Liam Byrne
Saturday, 2 December 2023

“We Want Gough”: remembering Whitlam

On 2 December, 1972, Gough Whitlam led Labor back to federal government after almost a quarter of a century in opposition.

It was an epochal moment. The Whitlam Government would go on to fundamentally reshape Australia through its determined efforts to create a better future after many years of conservative stupor.

But it was a government beset with turmoil and confronted with immense challenges, most importantly the global economic crisis that swamped Australia at this time.

This month in Labor History, we remember Whitlam’s extraordinary three years in office and the drama of the infamous ‘Dismissal.’

Prime Minister Gough Whitlam visits the Echo Wall, which surrounds the Imperial Vault of Heaven in the Temple of Heaven in Beijing, 1973. Source: National Archives of Australia

Whitlam’s Tranformative Program

Labor had been out of office for almost two decades when Whitlam was elected as Labor leader in 1967.

It had been an extraordinarily difficult period for the party federally.

Menzies’s long ascendancy had been sustained, in part, by division in Labor’s ranks. The infamous “Split” of 1955 led to the creation of the right-wing Democratic Labor Party, which specialised in directing preferences away from the ALP and to the Coalition. Labor itself was internally divided on a raft of questions, with its Victorian branch dominated by a left-wing faction that many of the time believed was more intent on ideological purity than on winning government.

Whitlam came to the leadership as a figure of controversy. He was seen by some as intemperate, condescending, and aspersions were cast that the former barrister was not of true Labor stock. In personality and policy, he and former Labor leader Arthur Calwell had frequently clashed. In 1966 Whitlam had survived expulsion from the ALP by just two votes after he had broken with the party policy opposing distributing government money to both state and religious schools.

Whitlam was determined to modernise the party.

This was a project he had begun as Deputy Leader, combining with future South Australian Premier Don Dunstan to remove support for White Australia from the ALP Party Platform in 1965.

But it intensified as Whitlam brought the prestige and power of the party leadership to the effort, earning a great deal of opprobrium from within the ALP’s ranks. But his endeavours reflected the reality that if the party did not change, it would be consigned to irrelevancy.

Labor needed to demonstrate, as Whitlam insisted, its “contemporary relevance”. Condemning those in the Victorian branch who were determined to cling to the certainties of the past, Whitlam delivered one of his most cutting jibes: “Certainly, the impotent are pure”.

Whitlam’s was a keen intellect, with a thirst for new knowledge, and dedication to achieving change for the betterment of all Australians. As Frank Bongiorno has demonstrated, Whitlam and his advisors adeptly drew on a network of intellectuals and policy heavyweights to devise a far-reaching vision of Australia’s future, and a concrete plan to realise it.

This plan cohered into Whitlam’s famed “Program” – an ambitious strategy to modernise Australia that was the basis of his appeal to the electorate.

The Program was a compelling vision of the type of country Australia could become if it embraced the possibilities of the future. It helped further expand Labor’s electoral appeal beyond its traditional base to the rapidly growing ranks of professional and white-collar workers.

In his most influential 1972 campaign speech, Whitlam posited that the poll would be a choice between “the habits and fears of the past, and the demands and opportunities of the future”.

In 1972 Whitlam’s Labor received a swing of 2.64%. It was not quite the landslide of popular memory (it built considerably on the strong swing to the ALP in 1969), but it was still an historic occasion. After 23 years, the ALP had a mandate to govern. And Whitlam intended to use it.

It was time.

Prime Minister Whitlam

After the election, Whitlam wasted no time implementing the Program. He and his deputy, Lance Barnard, were sworn into a multitude of ministries (none secretly) until the full ministry could be appointed. This “duumvirate” sprung into action, ending conscription, removing Australian troops from Vietnam, and diplomatically recognising the People’s Republic of China.

The whirlwind of change had just begun. In the years that followed, university education was made free. Outer suburbs were provided with sewage systems. The remaining vestiges of the White Australia policy were abolished. No-fault divorce was introduced and the government supported two claims of equal pay for women. The Racial Discrimination Act was passed. The prime minister poured sand through Vincent Lingiari’s hand.

It was an extraordinary period of change.

It was not all easy sailing. Whitlam had to overcome the obstinate opposition of the Coalition, much of which considered the mere presence of Labor on the Treasury benches as an affront to their right to rule.

But Whitlam was determined to build the better future he had promised. One particularly bitter point of contest was over the government’s plan for a new system of universal health insurance – fiercely opposed by the Coalition.

This proposed new scheme was shepherded by Whitlam’s Minister for Social Security, Bill Hayden, who, sadly, we have recently lost.

Famously, the bills to create the new universal healthcare scheme – Medibank (not to be confused with Medibank today) – were among the 6 opposed by the Coalition that led to Whitlam calling a double dissolution election in 1974. After Labor won the election, with the Coalition still opposed to the Bills, Whitlam requested that the new Governor General, John Kerr, convene a joint sitting of parliament – still the only joint sitting of its nature to take place in Australia. Only in such extraordinary circumstances were the Bills finally passed.

The Dismissal

Whitlam was determined to drag Australia into the future. But he was ill-prepared to deal with the seismic economic changes that were to come. Post-war politics was shaped by the elongated boom that delivered consistent growth and full employment. When the boom bust in 1973/4 – an international phenomenon – Whitlam’s program came under serious threat.

The government simply did not know how to respond to the economic challenges of this time. This was not uncommon. Internationally, policymakers had to adapt to a new era of “Stagflation”: simultaneous high unemployment and high inflation amid economic slump. Few did so with much success.

Whitlam struggled to respond. Its 1974 budget, against advice, was expansionary – with Whitlam committed to delivering his Program of transformation. There was a credit squeeze, unemployment was rising, and an inability to devise a workable wages policy. 

Difficult as the circumstances were, the government was plagued by scandal of its own making.

The government pursued quixotic schemes to fund major investment projects, such as the infamous Loans Affair, where attempts had been made to borrow money from international lenders, subverting usual borrowing practices and if not in direct contravention of the Australian Constitution, certainly in defiance of established convention.

The Whitlam government was losing control. It was slipping in the polls.

In March 1975, the more aggressive Malcolm Fraser was elevated to leadership of the Opposition. In October, prompted in part by revelation from the Loans Affair, Fraser’s Coalition withheld supply in the Senate, hoping to provoke an early election.

It was an unprecedented act of brinksmanship, bringing Australia to the edge of a constitutional crisis.

But Fraser was not the only one scheming. John Kerr was taking advice, and contemplating the unthinkable: sacking the Whitlam government.

Then, on 11 November 1975, Whitlam arrived at Yarralumla to request a half Senate election. He didn’t know it, but Malcolm Fraser was already there. Whitlam met with Kerr to proceed with the half-senate election. It was then that Kerr informed the Prime Minister that he had been dismissed.

The atmosphere was electric. Crowds gathered in outrage, chanting “We Want Gough”. Whitlam encouraged them to “Maintain your rage and enthusiasm for the campaign for the election now to be held and until polling day.”

But as outraged as true believers were, in truth, the inability of the government to respond to the economic challenges of the time had sapped its support. In the December election that year, Australia went back to the polls. Fraser’s Coalition recorded a 7.4% swing in the Two Party Preferred. Labor won just 36 seats out of 127. In the cruellist of circumstances, the Whitlam era was over.

Whitlam and the Dismissal in Australian History.

The Whitlam Government was a hectic period of transformative reform. Pent-up energy for change that had built up over the preceding decades burst to the fore. Such transformation at such a pace was always likely to create difficulties and invoke opposition – especially from those conservatives who barely believed Labor was a legitimate government in the first place. But this was heightened by the international economic crisis of the mid-1970s. 

Whitlam left a difficult legacy for Labor. His government’s reforms fundamentally transformed Australia for the better, but at a high cost for the party. Subsequent Labor administrations have had to question how best to balance ambition and pragmatism. Bob Hawke later recounted that the Whitlam years steeled his resolve to ensure his government would prioritise competent economic management to re-earn the Australian people’s trust.

Dismissal left a difficult legacy for Australia. What does it say about a democratic system when the unelected representative of a foreign monarch can dismiss a democratically elected government?

The Dismissal was a turning point for Australia. And so was the election of Whitlam itself. At its best, the Whitlam Government did what the conservative Coalition had so abjectly failed to do for the decades of its rule – Whitlam had envisioned a better future for Australia, and struck out boldly to realise it.

In the process, Whitlam did not just make Australian history; he made our future.

About Liam Byrne:

Dr Liam Byrne is a Labor historian and author of Becoming John Curtin and James Scullin: The Making of the Modern Labor Party." He maintains an online newsletter for true believers: