‘It’s Time’: The Independence of Gough Whitlam
One of my sisters emails from Melbourne: It’s like a death in the family. And when I heard the news last week, I wept, along with many other Australians. But we were not mourning a family member. We were mourning Former Prime Minister Gough Whitlam, the great, progressive politician of our youth. He died last week in Australia at the age of 98.
I was 12 when Gough came to power, ending 23 years of Liberal Party (Tory) rule. I was too young to vote, but old enough to know that change was coming, that we were living through something extraordinary. In 1972, the quiescent Australian suburbs were suddenly less quiescent: the Holden station wagons with ‘It’s Time’ stickers, the badges, the posters, the T-shirts, the famous ‘It’s Time’ theme song – rising to a gospel choir – all of this thrilled me as a kid. Australia was in the mood for something different. It was a great popular upsurge. And I realise that our recent experience here in Scotland – this sense that ideas have finally come of age and need expression – resonates with this childhood experience in Australia.
From 1972-1975, the Whitlam Government changed the face of Australia and altered its place in the world. As John Pilger puts it, ‘Australia briefly became an independent state during the Whitlam years.’ Of course Whitlam made some mistakes ( Timor, for example) but it’s in the context of independence that I want to pay tribute. Within days of coming to office, Whitlam pulled Australian troops from Vietnam, abolished conscription and released draft resisters from jail. Equal pay and equal rights for women, free tertiary education, land rights, Medicare, public Arts funding, and anti-racism legislation were enacted. The White Australia policy was over: he oriented Australia towards Asia and the Pacific, refused to be a colonial power and granted Independence to Papua New Guinea. The Whitlam government was anti-nuclear, challenged the legitimacy of the US spy base at Pine Gap and began to chart a foreign policy independent of Britain and America. His government sought to ‘buy back the farm’ – to have Australia’s rich natural and mineral resources under Australian control and to use the funds to support its ambitious welfare programme. This is just one of the parallels with the Scottish Independence campaign – the desire for autonomy and control of our own resources. The desire to fund social justice. The spirit of the era was optimistic. As one of Whitlam’s advisers later noted: ‘ 1972 was one of the really happy years in Australia…there was just an abundant air of good feeling.’
Whitlam was of his time. A generation radicalized and traumatised by the Vietnam War – over 60,000 Australians fought there, 521 were killed and 3,000 wounded – helped bring his government to power. Women’s Liberation, Aboriginal Land Rights, Gay Rights were all coming to the fore. It was a movement of young people and the young-at-heart who wanted change after decades of conservative rule. This conservatism and accompanying cultural cringe had resulted in an exodus of talented artists, writers and scholars from Australia, something the Whitlam government wanted to reverse. Whitlam and his great wife Margaret were unashamedly literary and patrons of the Arts. As David Malouf wrote last week, the Whitlams regularly attended book launches, theatre and arts events and understood that the new Australian books they read, the new plays they saw, the new music they heard ‘ were essential to the excitement of the moment and what appeared to be a new national consciousness.’ Artists and writers rallied to support the Whitlam government under attack in the same way that artists and writers overwhelmingly supported the ‘Yes’ campaign here.
I believe we can trace a direct cultural line between the election of the Whitlam government – its support for free tertiary education and public Arts funding, the injection of cultural self-confidence this gave the country – and Richard Flanagan’s recent Booker Prize win. The fact that Australia has several Booker Prize winners at all is part of the legacy of that government. These days it’s not surprising to see Australian artists up there on the international stage, but this was not always the case. The deep cultural reservoir Australian artists now freely draw upon – multiculturalism, internationalism and a colonial critique – found expression and encouragement during this period.
The ‘ Yes’ campaign in Scotland, similarly fuelled by the young and young-at-heart: the T-shirts, the badges, the balloons, the wheelie bin stickers – I was reminded of the excitement of my 12 year old self in Melbourne so many years ago. I remember my parents so passionate about a Whitlam Labor victory – could it happen? Could we really change things in this country? Could we really aspire to be more than a British or an American outpost? It turned out that yes, for a brief, glorious period, we could.
It didn’t last.
Too many forces lined up against it. As Graham Freudenberger, a key adviser to Whitlam said: ‘The crisis of November 1975 began on the 2nd December 1972, the day Whitlam got elected.’ The Liberals never accepted the legitimacy of a Labor government, it was an affront to their sense of entitlement, and they worked hard to undermine it. ( Entitlement: the Labour Party in Scotland comes to mind.) The Australian Labor Party didn’t have a majority in the Senate and the Liberals used this fact to block the money bills, forcing another election in 1974 and then the political crisis of 1975. Effectively, they starved the Labor government of funds. As it turned out, the enemies of the Whitlam government were not only at home. A progressive government, trying to chart its own course, enacting reforms at lightning pace: dispensing with ‘God Save the Queen’ as the national anthem, dispensing with the Imperial honours system, drawing closer to the Non-Aligned Movement? Threatening to expose and possibly close American spy bases on Australian soil? It was the period of the Cold War, and this government, when viewed from the perspective of the White House and Westminster seemed dangerously Red. Whitlam was no communist. But he was an ardent social democrat and reformer.
The 1960’s and ‘70’s were the heyday of CIA-backed coups and British complicity. Yet most people in the UK know more about what happened in Chile or Greece, for example, than the tumult in Australia. There are political reasons for this.. Just last week, The Guardian’s slant on Whitlam was that he was ‘ ousted on a technicality.’ The bigger story wasn’t discussed. The bigger story puts the role of the Monarchy, Westminster and the White House under the spotlight. A more informed picture gives us cold, hard parallels with our recent Scottish Referendum experience.
I was 15 when Gough Whitlam was deposed by the Queen’s Representative, the Governor General, Sir John Kerr. It was the defining political event of my childhood and I still find it shocking. John Kerr, of course, was not acting alone. He’d sought advice from Buckingham Palace on the ‘reserve’ powers of his position – and was advised that, yes, actually, the Queen’s Man could dismiss a democratically elected government, if needed. It turns out that the Queen’s Man also had very strong links to Anglo-American intelligence – referred to by the CIA as ‘ our man Kerr’, he was also well acquainted with MI6 – who bugged Whitlam’s cabinet meetings for the Americans. The full story of how the Brits and the Americans conspired to bring down the Whitlam government is still emerging. Wikileaks last year published diplomatic cables from the period disclosing that figures from both major Australian parties informed on Whitlam to Washington. These figures included a future Prime Minister and foreign minister. The coup left a deep psychic wound in a country founded on psychic wounds. It hammered home the fact that, despite our best efforts, Australia’s colonial status had not altered. We were caught between Britain and the post-war imperium of the United States. We had exercised our democratic right in ’72, again in ’74 when Whitlam was re-elected, and been punished for it
From the buoyant technicolour of ’72 to the black-and-white of the ‘constitutional coup’ in ‘75 . This is truly how it felt. This period saw major demonstrations all over the country – 100,000 people on the streets of Melbourne, the army and navy on high alert in case of ‘civil disturbance’. A month later, the forced election brought the Liberal Party and Malcolm Fraser to power. Almost overnight – a different set of stickers and posters appeared all over Australia: ‘Shame, Fraser, Shame.’
What I remember in the final phase of Whitlam’s government is the barrage of negativity and propaganda Australians endured. Again, very similar to our recent Referendum experience here. The powerful Murdoch Press and all the media turned against the government. Twelve months earlier, Murdoch had instructed his editors to ‘ Kill Whitlam.’ Indeed, so great was his editorial interference that journalists from The Australian went on strike during the ’75 election campaign. We were urged from radio, television, newspapers to say ‘No’ to change, to say ‘No’ to another progressive government – or suffer the consequences. Sound familiar? It should. The arguments are well worn: Our national security was at stake, our children’s future was at stake. We needed American bases and spy facilities to keep us safe (Trident, anyone?). We were not ready or able to cut the apron ties to Britain. Not able to go it alone.
Britain and America have long experience in undermining independence movements. There are few countries which have broken completely free from Empire unscathed. Australia’s attempt in 1975 and Scotland in 2014 are mere recent examples. Indeed, some of the same characters feature in both national stories: Henry Kissinger, for example. In the 1980’s he admitted that ‘ The Whitlam government was one of President Nixon’s pet hates.’ In 2014 Kissinger emerged from the crypt to urge a ‘No’ vote in Scotland. The spectral face of Rupert Murdoch is another blast from the past. Indeed, a recent photo of Murdoch waving from the back window of a car in Aberdeen during the Referendum bears an uncanny resemblance to a photo of Murdoch waving from a car window in Australia after the 1975 coup.
One of the reasons so few people in the UK know about what happened in Australia is because it still raises so many awkward questions. 1975 exposed constitutional monarchy as an oxymoron scam. It raised questions about power, sovereignty and independence that still resonate. The Governor General used archaic ‘reserve powers’ to dismiss an elected government. British Intelligence worked with American intelligence, the ruling elites closed ranks to protect their own interests and preserve business as usual.
Fear and negativity won out in Australia after the coup. Again, that familiar tune. We learn from this that opponents of change will do anything. As we’ve seen here, they will play dirty, they will vow and pledge and undermine like there’s no tomorrow. We cannot expect them to abide by democracy or decency. We can expect to be tripped up on ‘technicalities.’ We must be prepared. We must be more than prepared.
So. I’ve now lived through two great progressive upsurges –and two ‘defeats’– in two different countries. The first as a child in Australia, the second as an adult in Scotland. How fortunate I am! I take heart from the fact that lessons learned young are lessons which endure. Through the Referendum in Scotland a whole new generation was politicised – just as I was during the Whitlam years. A whole new generation of artists and writers will come into their own, just as they did in Australia. We are still living through a revolutionary period in Scotland – nothing is settled, everything is up for grabs. How fortunate we are.
My brother texts me: ‘We’re all listening to ‘It’s Time’.’ I get on YouTube and marvel at the hipsters and oldsters, the beards and miniskirts. I start singing along. I sing as if I’m twelve years old and it’s summer in Melbourne; barefoot and joyous, impatient for change. “It’s a choice between the habits and fears of the past and the opportunities and demands of the future’ said Whitlam. I mourn his passing and the brief, wondrous time when Australia was, truly, in Noam Chomsky’s words: ‘ the threat of a good example.’
See the lyrics to ‘It’s Time’ right here.