Wednesday, 22 October 2014

So our former Prime Minister

Gough Whitlam has died. He was 98.
I met him on a number of occasions. No, I do not normally hob-nob with Prime Ministers - although I have met some. I met Mr Whitlam because of Mrs Whitlam or, as she told me "Margaret, because that is who I am".
I quite liked Margaret. I met her first at a Writers' Week. We also had other interests, largely literary, in common. She was immensely supportive of International Literacy Year. It was her efforts behind the scenes that saw the Whitlam era spending on school libraries. Whitlam was not nearly as keen or interested in spending money on libraries. I doubt many Prime Ministers are.
Margaret was very forthright. If she didn't like something then you knew about it. Other people told me I was fortunate that she had "decided to like me". We never talked politics but I suspect she knew that my approach to politics was not hers - or indeed anybody else's approach. 
Whitlam could be equally forthright and he was liable to ask questions. The questions would not require an answer but rather a confirmation that the person being questioned shared the same view as Whitlam himself. If you didn't that tended to be an end to the conversation - unless Margaret was around. Yes, Whitlam was arrogant. I did not like him.
The media is currently full of what a wonderful Prime Minister he was. He wasn't.
Oh yes, he withdrew Australian troops from Vietnam - but he would have done what the previous government had done and sent them there in the first place.
He is also said to have set up the Department of Aboriginal Affairs and started indigenous Australians on the road to "land rights". The reality is that, while these things happened under his watch, the previous government was already moving in the same direction. It was the previous government which had called the 1967 referendum - the one in which Australians voted overwhelmingly to include indigenous Australians in the census. (Contrary to popular belief they already had the right to vote but were not required to attend the ballot box.)
It is said that Whitlam dismantled the White Australia Policy - the policy which restricted but did not completely forbid the migration of other ethnic groups to Australia. Again, this is incorrect. It was the previous government which brought in the Migration Act of 1966 which effectively ended the policy. 
Whitlam is also said to have begun diplomatic relations with Asia, particularly China. He was one of the first high-level Australians to visit the country and relations were formalised under him but again the reality is that moves had been made in that direction. There was already a great deal of activity going on but it was low key because of a general concern in the community about "Communism".  Whitlam did it with an arrogance that nearly wrecked the careful diplomacy.
His government introduced Medibank, our national health system and cut out university fees. Both those things, seemingly sound and fair in principle, have proved unsustainable. It was his own side of politics which reintroduced university fees and increased the now Medicare levy.
Whitlam was said to be a supporter of the arts. His wife did far more. She supported the purchase of Jackson Pollock's "Blue Poles" - a controversial addition to the Australian National Gallery. Perhaps it helped in that it got people talking about the arts - but the purchase was not well received by many in the arts community. 
Whitlam was said to be a supporter of women's rights. It was Margaret who pushed this from behind the scenes. She demanded equal treatment for herself and expected it to be given to other women. Whitlam himself was less than enthusiastic in private.
And Whitlam reduced the voting age to eighteen. It was a cynical move. He believed that the overwhelming majority of 18-21 year old citizens now able to vote would vote Labor and thus ensure that Labor remained in power.
His government was filled with scandal but it was his secret attempt to raise $8 billion through an outside agent, one Mr Khemlani, that eventually brought about the circumstances for his dismissal. The Senate blocked supply because the country was facing bankruptcy. Whitlam and his government had simply been introducing "reforms" without the money to pay for them.
If, instead of being dismissed on November 11 1975, Whitlam had gone to an election he would have lost. His dismissal allowed him to be seen as a martyr. It allowed him, and Labor, to "maintain the rage". The reality is that it was an incompetent government that put in place populist ideas without the means to pay for them.
"Gough doesn't understand money," Margaret once told me when he came looking for money to buy something to drink. He had, apparently, come out without his wallet. She was right.
It made me wonder what their conversational life was like. I suspect it was "robust".

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