|Edward Gough Whitlam (1916-2014) Kodakotype by Pants|
Gore Vidal apparently quipped that Australia had elected its most intelligent man when Edward Gough Whitlam became our Prime Minister. As legend goes, he added that we were not likely to make that mistake again. How astute. We've mostly gone out of our way to seek precisely the opposite, especially lately.
On 2nd December 1972, three important things happened to me. I passed my driving test, got roaring drunk for the first time at our schools-out-forever party and Australia elected its first Labor Government in 23 years. It should be noted that item two is closely related to items one and three. Technically, I was in breach of the law as the drinking age, like the voting age, was then 21. Both would be reduced to 18 within the year. I would get to vote for Gough Whitlam's government twice - in the early election in 1974, (which they won narrowly), and the 'dismissal' election in 1975. I am happy that I was able to exercise my right, even though it had been rendered virtually pointless by the constitution-trashing actions of a dipso buffoon in a top hat.
Whole libraries have been penned on 'the dismissal' but there is only one thing you need to know about it - we Australians really, really care about principles until they get in the way of our personal interests or it all becomes a bit too hard. Unfortunately, both were in play in 1975. A couple of inconvenient oil shocks created budget havoc. Nothing scares an Australian quite like an economic crisis - even one that proves to be no more than a blip on someone else's horizon. Plenty of people have written books about that too. Panic is part of the national psyche. My then-partner's mother responded to the resulting inflation by acquiring a pantry full of toilet paper, even though there was never a risk of shortages. It's the sort of thing we do.
I've just written a short post over on Art of Pants about my feeling that those of us who came of age in the 1970s were robbed of 'our time'. Gough, although older than my parents, represented the values that we wanted in our country. We too believed that free tertiary education and universal health care would lead to greater equality and that restitution must be made to the first peoples of this country if we were ever to have a cohesive society and a coherent shared identity.
We were also the first generation to travel abroad in large numbers. We knew how important it was to contribute internationally and not confine our cooperation to the Anglosphere. All of these things turn out to be true. We know this because the retreat from these efforts has led to greater inequality and instability. It's also true that we are not the only prosperous nation to cower when the pressures of progress squeeze a little too hard. We're just much better at it than anyone else. Australia could have and should have been the testing ground for a brave new multicultural world where every citizen got the opportunity to contribute his or her talent to our free and prosperous society. We were a blank sheet. All we had to do was follow the big guy with the big ideas.
Once I'd sobered up from that amazing summer night in December 1972, (and scrubbed the grass and Château Chunder stains from my white trousers and top), I began to anticipate the next phase of my life. I hadn't really much concept of how it would go. I'd grown up knowing politics only from the right-of-centre perspective. To be honest, it hadn't hindered me. As a girl who was neither pretty nor ugly and only averagely bright, I'd experienced neither favouritism nor discouragement. The best thing you could do as a young girl in the seventies was to go unnoticed. In that sense, I've always felt free to pursue my own interests without reference to others. I felt that life here was pretty good and also that it could be so much better. I was too young for Vietnam War protesting, although I did have a Moratorium badge. By 1972, it seemed even that terrible situation was coming to an end. The hard work had been done by others, something which I have always appreciated.
Sir Robert Gordon Menzies had been the Prime Minister for most of my life. He'd retired in 1966 to be replaced by Harold Holt, who disappeared whilst swimming in heavy seas in December 1967. By chance, I was also involved in a marine mishap on that day. Needless to say, my sabot's collision with a VJ on Sydney Harbour did not make the front pages. John Gorton followed Holt. He was both accidental and accident prone and his footnote in history will say that he abhorred the dismissal action taken by the Governor General and that he sponsored a successful Private Member's Bill which led to the decriminalising of homosexual acts between consenting adult men. Good things. But he was no Gough. His successor in the post, 'Silly' Billy McMahon's footnote is likely to record only that he is the father of Nip/Tuck actor, Julian McMahon.
I had the benefit of a free university education but it wasn't entirely down to Gough. Before the Labor Government introduced its no-fee policy for tertiary institutions, there was a national scheme which had been instigated by Menzies in 1951. It too had existed before I was born. This was the Commonwealth Scholarship. It was awarded automatically to any student who achieved a certain level via the common public examination regime. I know the pressure cooker of the massive exam room and the 3-hour paper doesn't work for everyone but there was an upside. No interviews were required. That meant that universities couldn't exclude students of the wrong gender, colour or family. A letter arrived along with your exam results offering a scholarship and listing the universities prepared to offer you a place. There was still an equalities gap in the shape of a significant points differential between matriculation and eligibility for a Commonwealth Scholarship offer. In other words, if your boy could scrape through, you could probably still get him into Law if you had the readies. Fees applied also to international students. Those of us on Commonwealth Scholarships got our fees paid, a means-tested living allowance and a cheque at the beginning of each year to pay for books.
By 1972 my family had moved to Brisbane. It had been a tumultuous couple of years for us and I'd ended up at a pretty crappy state secondary school. I had made one great friend, and that did help. She'd also been uprooted from the New South Wales state education system at an inopportune moment. I had a couple of diabolical teachers and a couple of extraordinarily gifted ones. They turned out to have been crucial because, amazingly, they got me over the line and I achieved a score good enough to get me a Commonwealth Scholarship to The University of Queensland. So did my best friend. We both moved into a share house in Taringa, an inner Brisbane suburb just a few minutes by car from the university. The house had a dump toilet out the back that was emptied once a week - in 1973. Now that Gough has passed, (sorry), we're reminded of his honoured pledge to bring universal sewerage to urban Australia. He didn't confine himself to hifalutin notions like education, international diplomacy and universal access to health care. Having come far too up close and personal with the droppings of a houseful of my fellow students, I can honestly say that I am very grateful for Gough's having sweated the small stuff in the sanitation department.
Gough didn't invent social progress. Many other countries had free health care and free tertiary education. We also had them but eligibility and access varied between states, regions and socio-economic groups. What Gough did was make them simple and universal. I was the first person in my family to go to university, as was my best friend, as were most of the people we met there. Because of Commonwealth Scholarships, it wasn't a fish-out-of water experience. I didn't feel socially unprepared in any way. And they weren't the only source of free tuition. Teaching students were sponsored by the Department of Education. The catch was that you were bonded to work for them for several years or you had to pay it back. I entered the grandly named School of Architecture and some of my fellow students were on scholarships from the State Department of Works. Same deal - you worked for them over the holidays and for some years on graduation.
The long span of Commonwealth Scholarships and other types of fee sponsorship had entrenched a healthy social mix in our universities prior to the 1974 abolition of fees. It wasn't a culture shock for me or any of my friends. My university had been radicalised so sexism wasn't an issue like it is today. There was a near-even gender mix in my first year of Architecture and there wasn't any of this 'girls can't do it' bollocks either. My best friend studied Law and, as far as I remember, experienced a similar absence of intimidation. When we were at school together, we'd had an enthralling Modern History teacher who knew a lot about South-East Asia and was a specialist on China. He had even been there - several times. My friend and I had a game where we would stand together in silence and look earnestly north. If anyone asked us what we were doing, we would say 'recognising China.'
The Whitlam Labor Government formally recognised the People's Republic of China three weeks after it was elected. Interviewed on Australian Radio, former Whitlam Government minister Barry Jones said he thought that Whitlam's approach to foreign policy was his most significant achievement. He'd removed the demonology from our foreign policy narrative and examined events rationally, making decisions based on verifiable evidence. And what has replaced that eloquence and analysis lately? Threats, paranoia and slapstick. We've done a lot of regressing in the past forty years. We should hit the Stone Age sometime in the next twelve months. At least our current Prime Minister believes in free tertiary education - but only for his own offspring.
What I think I'm trying to say here is that my best school friend and I came from ordinary suburban backgrounds but like so many others of our time, we were ready for Gough. Others had cleared the path but we had no hesitation whatever in setting out on it. The country was crying out for modernisation. The forces of capitalism hadn't anything like the power they have now to manipulate or close down social progress to suit their own ends. It was the right time for this little country to pioneer planet-saving environmental practice, reap the economic and social benefits of equality of educational opportunity and ensure that none of us suffer in pain because we can't afford medical or dental treatment. But we choked. We so, so blew it. We do all have indoor flushing toilets - many of us have more than one. That's progress Oz-style.
In this insightful piece in The Monthly, Mungo MacCallum observes,
'...the dark side of Whitlam’s legacy is that the cost of trying to implement a grand political and social vision is now seen to be unacceptably high.'
He also concludes that the scare has worked on us and we are exactly where conservative forces want us to be.
'Let them not dream of making real changes to society, let alone to the world; the upheavals can be too great, the triumphs too destabilising, the disappointments too crushing. Let them remain relaxed and comfortable, but just a little fearful of those who would shake their complacency.'
The problem, as I see it, is that we needed not just one Gough but a whole cabinet of them. We needed a Gough with economic skills and one with low animal cunning to face down the forces of treachery who were happy to act unlawfully to rob us of our democratic rights. As a nation, we are perfectly happy to follow a visionary until we meet the first hurdle, at which point we clear the supermarket shelves of toilet paper. It's all very well to vow to 'maintain the rage' after the fact. What good has it done us? Our democracy is being dismantled before our eyes. The funny thing is, we're constantly claiming to be 'world class' at this and that but there was a time, forty years ago, when that claim had the potential to be true. Now it's just an idiotic boast that no one believes.
At six feet and four inches, Gough was the tallest of poppies. He called everyone he encountered, 'comrade' until the end of his life and he never resented us for failing him. There's a lesson in that but we are not likely to learn it. We will do what we always do, revere our hero in death - a token gesture which risks and costs nothing. And that is the final insult to someone who brought us to the brink of maturity only find that we would always want to grow but never want to grow up.