Edward Gough Whitlam: reflections on a reformer

The Memorial Service of Edward Gough Whitlam was held in the Sydney Town Hall on Wednesday. This piece is a contribution to reflections on this man.

Much has been written in recent weeks about what he achieved as Prime Minister. Many of these things we take for granted as sensible and readily forget our thinking at the time. Reopening the Equal Pay Case immediately comes to mind. It was not without an immediate cost to business, but was both far-sighted and the right thing to do. The provision of pension payments to single mothers, which prior to 1973 had been opposed largely on the spurious grounds of the promiscuity it would promote, was equally controversial. It is hard to think now, how lacking in empathy we could have been then. No fault divorce, introduced in 1974, was portrayed as a tear to our moral fabric.

From a business perspective, the Whitlam Government is often portrayed as a period of disarray. I believe measured historical reflection will present a mixed report card.

There are the direct positives. Whitlam sought to open our economy to the rest of the world through the reduction of tariffs and revaluation of the Australian dollar. Both of these were initiatives of short-term pain and long-term gain.  They were a key forerunner of 1980s reforms.

Whitlam introduced the predecessor of the Productivity Commission and also the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) through the Trade Practices Act in 1974.

Indirect positives for business include Whitlam’s agenda on education, which today forms one of the most important platforms for our future. The introduction of needs-based funding for schools played an important role in the lift in Australian education over the next thirty years – something we need to do again as Mr Gonski among others have recently warned us.  Other indirect positives include Whitlam’s courageous and visionary embrace of China.  This feeds into the business environment.

On the negative side, it needs to be conceded that there was a level of economic disorder. However, it is forgotten how it was much of this was international. The Bretton Woods structure of international money markets had collapsed just before Whitlam gained power.  The OPEC oil embargo hit early in his period of office, with international oil prices nearly quadrupling and the world economy going into shock. At one stage, a fifth of US petrol stations were without petrol and the US went into odd-even numberplate purchasing. The Yom Kippur War of 1973 did not help matters.

The wage and price inflation of late 1973 and 1974, exacerbated by the Equal Pay Case and the oil price shock, was dealt with, initially at least, by an attempt to control prices and wages. The aim was to stop a culture of spiralling price and wage rises, by providing the Federal Government with a constitutional power to do this. Thankfully this did not succeed, but it is often forgotten that price control was common in the rest of the world at that time.  In the US, for instance, the Government controlled oil prices.

One of the great features of Gough Whitlam was his deep historical knowledge combined with wit. His very first speech reflected this when Country Party Leader Jack McEwan interrupted his maiden speech, breaking the convention that maiden speeches be heard in silence.  Whitlam referred to the famous UK Prime Minister of the 19th Century Benjamin Disraeli who had been prevented by interjections from making his maiden speech.  Whitlam said “I thought the Minister for Agriculture and Commerce had returned to the more congenial climate of Disraeli’s day.  I recollect that Disraeli said on occasion of his maiden speech, ‘The time will come when you may hear me’. Perhaps I should say ‘The time may come when you may interrupt me’.”

One of my favourites is a response in a Parliamentary debate to Doug Anthony who, on the appointment of Lionel Murphy to the High Court said Whitlam was prostituting the High Court by appointing Murphy.  Whitlam’s response was immediate and simple.  He said “I do not know what the Honourable gentleman knows about prostitutes.  He certainly knows nothing about Courts.”

While entertaining, this wit and erudition was important in easing toxicity in political debate. Wit subverts the toxic. So do facts. A fortiori wit grounded in facts.

If I can leave this with one Whitlam achievement, it is Medibank, which became Medicare. We take this for granted now. But I remember as a young 12-year-old, posters opposing Medibank in doctors’ surgeries with the word “wHITLAm”. Few would recall that the Democrats were formed as a political party due to Don Chipp’s dismay with Malcom Fraser’s decision to embrace ‘socialist medicine’.

Ultimately, there were some toxic environments that Whitlam was able to largely negate through intellect, knowledge and humour. That requires skill that one rarely sees.

Vale Edward Gough Whitlam.

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