Two neighbors, two systems, one dream
The 5 November State Memorial Service for the late Gough Whitlam, 98, Prime Minister of Australia between 1972 and 1975, revives memories of a time similar to this year’s rise of Joko (Jokowi) Widodo as the Republic’s seventh President.
The election that brought the Whitlam Labor Government to power ended a 23-year rule by conservative forces. Like Jokowi’s ‘Mental Revolution’, Whitlam’s ‘It’s Time’ campaign excited optimistic reformers desperate for a fairer, more equal nation that respected its minorities.
As with Jokowi, it was the idealistic young who embraced the revolution and demanded much of their leader.
Fate decreed that Whitlam had only three years to deliver; maybe he had a premonition that his haters would never rest. Certainly he understood the need for haste.
Australian troops were immediately pulled out of the Vietnam War; the White Australia immigration policy (widely and rightly despised in Indonesia) was shredded; Australia’s sphere of influence was redrawn to include Asia. Racial discrimination was outlawed.
Fault-free divorce dampened down much of the ugliness of marriage disintegration. Benefits previously restricted to widows were made available to solo Moms. Equal pay gave independence. The right of women to break free from abusive relationships without being stigmatised by poverty had a huge impact on society,
In indigenous affairs the great changes included the recognition of Aboriginal land rights.
Was it the incompetence of Whitlam’s clumsy ministers which crashed his government? Many failed to understand the subtleties of administration and how to handle hostile bureaucrats, believing enthusiasm trumps management. Or was it the ruthless right determined to evict socialists trampling their sacred turf?
In a worrying reminder of allegations that America’s Central Intelligence Agency was involved in the 1965 coup that brought down President Soekarno, it has long been hinted that the CIA’s hand was also behind the dismissal of Whitlam ten years later because Australia was drifting away from US influence.
In 1975 Whitlam’s government fell because, like Jokowi’s today, it did not have a majority in Parliament – in this case the Senate.
Elements of the Establishment had been outraged by Whitlam’s election, just as they are with Jokowi getting his slippers under the Presidential bed. However Whitlam was not a lad from the riverbank but a government lawyer’s son, splendidly schooled and raised in Canberra, the political heart of Australia.
After serving in the Air Force for four years and reaching the rank of Flight Lieutenant he worked as a lawyer before entering Parliament in 1952.
These credentials should have made him acceptable, but the Tories considered Whitlam a class traitor by joining Labor, traditionally the party for battlers with dirt under their fingernails.
In a riveting panegyric at the Sydney Town Hall service, Aboriginal leader Noel Pearson said:
“I don't know why someone with this old man's upper middle-class background could carry such a burning conviction that the barriers of class and race of the Australia of his upbringing and maturation should be torn down and replaced with the unapologetic principle of equality.”
Like President Jokowi, Whitlam stood apart. Although some saw him as imperious (it can be difficult talking up to a man 1.94 meters tall), and he could be intimidating, he was able to communicate at all levels, addressing most as ‘comrades’ whatever their rank.
Like Jokowi he also had great sense of self-deprecating humor.
But here the similarities end, for Whitlam had oratory. As with President Soekarno Australia’s 21st Prime Minister was a skilled and erudite public speaker who drew huge crowds. So far President Jokowi has not learned how to mesmerise and inspire the masses while still retaining his common-man charisma.
Those who heard Whitlam knew they were in the presence of a visionary determined to make a difference for his nation. This was never just another self-server mouthing platitudes. Proof is that thousands gathered in Sydney to remember a man who lost government almost 40 years ago, yet whose legacy lives on.
Australia’s political history can be dated BW and AW, before and after Whitlam.
Among the mourner-celebrants was actress Cate Blanchett, just a child when Whitlam was elected. In another skin-tingling speech the double Oscar-winner said her international career had been shaped because her health care and university education had been free (a policy abandoned by later governments), and Whitlam had understood the importance of culture.
“I am the product of an Australia that engages with the globe and engages honestly with its history and its indigenous peoples,” she said. “I am a small part of Australia's coming of age.”
She recalled Whitlam saying: ‘All other objectives of a Labor government – social reform, justice and equity in the provision of welfare services and educational opportunities – have as their goal the creation of a society in which the arts and the appreciation of spiritual and intellectual values can flourish.’
Whitlam’s speechwriter Graham Freudenberg, who wrote a biography titled A Certain Grandeur, talked about “the Whitlam touch …that lives on in the way we think about Australia, in the way we see the world. You would go the barricades with such a man.”
Does Indonesia’s new leader have such a touch? Will citizens go to the barricades for Jokowi should his opponents combine to topple? In this culture is it necessary to have a certain grandeur?
Or are Indonesia and its politics altogether different from the country next door and the only thing we share is a dream for betterment?
(Malang-based journalist Duncan Graham was a media secretary in the Whitlam ministry.)
He touches still the millions – who share his vision for a more equal Australia, a more independent, inclusive, generous and tolerant Australia. And a nation confident of its future in our region and the world.
You will forgive an old man's pride, but the last time he performed that little gesture of his was in 2001, as we entered the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, the scene of his triumph 30 years before.
But his great stage was the House of Representatives – stage, pulpit, arena. For a decade, he won memorable victories in the House of Representatives.
In 1975, he fought his mightiest fight, in defence of the House of Representatives, and suffered his worst defeat, on the verge of victory. First and last, Gough Whitlam was the member for Werriwa. More than a place in outer Western Sydney.
To him, modern Australia in the making – with all its growing inequalities in "schools, hospitals, cities"- his shorthand for all the social conditions for decent Australian living, including, dare I mention, sewerage in the suburbs.
He saw that only the nation's Parliament and the nation's government could bring quality and equality to areas of Australian life, where Canberra had never before dared or cared. From Werriwa too, came his magnificent obsession with electoral equality, one vote, one value.
He believed with a passion, that this nation of immigrants must crash through the barriers of intolerance and prejudice about birth or background, race or religion. This was a new voice, new themes, a new agenda for Australia.
The Whitlam agenda remains part of the Australian agenda.
"Contemporary relevance, comrade" – that was his watchword. And if ever he soared too high – or too long – there was always the other member for Werriwa, Margaret, to bring him back to earth.
And Mick Young. "The fun is where I am, Mungo".
The irrepressible Mungo McCallum had asked him if he missed the fun of Canberra, when Bob Hawke sent him to liven up Paris. Gough was very serious about making us laugh. Not least at himself, and his ego.
There was a lot of laughter in the Whitlam years. Some tears too. But always, energy, urgency, enthusiasm. For the high and noble calling of political service. Drive and purpose for his party and his country.
He believed profoundly in the Australian Labor Party as the mainstay of Australian democracy and equality. And always, there was the sense of living Australian history. And making it.
In his rich and mellow autumn, he worried occasionally lest he be like King Charles, remembered mainly for losing his head.
Your tributes – your presence here today – attest his true place in the hearts of his fellow Australians.
Paul Keating is right: "There was an Australia before Whitlam, and there was a different Australia after Whitlam".
He was the bridge. Within the wonderful continuity of our national life –our long parliamentary democracy underpinned by strong political parties– Gough Whitlam built a bridge.
As he put it in 1972: "Between the habits and fears of the past and the hopes and demands of the future". Optimism, enthusiasm, confidence – over fear, prejudice, conformity.
That is his enduring message to the men and women of Australia.
Graham Freudenberg was Gough Whitlam's speechwriter.