Inside Story

A flawed giant

A sympathetic biography of Gough Whitlam also recognises its subject’s faults, writes Frank Bongiorno

Frank Bongiorno 8 October 2012 2273 words

Master of his own fate? Gough Whitlam at the National Press Club, Canberra, probably in 1975. National Library of Australia/nla.pic-an22864893

Gough Whitlam: His Time
By Jenny Hocking | Miegunyah Press | $49.95

WITH the publication of the second volume of Jenny Hocking’s biography of Gough Whitlam, the one-time Labor leader has joined an exclusive club – those honoured by double-decker biographies – to which just four Australian prime ministers belong. The others are Alfred Deakin, federation “father” and principal architect of what Paul Kelly has called the Australian Settlement; Billy Hughes, first world war leader and Labor “rat”; and Robert Menzies, prime minister at the outbreak of the second world war, the key figure in the founding of the modern Liberal Party and, by the time he retired in 1966, the nation’s longest-serving prime minister.

Whitlam, who had entered parliament shortly after Menzies commenced his second, sixteen-year period in office, claimed to have found inspiration in the Liberal prime minister’s un-rivalled electoral achievement. Soon after his election in December 1972 – the point at which this volume takes over the story from Hocking’s Gough Whitlam: A Moment in History (2008) – he responded to a generous congratulatory letter from Menzies: “You would, I think, be surprised to know how much I feel indebted to your example, despite the great differences in our philosophies. In particular, your remarkable achievement in rebuilding your own party and bringing it so triumphantly to power within six years has been an abiding inspiration to me.”

The mood would not last. “I hate him,” Menzies later told Bulletin journalist David McNicoll. Menzies might well have been angry that Whitlam had fallen into the habit of quoting him in support of his argument that the Senate should pass supply bills if a government retained majority support in the lower house. When Whitlam’s opponents, led by the new opposition leader Malcolm Fraser, voted in the Senate to defer the 1975 budget, Menzies argued that the upper house had a perfect right to do so; in his view, the “unconstitutionality” and “misconduct” of the Whitlam government made such a course a necessity.

If Menzies had set the postwar standard for what an Australian prime minister should look and sound like, it isn’t surprising that Whitlam should be the first prime minister since Menzies to seem truly capable of exploiting the office of prime minister to its fullest potential. Both men were physically huge, both university-educated lawyers, both fine orators. While Menzies was more inclined than Whitlam to mouth the platitudes of federalism, each favoured a strong central government, based in Canberra, fully able to play a national role.

Whitlam also shared common ground with the other two-volume prime ministers. Like Hughes, he was a divisive figure who aroused hatred and provoked accusations of tyranny – not only among opponents but also among colleagues. Hocking reveals that in 1974, at a time of great turmoil within the government, Menzies helped spread the rumour that Whitlam might “do a Hughes” and make a deal with the opposition to assume its leadership. That Whitlam was a man supposedly driven by self-interest and opportunism rather than ideology or principle was a view long and widely held among his Liberal Party opponents, although it is unclear how much this perception owed to the fact that Whitlam, most unusually for a Labor Party leader, came from a middle-class family.

Alfred Deakin didn’t serve as prime minister for much longer than Whitlam and, except for less than a year in 1909–10, never with a secure majority in the lower house. Yet he not only founded a political tradition – Deakinite liberalism – he also built much that would remain at the centre of Australian politics for the next eighty years: tariff protection, industrial arbitration, means-tested pensions and the White Australia Policy. Similarly, many of the Whitlam government’s achievements – in foreign policy, immigration, racial equality, electoral reform, school education, health, women’s rights, the environment, family law, Aboriginal policy – endured well beyond the government’s demise. Whitlam’s reformism outlived his government just as Deakinite liberalism outlived both Deakin and his Protectionist Party. The sheer difficulty that national governments – and particularly the Rudd and Gillard governments – have experienced over the past two decades in achieving major reform has engendered a new respect for what Whitlam managed to deliver in less than three years in the face of a deteriorating international and local economic environment, while also burdened by a divided and turbulent party and significant obstruction both within and outside federal parliament.

A polarising figure as Labor Party leader and prime minister, Whitlam has long had both fervent admirers and strong detractors, with neither prepared to concede much to the others’ arguments. Whitlam was either a hero and a martyr, or he and his government wrecked the country. But Hocking’s biography is the product of an era in which those passions no longer dominate. Aged ninety-six, recently widowed and living in a nursing home, Whitlam has come to be recognised as one of the giants of twentieth-century Australian history, even by many out of sympathy with his politics. In an age of political unbelief, he serves as a reminder that politics was once fought between men – and they were almost exclusively men – who carried with them ambitious visions for their country and the daring to risk everything in order to realise them. Compare Whitlam’s decision to go to a double dissolution election in 1974, in response to a threat to supply and the blocking of key aspects of his program, with the vacillation and eventual retreat of the Rudd government over its emissions trading scheme in 2010.

Hocking’s account of the Whitlam government’s efforts to implement its 1972 program emphasises the obstruction the government experienced at the hands of senior public servants, the intelligence services, vested interests, state governments, a conservative opposition that refused to concede its legitimacy and a Senate Labor didn’t control. She recognises that the government was both a victim of circumstances – the international economic downturn arising from the 1973 oil crisis and emergence of stagflation – as well as the author of many of its own difficulties. Whitlam, the son of a senior public servant, had too much trust in the willingness of the public service to serve loyally whichever government happened to be in office. The government adopted an unwieldy cabinet structure, and Whitlam himself often showed poor judgement. And although he was prone to petulant outbursts, Whitlam also found it difficult to “be the bastard” on occasions when it would have been in his government’s interests to confront a particular individual. There were bitter internal divisions within a party protective of the prerogatives of caucus and intolerant of high and mighty individuals who sought to trump its democratic structures, processes and ethos. When the leader happened to be a man of Whitlam’s background and temperament, it was always going to be stormy weather.

NO DOUBT prompted by her publisher, much of the media attention on Hocking’s book has focused on the considerable detail she adds to our knowledge of the role of the “third man,” High Court judge Anthony Mason, in the dismissal of the government in late 1975. Although it has been known since 1994 that Mason (as well as the chief justice, Garfield Barwick) provided advice to governor-general Sir John Kerr, Hocking discovered in the National Archives of Australia Kerr’s own testimony concerning Mason’s full role in Whitlam’s downfall. While Mason refused to cooperate with Hocking while she was researching her book – “I owe history nothing,” he declared – the former chief justice appears to have changed his mind and produced a few thousand words of his recollections for the media after the book was published. Here, he made much of having advised Kerr to warn Whitlam that he would be forced to terminate his commission if he was unable to secure supply.

We only have Mason’s almost forty-year-old recollections on this point. Nor will they convince critics that his and Barwick’s role in the affair was other than improper, not least in light of the possibility that matters on which they had advised Kerr would come before the courts. In his recent statement Mason also emphasised Kerr’s fears that if he had warned Whitlam, then the prime minister might have advised the Queen to remove him from office.

It is difficult to know how seriously we should take Kerr’s concern that Whitlam would get in first and arrange his sacking. As an excuse for acting secretively, it is too convenient to be treated at face-value, especially coming from a man whose post-1975 career was devoted to justifying his dismissal of the government.

Hocking provides some telling evidence that Kerr knew he had little to fear in this respect. He took the extraordinary opportunity offered when he crossed paths with Prince Charles in Papua New Guinea at the independence celebrations in 1975 to enquire about how Buckingham Palace would handle this matter. “But surely Sir John,” responded Charles, “the Queen should not have to accept advice that you should be recalled at the very time, should this happen when you were considering having to dismiss the government.” And if this comment had been insufficient to reassure this irresolute and fearful man, the Queen’s private secretary, Sir Martin Charteris, followed up by telling Kerr that in such a “contingency” the Queen would “try to delay things,” although she would ultimately have to take her Australian prime minister’s advice.

Hocking provides a fresh account of many of the events leading to the dismissal. She shows that the Whitlam government was ultimately the victim of a conspiracy involving at least the chief justice of the High Court, some of Barwick’s former colleagues in the conservative parties and the governor-general. The Queen’s leading courtier played a minor role but provided Kerr with the critically important assurance that only the Palace could give. And what of CIA involvement, rumoured at the time? Without committing herself, Hocking provides enough hints, clues and extraordinary coincidences to suggest that she smells a rat.

It is sometimes said that the Whitlam government, whatever its failings, was unlucky that its time in office coincided with the end of the postwar economic boom. Even allowing for his poor judgement in having appointed Kerr as governor-general – admittedly his fifth choice to replace Paul Hasluck – Whitlam was also unlucky to find himself vulnerable to the manoeuvrings of a chief justice as partisan as Garfield Barwick, a governor-general as deceitful as John Kerr, and a political opponent as ruthless as Malcolm Fraser. Whitlam had his faults but he was incapable of matching any of these men in the dark arts they practised to bring down his government.

ALTHOUGH Hocking’s is a sympathetic biography, it is also alive to Whitlam’s faults as a man and public figure. She shows that the splendid Margaret played a critical part in helping her husband maintain some equanimity in the face of the most intense pressure and provocation, and the final chapters of the biography reveal the couple’s success in carving out new lives for themselves after the triumphs and disappointments of the 1970s. Hocking sheds new light on Whitlam’s successful posting as Australia’s ambassador to UNESCO during a period of crisis in its affairs, and his subsequent contributions to that organisation.

Hocking’s lengthy treatment of the dismissal and its aftermath is problematic in the context of the overall biography. Although a fascinating and important account in its own right, and a tour de force as a piece of history, it necessarily places Kerr and Fraser rather than Whitlam in the foreground. In this telling, it is Kerr’s character – or rather his lack of it – that was fundamental to the unfolding crisis. His dishonesty, vanity, lack of self-assurance, resort to the bottle and effort to persuade others to share with him the responsibility – and the odium – for actions that were ultimately his and his alone, feed into the narrative a sense of personal tragedy. Malcolm Fraser’s single-minded pursuit of power, while an essential ingredient in this story, would ultimately have failed if Kerr had not been so easily manipulated for conservative gain.

Whitlam’s dogmatic faith in the authority of a democratically elected lower house and his tendency to misread the character and intentions of other players contributed to the drama but did not apparently chart its course. Hocking’s revelation of the extent of the plotting against Whitlam means that, as the tale of his government’s downfall unfolds, he seems less and less to be master of his and its fate.

Yet despite many disappointments along the way, Whitlam was ultimately carried along by his measured idealism and resilient optimism. While embittered by what Kerr had done and initially unable to leave the matter alone, Whitlam has not spent the rest of his long life – as Kerr did – obsessively seeking vindication for his role in the events of the spring of 1975. Rather, what Whitlam ultimately wanted others to concede was the worth of a career devoted to using constitutional and parliamentary methods, through the Australian Labor Party, the House of Representatives and the United Nations, to achieve the betterment of society. •