Last night ABC TV delivered the second half of a look at the phenomenon of PM Whitlam in the 1970’s. It was unsatisfactory on so many levels; not that my opinion would ever register with ABC management: the conservatives could care less and the others are too over-worked to notice.
The show’s rationalisation at its worst was delivered by Andrew Denton: that Whitlam had had to withdraw; had he stood his ground there WOULD HAVE BEEN BLOOD SHED. What tripe.
If it was a genuine attempt to examine the legacy of Whitlam, it was superficial. The self-acknowledged villain of the piece, Frazer bared his wolf fangs just once too often for my liking. One had to remember that, once out of office he raced off to assemble some credentials to negate the blot that will hang next to his name for ever more in Australian history. It is on a par with the description of AFL racism as being casually hidden with larrikinism. Goes with our disreputable history, I guess.
BUT, we have just survived a week in which the current PM has had a second sandwich thrown at her; she deflected the prurient press interest admirably. Banana Joe told us on SBS last night that she is an incompetent PM but she does represent the country, and therefore deserves respect: a narrative of transparent hypocrisy.
The Whitlam doco contained so many nauseating lines, eg from ex-PM John Howard about Whitlam being a good conversationalist; it was a North Shore throw-away line, lukewarm on the departure of a dubious guest; part of that dubious dynamic wherein Australian First Lady Mrs Janine Howard entertaining the First US Lady Mrs Clinton, who was forced to surreptitiously leave the room to converse with Jenny George the then ACTU leader.
The sickening reaction to the doco was the realisation that the director probably intended to contribute to the sense that the current Labor Gov is doomed, to instill a sense of deja vu. The dismissal of Rudd by Gillard was indeed deja vu; but the ongoing court drama of NSW Labor ministers Obeid and McDonald merely contribute a sense that a Labor defeat in Sept will be merited.
The doco writer had no business referring to Whitlam as flawed; what politician is ever successful? I wait patiently for an honest appraisal of Howard’s treasurer Costello botching his position totally by selling Australia’s gold reserve at the bottom of the market. Where is the account of the minimal achievement of Howard’s decade. Indeed, he made a virtue of his non-spending, no mean feat. We were delivered a decade of seamless banality and social security for the rich. Where is the account of SIVX? I want a replay of the indigenous people of Australia standing up and turning their backs on Howard’s incessant, indignant refusal to apologise; I want a replay of the internees sewing their lips with thread and impaling themselves on razor wire. Last week we had the nuanced ambiguities of Eddie McGuire’s idiotic comment; in Howard’s decade we had incessant chatter about the “black armband view of history” and Howard’s self-righteously indignant refusal to apologise, every memory of which spells racism.
Our complacent, indifferent public intend to feed themselves more of this pulp for at least the next few years. SBS ran a current affairs show last night interviewing Banana Joe, who managed to describe the indignation of the Australian people at the mistreatment of aussie cattle in Indonesian abbatoirs as CHILDISH. That is an indicator of how patronising the conservative forces of Australian politics intend to be; Malcolm Turnbull is one of the few in their ranks with a relevant sense of gravitas; the rest of them: Chris Pine, Sophie Mirabella, Bronwin Bishop merely contribute an entirely undignified guttersnipe party atmosphere. God help Australia. See, I was too upset all night to sleep. I love my country, God Save.
OK, so I’ve watched it now. Whitlam was finished long before 11/11/75 he’d been undermined by the incompetence of the Union hacks who sat on his Ministerial benches. The program seems to show that in Whitlam spending so much time OS in his last months and implies that at the back of his head Whitlam might of known he was finished.
I’ve wondered before of the similarities of Rudd to Whitlam and of the similarities and differences between those two and Don Dunstan. All three were visionary intellectuals first and only ALP stalwarts second. Rudd and Whitlam reviled the Union heavy weights and the intransigence and obduracy of the Union’s method of power blocs ‘giving the nod’. Don had got himself into power through the Unions and always dressed his reforms as coming up through the Unions. Don was politically clever in that way and in a way that Rudd and Whitlam did not have the patience for.
Some good talent arrives in Parliament in Union pay-off deals but a lot of dead wood is there too. Whitlam was (still is) a huge persona in Australia’s social and political landscape and politics. All kingdoms need huge visionary egos at the top of their States. The ALP did not have anyone in their ranks that matched – or even came close – to his persona, intellect, ego and didn’t have anyone until Hawke came along. If there was anyone in the Parliamentary ALP in 1975 they would have got Whitlam and because they couldn’t they hobbled him by getting rid of his deputy.
Those of us in the intellectual left who had recognised Whitlam’s greatness and had hugely benefited by his policies were outraged – and continue to be – by his sacking. I can still see myself standing in the Wilden Street kitchen looking at and listening to the radio on the fridge as it was broadcasting the news of the sacking. It was a very hot and humid day in Brisbane and I remember thinking that if it wasn’t so hot perhaps there would be revolution in the streets. I was on the Student Union Council at that time which in those days was the most effective opposition to the Qld Joh Government but there just wasn’t a mood amongst the student body to mount or carry a political movement. That coup was not going to be marked by bloodshed and I often wonder if it might have been were it to have happened in winter.
In November 1975 we were the noisy lot that got the media attention and still do. But that feeling did not go deeply through the Unions into the rank and file of the working men and women of Australia and that was shown clearly in the landslide victory Frazer won in 1975. The Shame Fraser Shame rallies we attended were not full blown events. More energy was put into them than came out of them and when the election happened and the result was so depressing it said that the visionary Whitlam had been undermined as well as not carrying the nation.
The Union nodders did Gough in as they did Rudd in. Don survived much longer than Whitlam or Rudd. (Few seem to know that Rudd was bumped off by the Unions – particularly the AWU – because he was about to implement his mining tax that was more informed by the smaller miners and Twiggy Forrest and not by the big three with whom the AWU are in bed with.) Rudd is a moody bastard and has his fits of temper and is prone to wanting to do everything himself but Rudd wasn’t Union allied and the worst thing with the Union is someone who isn’t allied with any Union and much more than an ALP person who is aligned with an opposing faction to a left or right Union. The whole Union movement is inherently conservative and bound up in its convoluted tradition of honour and battles from long ago. It matters less to the AWU and other right wing Unions that Gillard is of the left faction. It is better that she is faction aligned in the 1st place. But now that she has delivered a mining tax that the AWU can live with – but is so flawed a piece of policy – and that they have given her the key to the Lodge cements a bloc that will add to the power the right has over the left. Rudd, unlike Whitlam, is not a towering personality or intellect. He has an ego but it is a rat like ego like Howard’s. Rudd, unfortunately for him, and unlike Whitlam, had a deputy with an intellect akin to his and a capability and profile not unlike his and she had the backing of the Unions and the Unions control the Labor Party and the mood was just right for a 1st female PM.
Was the ABC program inaccurate? It was limited in scope. It presented a point of view and then the several views of a current batch of left leaning intellectuals. It did not have any voice from the Unions – apart from Bob Hawke – but then there isn’t any one amongst them who’d put their heads up to honestly tell what was really going on in the party room. David Coombe might have but didn’t. No working class labour historian got a look in but then it would have to be an old one because any such person, who still entertained career ambitions, would be neuted if they told a version of what went on.