Review: It’s Time Again: ‘Whitlam and Modern Labor’

Jenny Hocking and Colleen Lewis (Eds), It’s Time Again: Whitlam and Modern Labor, Circa, Melbourne 2003, pp. xvii + 478.

Reviewed by Tony Harris

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On the thirtieth anniversary of the December 2, 1972, election of the Whitlam Labor Government, a conference commemorating the event was held in the Old Parliament House, Canberra. The contributions to that conference, The Whitlam Government as Modernist Politics, laid the foundation of this collection of twenty one essays re-evaluating the Whitlam era in the light of more recent developments in Australian politics. Jenny Hocking and Colleen Lewis have put together a rich and varied compilation that thoroughly examines the origins and development of Labor under Gough Whitlam’s leadership. However, as discussed below, it is a compilation that still leaves many questions unanswered concerning Whitlam’s, and the Labor Party’s, relationship to the social and political movements of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s.

The editors open the forum, setting the ground for the modernising project of Whitlam Labor. They emphasise the importance of what they see as the often-neglected period of Whitlam’s term as Opposition Leader, from 1967 to 1972. It was during this time that he reworked the party and its policy and affirmed the principal of the mandate as a pact between the parliamentary leadership, the Party and the people who supported them. Whitlam’s own key-note address re-affirms the importance of the pre-Government development of policy, as well as the achievements of his Government, with lessons drawn on such contemporary issues as Labor’s refugee policy.

The remaining contributions are then grouped into five sections. The first, ‘Personal Reflections’, opens with Elizabeth Evatt’s memoir of her journey through the Conciliation and Arbitration Commission, the Royal Commission on Human Relationships and the new Family Court. It also includes Elizabeth Reid’s and Carmen Lawrence’s reflections on the Whitlam Government and its relationship with the women’s movement, as well as a piece by Graham Freudenberg on speech writing and the 1969 and 1972 election campaigns.

The section on ‘Rights, Reform and Reconciliation’ provides a wealth of information on, and assessment of, the Whitlam Government’s record in reworking the constitutional, legislative and administrative landscape, especially in the area of human rights. There is considerable material, for example, on the Racial Discrimination Act 1975, Aboriginal land rights and the Mabo aftermath. Jocelynne Scutt, Sean Brennan, Angela Ward and George Williams, in their respective pieces, provide a richly detailed analysis, evaluating the Whitlam initiatives, identifying the areas of ‘unfinished business’, and bringing the debate forward to the present, Howard-era, reaction. In the third section, on ‘Radical Policy Agendas’, Simon Marginson and Gwen Gray also provide thorough accounts of the Whitlam Labor initiatives, and post-Whitlam developments, in the fields of education and health care, respectively.

Those contributions placing the Whitlam era in a broader political/historical framework are largely located in the last two sections of the book, though the first of these, Tim Rowse’s piece on the social democratic critique of the Australian Settlement, heads the second section. Rowse locates Whitlam’s modernising beginning to the dissolution of the Settlement, in a social democratic/Keynesian tradition. He marks the commencement of this dissolution with the 1973 decision to cut tariffs and the 1975 introduction of wage indexation. This, he contrasts to the ultimately more dominant, neo-liberal direction of the Settlement dissolution, under the Hawke-Keating leadership of the late 1980’s and early 1990’s.

Fabianism is a key theme in the fourth ‘Labor Intellectuals’ section with a part-memoir piece by Victorian Fabian and Whitlam staffer Race Mathews, and a lively historical analysis by Frank Bongiorno. Bongiorno traces the origins of Whitlam’s policy development approach in, and his links to, Fabianism. This included the extent to which the Fabians of the 1960’s provided a conduit to the critical thinking emerging among professionals and white-collar workers, and most particularly university students.

The final section, ‘Re-inventing a Political Party: It’s Time Again’, opens with Marian Sawer’s essay asserting the inclusive and democratic nature of Whitlam’s essentially social liberal agenda. She highlights the danger that the ALP, via a neo-liberal ‘special interest discourse’ (385-390), such as that put by Michael Thompson1 or Martin Ferguson, might lapse back into a limited, and masculinist, Laborism. Former ALP Senator, and Keating Government minister, Chris Schacht, focuses on practical ways of democratising the party’s structure while Lindsay Barrett and Nathan Hollier, in different ways, analyse the changing cultural context of politics in the post-Whitlam, neo-liberal era. Andrew Scott wraps up the collection by highlighting different meanings of modernisation. He argues that the Whitlam modernisation of Labor was different in character to that of the Hawke-Keating era, or that, in the British Labour Party, of Tony Blair.

As valuable as all of these contributions are, the piece that appealed most to this reviewer was that by Jim Cairns’ biographer, Paul Strangio2. Strangio’s essay, ‘Whitlam Vs Cairns: Colliding Visions of Labor’ appears at the end of the ‘Labor Intellectuals’ section.   He takes as his starting point, the resignation of Carmen Lawrence from the Labor front bench, just after the conference on which this book is based. In her portentous contribution to that conference she had contrasted what Strangio described as the ‘principled idealism of the Whitlam project’ to the ‘cautious managerialism’ of contemporary Labor (339).   On her resignation, she was criticised by neo-liberal commentators like Paul Kelly and Gerard Henderson. They argued that her actions were more in the style of the ‘folly of quixotic politics’ (340) of Jim Cairns than Whitlam. Strangio acknowledges this connection and, making use of an analysis of the different life histories and political evolution of Cairns and Whitlam, challenges the promotion of Whitlam as an icon of the Left. He argues that ‘Whitlam is the father of the modern Labor Party, and should be rightly acknowledged as so. Cairns on the other hand, for better or worse is its orphan’. He concludes that if ‘there has to be nostalgia about what the party has lost over … time then Cairns, not Whitlam, ought to be the chief object of that sentiment’ (366).

Strangio then, opens the door to a more critical appraisal than is presented in much of this collection. The editors have laid particular emphasis on the role of Whitlam in modernising the Party during his period as Leader of the Opposition. However this is the most problematic period as far as Whitlam’s relationship to the social movements of the time is concerned. This is particularly so with the anti-war movement, which, as Strangio points out, Cairns was in tune with, and Whitlam eschewed (355-357). Whitlam rightly claims credit for the release of draft resisters from prison as the first decision of government (11). Yet this sits uncomfortably with his attempts to moderate and contain the issue of the war and conscription in the aftermath of the 1966 election defeat and his election as leader.3 Between these two events lay the impact of the anti-war movement linked to the development of the war itself. This notion of Whitlam being led by extra-parliamentary events is at odds with the central theme in It’s Time Again. This is the theme of Whitlam the moderniser, ever in control, proceeding with the logical and linear development and implementation of his, and the Party’s, project, in tune with the mood of the times.

Whitlam and large sections of the Party leadership were at times estranged from one of the great global, social and political revolutions of the twentieth century. Yet, as Carmen Lawrence asserts, the ‘Whitlam Government would not have been possible without the policy agenda and the energy of the young new left radicals of the 1960’s and without the mobilisation of women’ (96-97). It is certainly difficult to understand the pace and euphoria of the Government’s reform agenda detached from these movement impulses. However, as shown above, this relationship was not always as seamless and comfortable as Lawrence implies. As far as the women’s movement was concerned, the Party went to the 1972 election without a policy on women (92), yet the Government did eventually respond generously to the movement’s demands, as both Lawrence and Elizabeth Reid point out. But the relationship to the women’s movement was also not unproblematic, as Reid acknowledges (77-79), and as the circumstances of her resignation from the position of Women’s Adviser to the government attested.4

It’s Time Again provides a rich resource on the process of developing and implementing public policy, contributing to our understanding of the reform possibilities facing Labor governments. However the picture is incomplete unless we fully understand Whitlam’s, and the Labor Party’s, relationship to the extra-parliamentary sphere. This understanding is required if we are to avoid the participants in social movements being footnoted to the history of Great Men. It is also required in order to restore a radical social and political reform agenda to the centre of Australian political life, outside the parliament and party politics as well as in.

Tony Harris currently teaches twentieth century Australian history in the UNSW History School. His recently completed PhD thesis in the School was a history of the ALP Left in Leichhardt Municipality during the 1970s and 1980s.

1. See Michael Thompson, Labor   Without Class: The Gentrification of the ALP , Pluto Press, Sydney, 1999.

2. Paul Strangio, Keeper of the Faith: A Biography of Jim Cairns , Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 2002.

3. See Malcolm Saunders, ‘The ALP’s Response to the Anti-Vietnam War Movement, 1965-73, Labour History , No. 44, May 1983, pp 75-91.

4. See Marilyn Lake, Getting Equal: The history of Australian feminism , Allen and Unwin, Sydney 1999, pp 253-260.

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