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Gough Whitlam: A Personal Retrospective

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  • Gough Whitlam: A Personal Retrospective

    With thanks to: Whitlam: The Power And The Passion, on 26/5/’13, 2/6/’13, and 21/10/'14 on ABC1 TV
    -----------------------------------------
    HEADY DAYS
    All my sins are remembered

    Part 1:

    When one writes about politics, the people and the events, the ideas and the issues, one does not have to engage in the partisan variety which divides the nation and individuals from each other and engages millions in hair-splitting discussions on topics about which they usually or, at least, often know very little. Often the opinions are endless, opinions which get dropped-about now in cyberspace's social media and elsewhere, and in real space.

    I have studied politics and taught it from grade 10 when I was 15 to these years of my retirement more than half a century later. I am now 70. My parents had political meetings in our home back in the early to mid-1950s. It was in those early, those embryonic, years when I was inoculated against partisan-party politics. That in-house political discussion was characterized by endless hair-splitting and personality clashes in what were my pre-puberal years, and the scene has changed little in the last several decades, some 60 years of my life-narrative.

    But such experience of political wrangling in my childhood and adolescent years has not prevented me from being interested in the political world. Nor does it prevent me now as I go through these years of my retirement from a 50 year student and paid employment life, 1949 to 1999.

    I just finished watching a two-part doco on Gough Whitlam.1 He was Australia’s 21st Prime Minister from 1972 to 1974 just after I arrived in Australia from Canada when I was in my late 20s as an international pioneer from the Canadian Baha'i community. I wrote the first draft of this statement after watching this political-doco in the evening of my life, early or late it is hard to say. I updated this statement today on hearing of the passing of Gough Whitlam on 21/10/14, and on seeing that doco yet again in the first 24 hours after his passing.

    Part 2:

    More books have been written about Whitlam, including his own writings, than about any other Australian Prime Minister. According to Whitlam biographer Jenny Hocking, for a period of at least a decade, the Whitlam era was viewed almost entirely in negative terms, but that has changed. Paul Kelly(1947- ), an Australian political journalist and author who has written seven books on political events in Australia, wrote the following 3 paragraphs on hearing of Whitlam's passing at the age of 98 yesterday:

    "Gough Whitlam’s passing is a sad moment for the nation, but it is the time to recognise one of the most extraordinary and inspiring figures produced by the Australian nation and our democracy. Gough’s glories and follies were writ large. Nothing he did was small, mediocre or apologetic. He was a giant in stature, learning, presence and achievement. Nobody who ever met Whitlam will forget him and those who dealt with him regularly in political life will retell Whitlam stories to the end of their days."

    "He was a prime minister yet he became a figure transmitted into our national mythology, joining that bizarre cast of uniquely Australian figures that include Ned Kelly, Don Bradman, Phar Lap, Charles Kingsford Smith and Nellie Melba, among others. The great paradox of Gough was his abiding love of tradition yet his visionary sense of Australia’s future. His mind was an organised expanse of rigid, disciplined rationality yet his temperament was explosive, thrilling, funny and egocentric."

    "This implanted the fantastic contradiction at the heart of car¬eer and government — the implementation of the most planned agenda in the nation’s history was rocked by excess, upheaval and boundless impatience. Gough called it “crash through or crash”. He meant it and he lived it and, as a consequence, the Whitlam government became the best of times and the worst of times."

    Part 3:

    Kelly's book, The Dismissal was used as the basis of the television miniseries The Dismissal in 1983. I used this film, this miniseries-doco, when I was a lecturer in politics to matriculation students in Western Australia a decade later. Whitlam didn’t easily rise to the top to become Prime Minister; he had to fight to get there.1 He did that fighting all the way back to the same year my mother joined the Baha’i Faith: 1953. I was only 9, then, and living in Ontario Canada.

    Whitlam’s only free ride into the political arena came on the winds of social change that woke up conservative Australia and helped deliver the Australia Labor Party (ALP) victory in 1972. By then I was 28, living in the dry dog-biscuit land of northern South Australia, and teaching high school at the beginning of what became, at least for me as I look back over 70 years of living, a rich and rewarding career in the world of teaching and tutoring, lecturing and adult education.

    I had arrived in Australia on 12 July 1971. In the week before my arrival Gough Whitlam, then the leader of the opposition Labor party, visited China as did Henry Kissinger. Little did I know, of course, as I was travelling from Toronto Canada to Hawaii and on to Melbourne and Adelaide. For most people, the comings-and-goings of the world's celebrities on the political stage act as a background to the intimacies of their private and family lives, their employment and various interest and activity interests.

    Part 4:

    I'll mention only a few details in relation to Whitlam's rise in the Labor Party after entering Parliament in 1953. He joined the Shadow Cabinet in 1959, and became Labor Leader in 1967. I joined the Baha’i Faith in '59, a non-partisan religion. I knew nothing of Whitlam. I was teaching Inuit in the Canadian Arctic when he became Labor leader. He didn’t win his first election as Leader in 1969 but he came close with a big shift to the ALP in the poles. He also came very close to not being the leader of the Labor party, and that is another story.

    By 1972, his persona and policies were hitting a chord with rebellious baby-boomers who were railing against sexism and racism, and demanding peace not war, especially in Vietnam. Women and migrants also liked their suburban neighbours Gough and Margaret. At the campaign launch, TV stars, rock singers and comedians pushed the “It’s Time” jingle into every Australian lounge room and Whitlam gave Labor its first Prime Minister in 23 years.

    In mid-December 1972 my first wife and I were on our way to live in South Australia's first country town, Gawler. This town was just outside the wine producing region of the Barossa Valley. In January 1973 I began work as a teacher in South Australia's first open-plan high school. It was located in a suburb of Adelaide, Para Hills South Australia. This was much less the dry-biscuit land in the north of that state and was only 9 miles from Adelaide's CBD.

    Whitlam exercised his power at breakneck speed in 1973 and students, with the interest, can read about his first months as PM: he appointed his own government advisor on women’s affairs, a world first; he made reforms in child care, Aborigine policy, tertiary education, and flushing dunnies. I will leave Whitlam's massive reform agenda to readers with the interest.

    One of Whitlam's reforms, though, which affected me was the abolition of university fees which took effect on 1 January 1974. Whitlam was all the rage while I was teaching in South Australia's first open plan high school in 1973. In September of that year I was hired to teach as a senior tutor in human relations in what is now the University of Tasmania beginning on 1/1/'74. I have Whitlam, in part at least, to thank for that job in an expanding tertiary education sector.

    Whitlam spoke of breaking the reliance on Britain and America, and of Australia becoming more independent. He bought Jackson Pollock’s $1.348 million Blue Poles for the new National Gallery of Australia and loved the ensuing controversy. The ALP was in the news a lot of the time and, as 1973 advanced, the ALP became more and more on the nose. This period is, as I say, well-documented for readers.

    I was far too busy with my 60-hour a week job, with the last and rocky-year of my first marriage, and with my responsibilities in the local Baha’i community of Gawler where I served as the chairman. My emotions and my mental-set, my time and my energies were full to overflowing. I was simply not able to keep pace with those heady-days in Australia's partisan-political world.

    Most of my life that partisan-political world of the left-and-the-right, this party and that, who had the power and who did not, has been a sort of parallel universe which existed far-out on the periphery of my daily life, although that became less true when I taught politics and Australian government and legal systems in the 1990s. After I retired and went on a pension in the early years of the 21st century I was able to fill-in some of the many gaps in my knowledge-base not only in the political world but in many other disciplines and topics across the wide-wide-world of knowledge.

    Part 5:

    In one year, beginning in late 1973, as I was leaving my first marriage, leaving South Australia, and arriving in Tasmania, and after several months of an initial rise in ALP popularity, cracks appeared in the ALP agenda. The actions of an Arab coalition started a worldwide economic meltdown. Whitlam had assumed Australia’s economy was bulletproof, but inflation and unemployment rose steeply as I was on a role and advancing incrementally in my teaching career.

    Ignoring advice, Whitlam pushed through one of his most prominent, and expensive, reforms: free university education for all. The state of the economy deteriorated further in my first months in Tasmania in 1974. Whitlam's motto was crash or crash-through, and he was doing both, little did he know at the time.

    The conservatives in the Australian federal political system controlled the Senate; they tried to block government legislation, but Whitlam called their bluff by calling an election. The ALP, on 11 April 1974, won with a similar majority to its win in 1972. The Baha'i Five Year Plan, 1974-1979, began that same month. I served as a delegate to the Australian Baha'i national convention that year; I also settled into my tutoring role in a range of education studies, and a relationship with my future wife. She had two daughters ages 3 and 8 and, in 1975, they became my step-daughters.
    Whitlam and the ALP enacted a free healthcare service, the forerunner of Medicare. But, as I say above, their popularity went downhill from its rich beginnings in December 1972, as the months of 1973 advanced. I was on a career-roll and, in 1974, I had another 60 hour a week job teaching and tutoring in a new list of subjects to students preparing to teach in primary and high schools as well as work in the world of art.

    Part 6:

    The optimism and high hopes of the initial months of the ALP in power didn’t last. The party axed Whitlam's trusted deputy Lance Barnard and a scandal erupted around the relationship between his replacement, Jim Cairns, and Cairns’ exotic chief of staff Junee Morose. The decision to sign-up the offshore loan shark Troth Hemline to help buy back Australia’s mineral wealth was like signing a death warrant for Whitlam’s administration. This is yet another story in the long saga of the demise of the Whitlam government in 1974/5.

    In 1975 the Opposition voted in a strong leader in Malcolm Fraser. Blocking supply this time sparked dramatic events unprecedented in Australian history. The Governor-General Sir John Kerr sacked Whitlam and on 11/11/'75 appointed Fraser as caretaker Prime Minister. It was game over.
    Polls from the first week of campaigning showed a nine-point swing against Labour. Whitlam's campaign team disbelieved the results at first, but additional polling returns were clear: the electorate had turned against the ALP. The Coalition attacked Labor for economic conditions, and released television commercials including "The Three Dark Years" showing images from Whitlam government scandals.

    Part 7:

    The ALP campaign of October to December 1974, which had concentrated on the issue of Whitlam's dismissal, did not address the economy until its final days. By that time Fraser, confident of victory, was content to sit back, avoid specifics and make no mistakes. On election night, 13 December, the Coalition enjoyed the largest victory in Australian history, winning 91 seats to the ALP's 36, and taking a 37–25 majority in the Senate in a 6.5 percent swing against Labor.

    The day before the election, on 12/12/'74, I left Tasmania, my several responsibilities, and my job as a senior tutor in human relations and education studies at the then Tasmanian College of Advanced Education. I moved to Elwood Victoria and then Kew, and yet another job in Box Hill with its 60 hours a week. I had yet another set of responsibilities in the Baha’i community. My first marriage ended, and my second began in 1975. That election in December 1974, the comings-and-goings of the ALP and the Liberal Party in 1975, as well as all that partisan-political-media-world remained where it had always been, far-far out on the periphery of what I thought about and felt from day-to-day. If I included my social and community responsibilities in the number of hours per week that occupied my time, I had an 80+ hour week with assorted nose-to-the-grindstone stuff.

    Part 8:

    Wallace Brown, one of the longest serving and most respected members of the Federal Parliamentary Press Gallery, 1961-1995, was noted for his even-handed reporting of political affairs and his encouragement of young journalists. In a book about his experiences as a journalist covering Australian prime ministers he described Whitlam as follows:

    “Whitlam was the most paradoxical of all prime ministers in the last half of the 20th century. A man of superb intellect, knowledge, and literacy, he yet had little ability when it came to economics. Whitlam rivalled Menzies in his passion for the House of Representatives and ability to use it as his stage, and yet his parliamentary skills were rhetorical and not tactical.”2

    “He could devise a strategy and then often botch the tactics in trying to implement that strategy. Above all he was a man of grand vision with serious blind spots.”2-Ron Price with thanks to 1Whitlam: The Power And The Passion, on 26/5/’13, 2/6/’13, and 21/10/'14 on ABC1 TV; and 2Wallace Brown Award, The National Press Club of Australia Website.

    Part 9:

    History is mnemonic when seen in
    personal terms; this is especially true
    in one's recent history in which major
    events of the day are background music,
    often distant notes like in a great piece
    of classical music which one has heard
    many times but is unknown: its name, its
    composer, the musical inner workings. I
    quickly pass-on to a life far away from the
    stage on which all that sound & fury plays
    itself out in our life’s great dramaturgies, as
    a famous sociologist, Irving Goffman, says
    is the presentation of self in everyday life.1

    There is much meaning in the affairs of men
    even if they are but a show, vain and empty,
    a mere nothing, bearing only the semblance
    of reality. The world is like a vapour in the
    desert which the thirsty dreams to be water
    and strives after it with all his might, until
    he finds it in the end to be a mere illusion.2

    So much of a life signifies a great deal, but:
    the enterprises of great pitch and moment,
    their currents turn-away, lose the name of
    action..…while all my sins are remembered.3

    Part 10:

    1 Erving Goffman(1922-982) wrote The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1956). He is now arguably considered to be the most influential American sociologist of the twentieth century. Goffman became a full professor in the sociology department at the University of California, Berkeley in 1962, the same year my travelling-pioneering life began in the Canadian Baha'i community.
    2 Bahá’u’lláh, Gleanings, Section 153, Paragraph 8.
    3 Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act III, Scene 1, lines 85 to 89.

    Ron Price
    5/6/'13 to 24/10/'14.
    married for 45 years, a teacher for 35, a writer and editor for 13, and a Baha'i for 53(in 2012)

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