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'.

    CONTRIBUTOR click to Donate

    The Chifley Research Centre relies on contributions from individuals and organisations to fund our operations, events and research. Without your donations, nothing we do would be possible.

  • Andrew Giles & Ryan Batchelor

    Andrew Giles is the Federal Labor Member for Scullin in Victoria. Ryan Batchelor is a director of the Chifley Research

    Ben Hugosson

    Benedict Hugosson is an Organisational Ombudsman for the Swedish Social Democrats, focusing on training and membership development. Benedict has experience

    Cameron Clyne

    Cameron Clyne is the former CEO of National Australia Bank and now chairman of advisory firm Camel Partners and a

    Carol Johnson

    Professor Carol Johnson - Carol is an Adjunct Professor of Politics at the University of Adelaide and has written extensively

    Catherine King

    Catherine King is the Shadow Minister for Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Development.

    David Coats

    David Coats is in Australia as a Visitor at the Chifley Research Centre. He is a research fellow at the

    Gabrielle Kuiper

    Dr Gabrielle Kuiper has a background in science, sustainability and urban planning. She was previously Senior Adviser, Climate Change, Energy

    Emma Maiden

    Emma Maiden is the former Assistant Secretary of Unions NSW. She is currently Head of Advocacy for Uniting, leading their

    Erin Watt

    Erin Watt is the National Secretary of the Labor Environment Action Network. Erin is a National Political Coordinator for United

    Jim Chalmers

    Jim Chalmers MP is Shadow Treasurer, and the federal Labor Member for Rankin. Prior to his election he was

    Jo-anne Schofield

    Jo-anne Schofield is the National President of United Workers Union.

    Linda Tirado

    Linda Tirado is a completely average American. She also has good rants about how much it sucks to be poor

    Lindy Edwards

    Dr Lindy Edwards is the Associate Head of School in the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at the University

    Terri Butler

    Terri Butler is the Shadow Minister for the Environment and Water, and the federal Labor Member for Griffith, Queensland.

    Tim Kennedy

    Tim Kennedy is national secretary of the United Workers Union, organising for secure jobs and a fair Australia.

    Website design and development by