Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The Various Ironies of Gough Whitlam

Former Australian Prime Minister Gough Whitlam died recently, at age 98. Predictable hagiographies followed, with cringe-inducing link titles like 'Gough Whitlam a Martyr and a Hero'. This causes right-thinking people to be torn between the polite and worthy tradition of not speaking ill of the recently-deceased, and a mildly grating feeling that the hagiographers write the narratives when this happens. Obituaries are hard to do well, that's for sure, and most don't even really try.

Say whatever else you will about Gough Whitlam, but he was a transformative Prime Minister. Unfortunately, the balance of this transformation was decidedly negative. To his credit, Whitlam enacted some truly good policies, most notably getting rid of the draft, and cutting tarriffs. He also brought in some others that were probably inevitable, like no-fault divorce and recognition of China. He also had some disastrous ones. The Racial Discrimination Act was probably his most poisonous legacy, most recently in the news for being part of the trashing of free speech in the prosecution of Andrew Bolt. Getting rid of university fees almost certainly contributed to the permanent underfunding and subsequent underperformance of Australian universities to this day. He also cut off Rhodesia (leading it to the brilliant sunlit uplands it's in today), and rewarded the buffoonish Lionel Murphy for his bizarre raids on ASIO offices (which tarnished Australia's reputation as a serious state in intelligence matters) by appointing him to the High Court (where he was predictably and comically awful).

But the big irony of the Whitlam years involves the Liberal Party. They struggled so mightily to unseat him, including blocking the funding of government to provoke a constitutional crisis. Blocking supply, I might add, was something that the Libs attract an oddly small amount of criticism for, given its role in the whole affair. Whitlam was famously dismissed by Governor-General John Kerr (who became the boogie-man to the Labor party faithful ever since). Whitlam was also then subsequently voted out by a huge margin in the ensuing elections (a fact that Whitlam fans never seem to discuss very much, since it doesn't fit the narrative very well).

So the Liberals finally won their big victory over Whitlam! And what was their big reward?

Eight years of Malcolm Bloody Fraser, the most disappointing Liberal Prime Minister ever, and one of the worst overall (giving Gough a red hot go for that title).

If the election is between Fraser and Whitlam, honestly, why even bother? It's like the David Cameron v Gordon Brown election - as Simon and Garfunkel said, every way you look at it, you lose.

Thankfully, conservatives eventually had something to cheer for when Fraser was kicked out and Australia finally got some sensible and important economic reforms, coming from... Labor Prime Ministers Bob Hawke and Paul Keating! The former was excellent, the latter was pretty decent too (and superb as Hawke's treasurer). Ex-post, is there a single member of the Liberal Party today (excluding the braindead and the hyper-partisan) who, if sent back in time to 1983 but knowing what they do now, would actually vote for Fraser over Hawke?

And yet Whitlam is the 'hero and the martyr'. Hawke plays second fiddle in Labor Party folklore, despite being excellent in ways that were of mostly bipartisan benefit (floating the dollar, cutting inflation, and other instances of important micro-economic reform).

Yeah, I don't get it either.

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