australian standards) very high inflation. This was primarily due to external factors, in particular higher world oil prices and falling prices for Australian farm produce, but the Whitlam government's economic policies were far from convincing in the eyes of the voting public and the contemporary media and almost certainly were not helpful. The autocratic Whitlam "crash through or crash" style made many political enemies, and the various scandals afflicting the government cost it valuable time, momentum, and heavily damaged its credibility with the electorate. Many Australians regarded his dismissal by the unelected Governor-General as an 'outrage' - but most Australians voted to replace the Whitlam government even so, and the Labour Party would not be a serious candidate for government again until Whitlam had been replaced as leader.

Whitlam was, and still is, a larger-than-life figure in Australian politics, with a ferocious intellect, razor-sharp and often disparaging wit, and a towering ego that he never bothered to camouflage. He remains a revered figure in the Labor Party, and reviled (far more than, for example, Bob Hawke) by the conservative side of politics. Now in his late eighties, he still makes regular public appearances (indeed, it is regularly joked that Whitlam turns up at the opening of an envelope) and occasionally comments on some political issues such as the abolition of Australian symbolic ties to the British monarchy (for which he campaigned together with his old enemy Fraser).

He married Margaret Dovey in 1942 and has one son named Nicholas[?] who after a brief career in politics became a company director, almost as controversial in that role as his father was a politician.

Previous Australian Prime Minister: William McMahon
Next Australian Prime Minister: Malcolm Fraser



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