January 02, 2004 | Peter

Looking Back at the Whitlam Years

The release of cabinet papers from 1973 gives us a chance to review those dramatic years of the Whitlam government. It is hard to overestimate the importance of that first Labor government after 23 years of stultifying conservative rule. Australia was in dire need of social reform, if only to keep pace with changes occurring overseas. Even after all these years, when we consider the most significant social and economic reforms of the last fifty years, a few can be sheeted home to Hawke but most to Whitlam.
Indeed, Whitlam’s longevity and sustained engagement in political life has to a degree masked his crucial role in Australian history. His work in first reforming the ALP so it was a credible political force again, and then being at the centre of developing policy reform in so many areas, was an extraordinary feat in modern politics. We will consider Mark Latham a startling success if he even does half as much. I would argue that Whitlam is – by any criteria and with all his well-known faults acknowledged – one of the greatest Australians ever.
The Whitlam government might have been the start of a golden age in Australian history when economic reform, social reform and foreign affairs reform coincided to revitalise this country. But the Whitlam government ran afoul of two of the most important influences on Australian life. The first was the newly forming global economy which made national policy-making much more difficult. The global experience of stagflation and the oil shocks would have put any Australian government under dire pressure. This was a particular problem for Whitlam who inherited an expansionist budget from the previous government and who came in with many new spending objectives.
The other problem was the mass media, in particular the press which still dominated political reporting at that time. Perhaps most important was the Murdoch press which initially supported Whitlam but soon returned to their natural stance of strident support for the conservatives. Every problem faced by the government, such as ministerial shuffles, was portrayed as a political crisis and exploited to destabilise the government.
In 2004 these two problems are worse than ever. National economic policy is virtually hostage to global economic forces which can wreck the Aussie dollar or put pressure on interest rates of this small to mid size economy with ease. This then affects inflation and unemployment rates, and consequently the chances of the governing party maintaining power.
As for the mass media, we now have much greater influence by TV and radio, but the press still tend to set agendas and do any real investigative work. The advent of new technology was a chance to reinvigorate the mass media in Australia, but the Liberals have pretty much handed the reins back to Packer and Murdoch who have greater influence than ever.
I would like to think that Mark Latham embodies some of the intellectual qualities of Whitlam and I hope that he gets the chance to show them off as prime minister. I also hope he gets a bit more time than Whitlam did before the usual suspects mobilise their vast resources to return government to the natural ruling party.

Posted by Peter at 3:37 pm | Comments (1) |
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1 Comment

  1. i don’t know about you, but i’m finding it increasingly difficult to maintain my rage …
    “we want gough, we want gough, we want gough …”
    can gough’s reincarnation in the seat of werriwa bring us to the promised land?

    Comment by gary — January 2, 2004 @ 7:23 pm

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