"You either crash through or crash"
-Whitlam's political philosophy
Gough Whitlam can rightly claim the title of Australia's most controversial Prime Minister, although he served for such a short period of time, from 1972 through 1975. The dramatic tale of his downfall is recorded in the dismissal.
Edward Gough Whitlam was was born in Melbourne in the year of 1916, the son of a solicitor who later became a prominent public servant. His family moved to the newly constructed city of Canberra in 1927. In those days it must have seemed as if government in Australia was a new and exciting concept; as a country Australia had only achieved independence from Great Britain 26 years earlier in 1901.
Whitlam completed his schooling in Canberra schools, and went on to attend the University of Sydney, where he studied Arts and Law, following in the footsteps of his father. Following graduation, The young Gough enlisted in the Royal Australian Air Force General Duties Branch in 1941, where it is recorded that he was disappointed in the general apathy of his own age group towards politics and politicians in general.
One might expect that at both the University of Sydney and schools in Canberra Whitlam would have been surrounded by people involved in the political scene. The University of Sydney in particular has a long and rich history of student political activism.
In 1945 Whitlam was discharged from the RAAF with the rank of Flight Lieutenant. Soon after this discharge Whitlam decided to become involved in Australian politics, and joined the Australian Labor Party. The ALP has it's origins in the working class of Australia, and much of its core membership comes from the traditionally militant unions which have been active since the 1800's. The ALP traditionally has been on the political left and campaigns on a platform of reform.
Soon after this, Whitlam had several successes in life. Although he unsuccessfully contested the New South Wales seat of Sutherland in 1950, he went on to win the Federal seat of Werriwa, which was contested in a by-election in November 1952 (a by-election is one held outside normal elections).
In 1960, Whitlam became the national deputy leader of the ALP, a post which he maintained for 7 years, until he became leader in 1967. By this point, Australia had been governed by a coalition of the Liberal and Country parties since 1949, and Robert Menzies, the Prime Minister for those years, was practically an institution in the minds of the Australian people.
The Liberal Party in Australia traditionally represents the middle and upper classes, as well as the interests of business. It is Australia's conservative party. The Country Party (now the National Party) represents rural voters.
Upon taking up the helm of the ALP, Gough decided that it was time Australia had a change. To this end, he dedicated the next three years to reforming the ALP (which had slipped into internal decline after long years in Opposition to the Government) and developing new policies which would ensure his election as Prime Minister in the next election.
At this time, the political climate in Australia was extremely volatile. The Vietnam war was causing huge protests in every major city against conscription, and there was a general perception that the Government had lost a mandate to govern the people.
Whitlams' election campaign was based on reform, including policies on:
- an end to conscription and withdrawal from Vietnam
- equal opportunities for women
- vastly increased funding for education and the arts
- a harder line toward South Africa
- recognition of Communist China
- urban renewal
- universal health insurance
- revisions to the family law
- improvements to public transport
His campaign slogan was "It's Time", and pushed the fact that the Coalition had been in government for more than twenty years, whereas the ALP could offer a fresh perspective on pressing social issues.
In 1972 the Australian Labor Party was elected to govern Australia with an overwhelming majority, and Whitlam immediately took advantage of this mandate to implement many reforms in a very short space of time. Immediately results were seen in the fields of education, health, transport, welfare, capital punishment and recognition of ethnic minorities.
However, Whitlam's government immediately encountered resistance in the Senate, Australia's upper house of parliament, which is re-elected by halves every three years. Australia has a dual system of parliament modelled after the British Westminster system, with the Senate representing the States, and the House of Representatives chosen by electorate nationally.
Whitlam did not have majority control over the senate, as half of the senators had been elected in 1967, and thus did not represent his landslide dominance in the 1972 election. In particular, Whitlam's attempts to legislate a universal system of health insurance (Medibank) were rejected twice by the senate.
Frustrated by his inability to control the Senate, Whitlam called a dissolution of both houses in 1974. This is provided for in the Australian Constitution, in the case where a governing coalition cannot maintain enough votes to consistently pass crucial legislation. In 1974, Whitlam's government was re-elected with a majority of votes, but still did not have majority control of the Senate. This did, however lead to the passing of several bills dealing with Medibank and the electoral system.
Throughout this time, Whitlam was consistently pushing reforms, patronising the arts, revolutionising Australia's foreign affairs, and still maintained the popularity that had made him Prime Minister. However, retrospectively it can be seen that he was also facing constant pressure from many of the states, which at the time were dominated by non-ALP governments.
The crux point of Edward Gough Whitlam's career came on November 11, 1975, a day that will be remembered forever in Australia's history. At this stage, Whitlam's government had reached an impasse with the Opposition; the Senate postponed voting on the national Budget three times, leading to an inability of the Government to procure funds for the next year.
On the morning of November 11, Gough Whitlam and his government was dismissed by the Governor General, the highest authority in Australia (as the Queen's representative). This has never before happened in Australia's history, and it is not considered likely that it will again. This event is referred to as the dismissal.
The then Governor General, John Kerr, appointed Malcom Fraser (the Leader of the Opposition) interim Prime Minister. Fraser went on to win a national election in December of 1975; indicating that the Australian public was frustrated with Whitlam's inability to control the Senate.
Whitlam went on to lose the 1977 election as Leader of the Opposition, leading to his resignation from parliament in 1978. Since then he has pursued an academic career involving work at many different universities in Australia. In addition, he remains politically active and has served with the following organisations:
In 2002, Gough Whitlam is still influential in the political arena in Australia. He is still an active member of the ALP, and has not given up his lifelong habit of speaking his mind in public.
Whitlam's two eldest sons have gone on to become a Federal judge and a merchant banker. His third son and his daughter are involved in the Federal and NSW governments. He remains married to his wife Margaret.
While Australia remembers Gough Whitlam for many of his past achievements, perhaps he is best remembered in the role he has been playing all of his life; champion of human rights. Certainly it would be difficult to find a better role model for the young lawyers of today.