‘You either crash through, or you crash’ was a motto of Gough Whitlam, Prime Minister of Australia 1972-1975.
And crash (and crash through) he did. Like an asteroid that smashed its way into Australia’s political cosmos. He only held power for a brief, crowded moment. But after the crash, nothing would ever be the same.
I won’t say his asteroid transformed ‘the political landscape’, because that would be a weary cleche, not fitting the wittiest man ever to have occupied the role, a rhetorician reared in classical history, and a bitchy provocateur who traded in waspish remarks. Once an opponent from the conservative rural heartland – a constituency that never loved this most urban of premiers- reminded Gough ‘I am a country member.’ ‘I remember’, Whitlam replied.
Whitlam’s project, like Whitlam himself, was too gargantuan for the short time it occupied, and every achievement was shadowed by a crisis or failure. In just three years, he brought forth a vast expansion of the welfare state, but also hyperinflation and economic disarray that eroded the very living standards that he tried to lift up.
He launched a reassertion of Australian nationalism and independence (abolishing imperial honours and appeals to the Privy Council, and claiming ownership of Australian natural resources), but he also entrenched the long-standing practice of appeasing Jakarta. And fairly or not his unorthodox efforts to raise international loans through dodgy middle men made his government stink.
He was the architect of a realignment of foreign policy in Asia, withdrawing from Vietnam and recognising Communist China, a move that chimed precisely with the Nixon administration. But his public silence over the Indonesian atrocity in East Timor dogged him ever after.
He got Labor elected into power after two decades in exile. Yet his inflexible commitment to ramming through reforms at a rapid clip, and his literal interpretation of his party’s mandate, meant that he courted a political showdown that left his party decimated at the polls. In the ranks of the Party, Whitlam’s example was invoked just as much as a model to be avoided.
The precedent of Whitlamism, destroyed so quickly after such high hopes, helped drive the shift of future Labor leaders towards political longevity above all, through fiscal discipline, tactical retreats, and the embrace of capital as well as labour. Paul Keating in many ways emerged as the anti-Whitlam. Both had the instinct for the kill, but Keating despised the turbulence and indiscipline of the Whitlam years, and Hawke’s embrace of ‘consensus’ politics was designed as an antidote to memories of the three dark years.
It was Whitlam’s demise, however, his sacking by the Governor General after a parliamentary deadlock, that was also his most immortal hour. His denunciation of Sir John Kerr on the steps of Parliament house, and of the rival who would become a latter day ally of sorts, Malcolm Fraser, will echo through time.
That point of climax was also, necessarily, the point of decline. At a time when most of the electorate worried more about their jobs and mortgages, Whitlam campaigned on the principle of the supremacy of the House of Representatives, of ‘a great wrong that must be righted.’ Unwilling to bend, he broke. It was Whitlam, so there couldn’t be another way.
‘Why do you write so much about Australian history?’ a hapless interviewer once asked. With a glint in his eye, Gough answered ‘Because I’ve made so much of it.’
And so he did, and does. Rest lightly upon him, earth.