Election 2004: Whitlam and Howard

Graham Maddox, University of New England

Jennifer Hocking and Colleen Lewis (eds) It’s Time Again: Whitlam and Modern Labor, Melbourne Publishing, 2003 (478 pp). ISBN 0-95809-384-9 (paperback) RRP $34.95.

Robert Manne (ed) The Howard Years, Black Inc., 2004 (336 pp). ISBN 0-97507-691-4 (paperback) RRP $29.95.

At first glance, there is not much similarity between John Howard and Gough Whitlam. Of course both came to occupy the Lodge, and both as prime minister expressed their frustration at facing a hostile senate. Both, as politicians, were a cartoonist’s delight: the one huge and lugubrious like a brooding rooster, the other a strutting cocksparrow trying to play soldier.

Their careers intersect at two levels. Howard was implicated in the machinations that secured Whitlam’s dismissal as prime minister in 1975. Yet in a more nebulous but pervasive way, the Whitlam era, even after thirty years, sets up a foil for succeeding governments. This certainly is the message of a recent book, It’s Time Again. Whitlam and Modern Labor (edited by Jennifer Hocking and Colleen Lewis), which is as much about the alleged failures of the Howard government and the Labor oppositions to it as about Whitlam himself. As contributor Nathan Hollier says, quoting Graeme Duncan, Whitlam remains as ‘a kind of admonitory judgment on the present’. This of course invokes a further line of comparison. Scarcely any other government has aroused a more agitated literary outburst than either of these two: the embers of Whitlam’s brief bushfire have been endlessly raked over both for the rapidity and range of its innovations and for the manner of its extinction; and, for all his determination to make Australians feel ‘relaxed and comfortable’ or, as Fraser said, to get politics off the front pages, Howard’s performance since the turn of the century has aroused the bitterest controversy among commentators and public intellectuals in an astonishing wave of hostile books.

Howard’s performance has come under particular scrutiny in The Howard Years (edited by Robert Manne), which proceeds from the premise that a substantial minority of the community sees his as ‘the most backward and mean-spirited government of Australia’s post-war years’ (p. vii). In fact, the depth of the hostility of much of the intelligentsia toward Howard is staggering. His defence has all but rested with talkback radio hosts and tabloid newspapers. Robert Manne’s collection bobs squarely at the crest of this wave of critical books and his contributors are meticulous in their moral scuttling of Howard. One can understand the individual billows buffeting Howard’s ship of state, but do these add up to a coherent moral assault on the government as a whole?

Howard has expanded the role of prime minister to be the arbiter of taste on all matters.

The clue seems to come from the number of times these critical books express the fear that our very democracy is under threat. The editors of It’s Time Again quote Greens Senator Bob Brown as complaining that Howard has tried to stifle parliamentary analysis of government action and that ‘this parliament does not have a role as a check on the government’, since to criticise is stigmatised as anti-Australian and supportive of terrorism. For Brown ‘it is democracy itself that is being questioned’ (p. 7). Frank Bongiorno notes in his chapter a ‘decline in this democratic ethos’ within the Labor party as a point of contrast, under the present political climate, with the Whitlam era (p. 331). Contributor Lindsay Barrett laments ‘an almost total absence of … vision’ in contemporary Australian politics that has resulted in a ‘narrowing of options and closing off of possibilities’ so that ‘democratic social renovation’ is almost totally ruled out of order (p. 404). For all her restraint in presentation, Elizabeth Evatt leaves no uncertainty about the erosion of human rights under the Howard government, as in the failure to provide reparations for the wrongs done to the stolen generation; the detention of children and their families in ‘soul destroying conditions’; the arbitrary conferment of powers of detention ‘on authorities which fly in the face of Covenant standards’; the languishing of Australian citizens in Guantanamo Bay ‘without charge, and without access to law’; and the steady erosion of ‘equality in terms of social justice’ (p. 58). Clearly it is the very rule of law that is in jeopardy here.

In his contribution to the Manne collection, William Maley shows that international law has indeed been breached by Howard’s treatment of refugees, but more serious still is its betrayal of ‘the cause of freedom, by treating the victims of oppressive regimes with moral cruelty’ (p. 163). While he is prudent enough to acknowledge the sharp contrasts between the activities of the Nazis and the present Australian government, Maley cannot avoid noting a similar tendency for which Hannah Arendt’s phrase, ‘the banality of evil’ is appropriate—not fascist, but nevertheless ‘evil’.

Apart from the gun controversy after the Port Arthur massacre, over which Howard showed commendable resolution, his first year was indeed relaxed and comfortable to the point of torpor. Manne thinks Howard was stung him into action that would leave its mark on Australian society by taunts that he was doing nothing other than mind the shop (p. 11). ‘Minding the shop’ would indeed be appropriate inaction for the conservative that Howard professed himself to be, but his conservative qualifications crumbled away in the face of threats demanding more positive action. In her contribution to the Manne collection, Helen Irving subjects Howard’s conservative credentials to scrutiny, and finds them wanting (just as earlier Donald Horne classified Howard as a ‘disrupting’ prime minister, and later Margo Kingston would label him a ‘wrecker’—both at the opposite pole to the conservative disposition). He has expanded the role of prime minister to be the arbiter of taste on all matters, to the extent that he could pronounce Muralithuran guilty as a ‘chucker’, but declare Archbishop George Pell innocent before his case had been investigated. Irving notes Howard’s deliberate adoption of a presidential style, not provided for under our constitution, and his undermining the principles of responsible government, which most certainly are provided for. This was never more evident than in the notorious ‘children overboard’ affair, when not a single minister, not Ruddock, not Reith, not Howard, would take responsibility for the lie perpetrated on the Australian people; and the misleading of parliament warranted resignation or dismissal under any acceptable version of parliamentary government (pp. 100–2).

Whitlam, despite the frustrations, main-tained a reverence for constitutional principles.

Irving is wrong, however, to cite Howard’s nomination of a clergyman to the office of governor-general as a breach of the separation of church and state. That Peter Hollingworth turned out to be personally unsuitable for the office is beside the constitutional point. Irving cites the prohibition on religious tests for appointment to office, yet in effect the disqualification of Hollingworth would have meant the application of just such a test. As Marion Maddox has demonstrated, the appointment of a former archbishop is no more a mixing of church and state than is the regular appointment of retired military officers a confounding of the military with the executive.

Nevertheless, the charges of Howard’s casual cavalierism towards the constitution still stand. Irving’s case would have been strengthened had she explored Howard’s involvement in the plot that played fast and loose with the constitution to bring Whitlam undone in 1975. By contrast, Whitlam was a constitutionalist to the bootstraps, despite the bitter irony that unconstitutional manipulation of the constitution brought his downfall. In his contribution to the Hocking and Lewis collection, George Williams interestingly notes that the constitution itself brought Gough Whitlam into politics: ‘Unlike any other contemporary Australian political leader, Whitlam was motivated to enter political life by a referendum to change the Constitution and his early political experiences were shaped by constitutional matters’ (p. 197). He could see how the conservative bent of the constitution, written with almost no labour input, outlawed Labor policies before they were even published. Whitlam’s 1957 Chifley Memorial Lecture was titled ‘The Constitution versus Labor’. Whitlam’s point was implicitly acknowledged by Fraser when he came to power, since Fraser was grateful that the federal system provided liberal defences against the ‘socialism’ which liberals abhor. It was therefore extraordinary that in 2003 Howard should propose the destruction of federal institutions in favour of central government when he planned the resolution of deadlocks between the houses through a joint sitting without the necessary intervention of a double dissolution election as provided for under the constitution. This would be a two-pronged assault on the notion of democracy under federalism, in that it would both draw the teeth of the notional ‘states’ house’ and remove the people from the equation. Howard’s real target was the frustrating minor parties and independents in the senate, yet there again many would argue that the fruits of proportional representation in the senate allowed for a wider and more ‘democratic’ range of opinion to be given official airing.

Yet Whitlam, despite the frustrations, maintained a reverence for constitutional principles throughout. Even without success at constitutional change through referendum, Whitlam’s influence on the constitution was, in Williams’ view, ‘profound’ (p. 210). In expanding the powers of the Commonwealth, largely through the use of section 96 grants, the government brought the High Court into play as it validated the growing role of the Commonwealth. Some specific acts of legislation, such as the Racial Discrimination Act 1975, served as a guide to High Court interpretations. This was the first law to import into our structures ‘an international principle or norm of non-discrimination’ (p. 208). Henceforward it would become a regular procedure to ground Australian legislation on international conventions. As Williams shows, the principle of non-discrimination held good for a quarter of a century, although it was compromised by the Howard government’s Native Title Amendment Act 1998 which ‘provides that the Racial Discrimination Act has no operation if the intention to override native title is unambiguous’ (p. 208).

To return to the functioning and health of democracy, discussions of the Whitlam era often turn on the concept of the mandate. It was controversial at the time, but it has resurfaced again in a big way, especially when such surveys as It’s Time Again point up the contrast between the two divergent styles of politics. For those who espouse the idea, the mandate is a central pillar of democracy because it implies that at election time the opposing parties present their policies and programs to the public and the electorate decides which team shall have the privilege of implementing its policies. The people are therefore said to have chosen and approved the desired program. The theory was controversial in Whitlam’s day because he relied on it so much to browbeat the opposition for undermining and obstructing in the senate the people’s will. The opposition replied that the numbers in the senate proved that the government only had a ‘limited’ mandate under the constitution, and that the opposition had an almost equally mandated position to thwart an over-ambitious electoral program. In any case, times changed, and parliamentary debate could uncover unforeseen problems, so that no political program could ever be set in stone as the defenders of the mandate seemed to imply. Again in any case, it could never be claimed that the people as a collective had a ‘will’, except perhaps under conditions of extreme emergency.

Mandate may have been a questionable doctrine, but it aptly describes Whitlam’s method of government.

For all that the mandate may have been a questionable doctrine, it was an apt description of Whitlam’s method of government. Contributors to It’s Time Again are at pains to show how thoroughly and intensely Whitlam’s program had been prepared. Race Matthews shows that the process began as far back as 1953, when Whitlam first entered parliament:

Each new piece of work he undertook started from the principles of social justice and equality and these values have given his political life its whole motivation and purpose. Facts were gathered and meticulously analysed, so that policy options could be tested. Once the final form of a policy had been settled, his formidable eloquence and advocacy were devoted unceasingly to the securing of informed public consent for it (p. 302).

Whitlam himself rebukes the present ALP opposition for not understanding that the procedures of parliament could be more effectively used to garner necessary information to build alternate policies. While question time has become a parade of showmanship and point-scoring, Whitlam says, ‘Properly used, diligently pursued, Questions on Notice are the way an opposition can use the resources of government to promote its own agenda. Its current neglect is inexplicable and inexcusable. A grievous price is being paid’ (pp. 21–2).

The fact is that not only has the ‘mandate’ fallen into theoretical disrepair, but it has also been eschewed by both sides of politics as they adopt a so-called ‘small target’ approach to electioneering. After Whitlam’s electoral disasters in 1975 and 1977, the Labor Party sought to distance itself as far as possible from the dead weight of the Whitlam legacy. As Andrew Scott shows in his contribution to It’s Time Again, it became a scandalously cheap form of abuse within the Hawke government to brand anyone with an ambitious program for positive action and public spending as an ‘unreconstructed Whitlamite’ (p. 449). There is much controversy as to whether the post-Whitlam stance of the Labor Party marked a radical change of direction, but the abandonment of the grand, mandated program is indisputable. Nathan Hollier usefully questions the ‘lesson’ that economic growth and social justice must always be in contention (p. 423). On the Liberal side, John Howard’s predecessor as leader, John Hewson, made an honourable attempt to convince the public of the merits of his program in the comprehensive document, Fightback!, which seems to have been defeated on the unpopular promise of a comprehensive indirect tax scheme. It is a mere footnote to this story that Howard said that a government run by him would ‘never, ever’ seek to deploy a GST, but this promise was only, in Howard’s curious terms, a ‘non-core promise’.

Unfortunately all the recent Labor leaders, Beazley, Crean, and so far, Latham, seemed to have learnt the Hewson lesson. In this their chief mentor is John Howard, the supreme exponent of ‘small target’ politics. As Mungo MacCallum says in The Howard Years,

Howard is fond of saying that people know what he stands for … History shows that this is a myth. It is not just a case of broken promises, of which the “never-ever GST” is only the most blatant in a very long list; it is also a calculated policy of concealing as much as possible and, when forced to reveal at least part of the truth, doing it in such a way that there is at least a shade of ambiguity which can be exploited later … Howard runs by far the most secretive government in living memory … Under Howard the right to know simply does not exist; to the contrary, what used to be considered legitimate attempts to find out the facts are considered by his government to be unpatriotic, if not actually criminal (p. 63).

It is little wonder that fears for Australian democracy are now so often expressed.

The contrast between Howard’s secrecy and Whitlam’s public airing of his policy aspirations could scarcely be more complete. The contributors to It’s Time Again are anxious to avoid the charge of an impotent nostalgia, yet Nathan Hollier gives a salutary reminder of Milan Kundera’s warning that ‘the struggle of people against oppression is the struggle of memory against forgetting, [and] positive memories of Whitlam’s politics and philosophy have not yet been completely erased’ (p. 433). Jocelyn A. Scutt drives home the destructiveness of forgetting, while the positive memories in the Whitlam collection are striking. There is a pervasive sense that Australia was changed for the better under the three troubled years of the Whitlam governments, and not just by the winds of social change blowing from the turbulent 1960s. The Whitlam mandate made a difference. People forget the disabilities of women, some of which are still not eliminated, before Whitlam, but those active in the women’s movement recall how much the legislative program altered the whole outlook for women, on equal opportunity, on equal pay, on no-fault divorce, on support for women’s initiatives, as recalled by Elizabeth Evatt, Elizabeth Reid, Carmen Lawrence, and Marian Sawer in the Hocking and Lewis collection. The world changed for Aborigines, too, as Sean Brennan and Jocelyn Scutt detail. It changed for education (Simon Marginson), for health (Gwen Gray), for fair representation (George Williams) and for human rights (Angela Ward).

Whitlam scarcely crosses the minds of the authors of The Howard Years.

Comparisons with current Labor are unavoidable. With gorge ascendant, Reid says that poll-driven ‘Latham’s pragmatic cynicism is today’s political currency’. Her reminiscences are the most emotional: ‘The passion and participation of those times is in sharp contrast to the dis-ease which currently afflicts us. The cold hand of pragmatism has given rise to dis-illusionment, dis-empowerment and moral dis-embowelment’ (p. 74). Gough Whitlam himself is content to quote Robert Drewe from 1973: ‘You’re aware of a certain rare feeling of national self-respect these days … Labor restored some dignity to the conduct of our national affairs at a time when we had all come more or less to expect nothing but ill from political action’ (p. 31).

Whitlam scarcely crosses the minds of the authors of The Howard Years, yet the implicit contrast is easy enough to discern. The book is almost completely hostile to Howard, yet Howard’s resilience and electoral success in the face of such widespread contempt still needs to be explained. This is done brilliantly by Judith Brett, who shows how Howard’s rhetoric, thought by many to be empty, repetitive, and boring, has struck a chord with the majority of the population, and how he has ‘planted the Liberal flag’ in Labor’s heartland. Brett astonishes by claiming Howard as ‘the most creative political leader Australian Liberals have had since Robert Menzies’ (p. 74). He interpreted the Liberal emphasis on the centrality of the family in a way more resonant with contemporary suburban life. His nationalism dismissed ‘affiliations to social groups and identities larger than the family and smaller than the nation—class, religion, ethnicity, region, gender, race. Family and nation are enough for anyone’ (p. 76). In a more acerbic mood Brett might have alluded to the breakdown of intermediary associations (indeed, including the family) as the essence of fascism.

Howard successfully redrew the boundaries around Labor as ‘the party of the section’—no longer of ‘the working class’, a mainstream now stolen by Howard in the guise of his Aussie ‘battlers’—but as the party of ‘elites’ and special interests, the ‘idle chardonnay set’ (p. 79). We may hear Russel Ward’s thundering bones revolving in their confinement as Brett shows how Howard has appropriated the Australian legend for his battlers as he mouths ‘mateship’ as a mantra. There is no doubt at all that Russel Ward would have been in the forefront of all intellectuals condemning Howard for the inegalitarian and authoritarian turn he has given to Australian politics. Howard’s insouciant dismissal of all informed opinion is still difficult to explain. It is not just disaffected academics, smarting at the downgrading of their salaries and status since Howard’s accession, whom he has discarded. The list contains influential journalists, churchmen and women, and judges. As Brett says, ‘In the lead-up to the Iraq war, Howard dismissed the views of such well-informed people as retired diplomats, retired members of the defence forces and of the judiciary just as he did those of the left opponents of the war’ (p. 91). To be able to brush aside such notables along with the Australian senate and much of the public service is to display an uncommon nerve.

Graham Maddox is Emeritus Professor of Political and International Studies at the University of New England. His works include The Hawke Government and Labor Tradition (Penguin, 1989) and several editions of Australian Democracy in Theory and Practice.