Whitlam's election heralded new era

The election of the Gough Whitlam-led government marked a watershed in Australian history. The fearful politics of the Cold War had held Australia in its grip for more than two decades. That was abruptly brought to an end in December 1972.

The election of the Gough Whitlam-led government marked a watershed in Australian history. The fearful politics of the Cold War had held Australia in its grip for more than two decades. That was abruptly brought to an end in December 1972.

Hope had finally triumphed over fear in the Australian psyche, which provided a political opening for a Whitlam-led Labor government, and a historic opportunity to transform Australia.

Of course, Australia was already a vastly different country from its pre-war incarnation, when it was occupied by a small tribe of Anglo-Celts holding tight to a distant and fading Britain and convulsed by the prospect of an Asian invasion.

Since 1945, its population had more than doubled as refugees and migrants from Europe had flooded in. There was a consequent surge in confidence, with Whitlam being its personification and political beneficiary.

That confidence had been held in check for decades by a succession of Liberal-Country Party governments playing on fears created by the Cold War. Communist China replaced Japan as the country's new bogey man, with the national liberation struggles in South-East Asia seeming to give substance to Australia's debilitating Sinophobia.

So Australia dutifully followed the American government in refusing to recognise the Chinese government, allowed the British government to use Australia as a testing ground for its atomic weapons and sent its forces off to fight communism, from Malaya and Korea to Vietnam.

Anything, including the introduction of conscription, was done to keep the spectre of the supposedly expansionist communism from our pristine shores. And it was done in lockstep with our new great power ally, the United States, which was allowed to scatter secret bases across Australia, while its companies dominated the Australian economy and its cultural productions smothered Australian culture. But there was rising resistance.

By the late 1960s, the politics of fear was losing its power. An increasing number of Australians were questioning the reality of monolithic communism coming south to invade us, and wanted something better for an Australia that was characterised by private prosperity and a good measure of public squalor.

Australia's fast-growing population had caused its cities to weep with untreated sewerage, its public schools to be overcrowded and underfunded, its health services to be beyond the means of the poor and its transport infrastructure to creak under the strain of the demands being placed upon it.

Living in western Sydney, it was part of the daily life of Gough Whitlam, as it was for millions of Australians. For all the talk of prosperity, it wasn't much in evidence driving on rutted roads behind the night soil men or waiting in a crowded hospital waiting room for second-rate care. And the position was exacerbated by the unbroken run of Liberal governments in Canberra, which shrank from providing the national solutions that were required for Australia's ills.

For 23 years, all manner of unmet demands were flowing into the political dam manned by Robert Menzies and his successors, only to be either ignored or only partially met. It had to burst sometime, and might have done in 1961 when Labor leader Arthur Calwell won a majority of votes but fell one seat short of toppling Menzies, who held on courtesy of DLP and Communist Party preferences and the rural gerrymander.

The dam held, and Menzies responded to the close call by releasing some of the pressure. He poured some money into education, but it would never be enough. The Vietnam War, and the fears it evoked, kept him and his successors in power while relegating other issues to second place.

There had to be a better world, and Whitlam had 11 more years to imagine how it might look, to sketch out its legislative contours and to prepare the Labor Party for government. The plans that were drawn up over those years covered every aspect of Australian life and responded to all the unmet demands that had been building up for more than a generation.   

It was no wonder that Whitlam's election in December 1972 was like a dam breaking. There was so much to be done, and no certainty about how long his government would be in power to do it. So he and his colleagues went at it with a will and a passion for fundamental reform that hadn't been seen in peacetime since the governments of Andrew Fisher in the early 1900s.

Back then, Fisher had led the first avowedly socialist government in the world, and there were fears in Australia and Britain about what he might do with his power. Similarly with Whitlam, who was leading the first Labor government for 23 years and creating fears in Australia and the United States about what he might do with his power.

For some conservatives, there seemed to be no limit to what he might do. Their fears caused them to deny the legitimacy of the Labor government and to use whatever means they had to remove him from power, culminating in the events of November 11, 1975.

Governor-General John Kerr couldn't have sacked Whitlam without the Opposition undermining the structure of Australian democracy by twice blocking the budget. For all that, Whitlam had answered the aspirations of the Australian people and brought into being a new Australia that still persists.

Dr David Day is an honorary associate at La Trobe University in Melbourne. His biography of Paul Keating will be published in February 2015.

This opinion was originally published in The Age.

Image: Carl Guderian