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Labor, tradition and the Whitlam legacy

GK Chesterton once said that “Tradition means giving a vote to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead.”

Progressives are at our best when our reforms draw out the golden threads of history. The notion that society is a contract between the past, the present, and unborn generations is as powerful a guide for progressives as it is for the other side of politics.

No-one better understood the value of tradition than Gough Whitlam. Gough Whitlam sought to change Australia, but to do so from the standpoint of a deep understanding of the past.

As he put it, “Rather than discard our authentic traditions, we want to restore and invigorate them. … Rather than overturn the true values of Australian society, we want to resurrect and foster those values.”

Whitlam saw Australia not as a fearful fortress, but as a proud nation with much to offer the world. He secured independence for Papua New Guinea. He cut Australia’s tariffs by 25 percent – the beginning of the end for the old McEwenist policy of ‘protection all round’. John Button said that Gough would often remark “When I opened China to the world…”.

Gough Whitlam was no pacifist. The day after Pearl Harbour, he signed up for the air force, and flew hundreds of reconnaissance, escort and bombing missions. But he knew the limits of our military action, and one of his first acts as Prime Minister was to withdraw our remaining troops from Vietnam, a conflict that he described as “disastrous and deluded.”

Whitlam was proud of his nation, but he embodied the distinction that George Orwell draws between nationalism and patriotism. You can love your country, Orwell averred, without needing to claim it as being better than to all others.

If there was a central value that drove the Whitlam Government, it was egalitarianism. Speaking at Ballarat in 1973, he said ‘Egalitarianism – by whatever name we call it – is at the heart of the Australian tradition.’ Gough agreed with Doc Evatt’s view that ‘Australian democracy was born at Eureka’, and noted the ‘auspicious coincidence’ that the Whitlam Government was elected the day before the 118th anniversary of Eureka.

He put egalitarianism into action through universal health care, the Schools Commission, the World Heritage Conventions, the Trade Practices act, the Racial Discrimination Act, a land rights deal that led Vincent Lingiari to say ‘we are all mates now’, and sewering Western Sydney (which he said made us the world’s “most effluent nation”). Paul Keating called the Whitlam Government “the re-sparkling of Australian social experimentation, which was snuffed out prematurely with Gallipoli and Flanders”.

Whitlam’s term in government was too short. If he had won in 1969 – if Don’s Party had a happy ending – then Whitlam would have had three easy years to implement his social agenda. But his government had to face a major global crisis. This seems to happen to Labor governments. James Scullin was sworn in two days before the stock market crash of 1929. John Curtin was elected two months before Pearl Harbour. Kevin Rudd was elected the year before the Global Financial Crisis.

Gough Whitlam faced the oil shocks, and the challenge of stagflation. Any analysis of that government’s economic record must take the world economy into account.

In Manning Clark’s words, Whitlam was an enlarger, not a straitener. He was always looking to do more. The to-do list he left us includes a republic, a human rights bill, fixed four year terms and more work on the reconciliation journey, to name just a few examples.

On the crypt of the great English architect, Christopher Wren, is engraved ‘si monumentum requiris circumspice’ (if you seek his monument – look around you). It would be a fitting epitaph for Edward Gough Whitlam.

Andrew Leigh is the Shadow Assistant Treasurer and Member for Fraser. This is an edited excerpt of his speech delivered as part of the Condolence Motion for the Hon. Edward Gough Whitlam in the House of Representatives.

About Andrew Leigh

Andrew Leigh is the Labor Member of Parliament representing Canberra's north side.. He is a father of 3, an economist and author of 'Battlers & Billionaires' & 'Disconnected'.

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