Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Gough Whitlam: A Moment in History (Volume One), by Jenny Hocking


I have a high opinion of much, if not most, of Jenny Hocking’s work. Happily this first instalment of her biography of Gough Whitlam does not disappoint. In fact, I enjoyed this book so much I felt sad as it came to a close. It’s so good you don’t want it to end.

Hocking ends volume one at Labour’s famous 1972 policy launch, where Whitlam began his speech ‘Men and Women of Australia’. Hence volume one ends on a bit of a cliff-hanger. Yes, of course we all know the outcome, but nonetheless it leaves the reader with a feeling of great excitement and anticipation.

Most of us, me included, know only of the Whitlam government as being a modernising government that delivered Australia from 23 years of conservative rule. We have a vague idea that he represents Australian political modernity. Yet we don’t know much beyond that. Hocking sets out to fill in the gaps in the Whitlam biography – his family background in Canberra, and his own political outlook and philosophical view.

Robert Menzies won election after election by having as opposition a splintered and fractious Labor Party. He took every opportunity to pick political controversies that would further divide Labor. In the end, so emasculated was the Labor Party that they didn’t appear to even take themselves seriously. Many saw the Labor Party as now more of a party of protest, not government. The consequences for Australia of having such a weak opposition were, as you’d expect, dire. It meant that Australia was led by a man with an increasingly ossified world view; someone who would not even consider giving up the white Australia policy. When Menzies did finally leave parliament, he left behind a dearth of talent in his own party.

While there is much that we can criticise Robert Menzies for, there should also be much blame left at the foot of the Labor Party. An opposition has a responsibility to provide a serious challenge to the government on the day, not to divert itself with pointless internecine warfare and ideological squabbling.

The story of Gough Whitlam, as so lucidly portrayed in this biography, is of a smart, erudite student who seemingly walked out of the pages of Plato’s Republic and into the Old Testament environment of the Labor Party, with its patriarchs and list of ideological commandments. He single handedly smashed through the ideological nonsense of the party machine, and thoroughly modernised its policy platform. This was no easy task, and he often played an extremely risky game. At one stage, he was almost kicked out of the Labor Party.

Yet in the end Whitlam prevailed. He dragged the party out of the dark ages. Remember, these were the dark ages in which the White Australia Policy was an article of faith for Labor.

Whitlam was arrogant, and could often be cruel. He didn’t like small talk, and his amazing intellect could often intimidate and antagonise. Most astonishingly of all, he knew next to nothing of Labor machine politics, and had to be given a crash course in it late in his political career.
This begs the question, that perhaps the Labor Party should have died with Whitlam’s ascension. He really sucked out the old Labor party like a poison, spat it out, and kept the machine. For example, maybe Labor should have been renamed The Progressive Party?

The people who really created the Labor party, the people who struggled at the turn of the century for equal political representation for the downtrodden and ignored working classes, are all now gone. That sort of grass roots movement is no more. The Labor Party more resembles a technocratic machine. Look at our current prime minister, Kevin Rudd.

Hence in the figure of Whitlam we have a single brilliant intellect and personality who imposed his will on a moribund party and changed it to something else.

For this reason Whitlam is important. Yet ironically, for someone who believed so fervently in the primacy of democracy and parliament, he had zero interest in the tribal machinery of his own political party. To me this seems a bit of a contradiction.

It seems that the age of Whitlam perhaps heralded the end of grass roots political activism, in favour of the great man of destiny. Didn’t he somewhere make a joke about himself being like Napoleon?

I actually saw Gough Whitlam in a Commonwealth car a few years ago out the front of the Vic Market, on Elizabeth Street in Melbourne. I wish I’d run over and waved or tried to shake his hand or something. Maybe some of his brilliance may have rubbed off on me! I can only wish.

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