‘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.

Comments (0)

Join the Discussion

Your email address will not be published.

  1. Andrea says:

    Gough Whitlam, seen against today’s politics in Australia is just so depressing. Australia’s current Conservative government is a carbon copy of Britain’s at the moment, creepily so.

    Abbott has just applied a new tax without ever getting it through Parliament. The public will pay for it – but if he is forced to repay – it will go back to the oil companies.Aristocracy rules it would seem…

  2. meaghan says:

    Yes. It’s time that the conservative Abbott government is held to account internationally for the damage it is doing – from climate change denial to treatment of asylum seekers.

  3. Fearghas MacFhionnlaigh says:

    Meaghan Delahunt’s excellent article briefly quotes John Pilger. Read Pilger’s complete post (“The forgotten coup – how America and Britain crushed the government of their ‘ally’, Australia”) here:

    1. Dean Richardson says:

      When you have friends like Westminster and Washington…

    2. Nigel says:

      I fear the SNP’s avowed intention to get rid of the uk/us nuclear facilities in Scotland at the first opportunity, puts them in the front line for interference from the us/uk spying agencies.

      They will stop at nothing to smear them and try every means at their disposal ro undermine them , the democratically elected govt of Scotland.

      Plus ca change…..

  4. Dean Richardson says:

    I might be wrong, but I’m sure I read somewhere that when the Australians had the referendum in the mid-1990s on whether to keep the monarchy or become a republic, they were told that if they became a republic, their president would be appointed by the Governor-General (in other words, by Westminster) rather than elected by the voters of Australia. And British PMs and other politicians have the nerve to tell us that places in the Third World (usually rich in natural resources that Western governments want) need democracy.

    A lot of the details in this article were new to me (I was a week or two from turning 12 when Westminster pulled the plug on Whitlam in 1975), but I can’t help feeling I’ve heard the record a few times before, and the vinyl’s wearing a bit thin.

    1. BobbyDarin says:

      What actually happened in 1999 was that Howard was far too bloody clever and managed to screw up the republican campaign by holding a constitutional convention the year before to decide what Australians would want to have in place of the Governor-General. It’s pretty much the same trick that Cameron played with the Lib Dems and AV. The problem was that most people wanted an Australian head of state, but Howard sowed enough confusion and came up with a very uninspiring alternative.

      The actual question was “To alter the Constitution to establish the Commonwealth of Australia as a republic with the Queen and Governor-General being replaced by a President appointed by a two-thirds majority of the members of the Commonwealth Parliament.” If the question had said the President would be elected then Australia would have a President now.

      By the way, the Governor-General has fuck all to do with Westminster. They have been all Australian-born since the Sixties, and all appointed by the Prime Minister since the Thirties, or at least by the PM telling the Queen who to appoint. It’s pretty patronising to assume that Australia is still your de facto dominion.

  5. Alastair McIntosh says:

    “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.”

    What a beautifully written and important article. It brought back curious memories. In 1977 I went as a 22 year old VSO volunteer to Papua New Guinea, posted out in the sticks at a place called Kerema in Gulf Province. The independence process, begun in 1975, was formally concluded in the month I arrived, so one of my first experiences was of the celebrations. What puzzled me, however, was the negativity of (relatively) radical expat Ozzies towards we who had arrived from Britain. We were all POMEs – “prisoners of Mother England” – and they were pretty unimpressed that we had pretty much no idea of what our imperial powers back in London had done to rob them of their democracy. What’s worse, I can remember struggling to believe that what they were saying was really true. Surely we’d never have done such a thing? For those for whom the Whitlam era had been the fulfilment of a dream there was real sadness, same as I now see in the post-Indy scenario here. It bothers me that Australia never seems to have recovered that radicalism. Too much affluence? I don’t know the place well enough. But it does seem to me in Scotland that we need to kindle and draw from deep roots of the imagination if we are to remain in a cultural sense spiritually alive in the future. We, too, carry deep “psychic wounds”. As the late Colin Macleod of Govan used to say: “Shit happens. What matters is how you shovel it.” The lessons from Australia suggest we must fear not in shovelling deep.

  6. arthur thomson says:

    A fascinating post. I felt your sadness. Thank you. Much for all of us to ponder over.

  7. Fed up with the lies and propaganda of the London Media Industrial Complex says:

    Talking of Henry Kissinger, Dr Strangelove, Gordon Brown hangs out with him at the U.N, here’s a great documentary about his crimes.

  8. Fay Kennedy. says:

    I’m another who has never fully recovered from the physchic wound of the sacking of Gough Whitlam. I had the good fortune of meeting both him and the lovely Margaret his wife. For a time very short I felt a sense of pride in the achievements of this visionary Whitlam. Australia is a shameful place at the moment and it seems that it will remain so for the future. There is not one opposing voice in MSM about the mendacity of the parcel of rogues at present. Scotland too has been contaminated by affluence as it is here in Oz. I just hope that the nature of the place it’s history it’s people and the size of the land mass will keep the flame of independence burning. I hold no hope for Oz.

  9. Dave Coull says:

    1972 to 1975 were the only years in Australian history when the country approached something like genuine independence. As the coup d’etat against the Whitlam government has never been reversed, Australia is in some ways less democratic than (for example) Spain, or Chile.

  10. I remember it well I was in my twenties and aware of the colonial mindset of some Australians,and of the Empire minded Westminster politicians.The sacking of the elected prime minister of Australia,made for long conversations,and right up the actual sacking there were bets that the “Governor” would back down and let it be perhaps a chastisement form the monarch would be enough to put Gough Whitlam in his place,it was not a deed worthy of a country (Great Britain) that claimed to be a Democracy,they just proved that its a monarchy with rank being most important.

  11. macart763m says:

    The more things change, the more they stay the same. The parallels are more than remarkable. The fear and negativity, false promises, overseas interventions, media blanket and Buck hoose all present and correct.

    Mind you as far as they’re concerned, if you have a methodology which works, why change it?

  12. sean mcgee says:

    Beautifully written, thank you. Incidentally the “secret” history of Britain in Cyprus is just as shameful.

    1. Dean Richardson says:

      It’s the same everywhere the British government has been. Sadly, there’s no chance of the Westminster-Whitehall village losing its 19th-century mind-set while this kingdom remains in its current form. Let’s hope Scotland becomes independent at some point not too many years from now and we can begin the process of dismantling this poisonous ‘union’, a process which is so necessary.

  13. MBC says:

    Thanks for this really informative article. I never knew any of this but it explains a lot. Yes, scarily similar. Abbott’s neo-con intervention in the Scottish referendum campaign was I thought extraordinary. What had it got to do with him? Appalled to hear that the forces of reaction won in the end and came back to kick us in Scotland in the teeth.

    A church acquaintance has just emigrated from Oz to Scotland and was telling me how limited welfare and pensions in Oz are. Now I understand the reasons. Pity you had the execrable John McTernan advising Julia Gillard. She deserved better.

    1. MBC reply Abbott is English that may help explain a few things for you. He just appointed Prince Phillip an Australian Knighthood. I think he’s looking for what he considers a real one in response.

  14. Tina Feedgie says:

    Fascinating article. It seems my well of ignorance is deeper than I thought. I recently returned from a period living in South America and learned a lot about Britain’s unsavoury role in politics there (I’m a latecomer to politics). Now it seems we were complicit in this ugly episode in Australia and I read a post about Cyprus also being a victim.

    Is there anywhere untouched by the greed and corruption of the British institutions?

    God I’m depressed.

  15. liz says:

    I do remember it happening at the time but the press here, surprise, surprise were painting him in a negative light.

    It is outrageous that Australia is not fully independent and I’ve only just realised that.

    How insidious is the British elite, how could they get away with that?

    1. Gordon says:

      And some people are proud to call themselves BRITISH. I’m becoming increasingly ashamed of my passport.

  16. M4rkyboy says:

    Brilliant article,i never knew any of this.

  17. Ken Jackson says:

    As interesting and well written as your article is, it does actually fail to mention the main factor which led to Whitlam’s downfall. If, as you state, the UK/US were complicit in Whitlam’s removal, then there would surely be a charge of murder to levy against them. The chain of events that led to Kerr exercising the powers of his position started with the death of Queensland Labor Senator Bertie Milliner from a heart attack in June 1975. Such a death would traditionally have led to the ALP nominating a replacement from within their ranks – which is exactly what they attempted to do in nominating Mal Colston. The Queensland Premier (Joh Bjelke-Petersen) however refused to accept his nomination, and put forward his own choice, Albert Field, who was duly appointed. Field, although an ALP member, was openly critical of Whitlam – and his appointment eventually led to a situation in the Senate whereby the ALP found themselves in the minority. This allowed the Opposition to block the government’s Supply Bills, which led Kerr to dismiss them.

    It’s hard to see that any of this would have happened had Milliner not died, and the speed at which he was replaced hardly left any scope for the suggested UK/US ‘interference’. Unless, of course, they somehow preempted Milliner’s death….

  18. BobbyDarin says:

    Who was more responsible for Gough’s dismissal? The CIA and MI6 or Malcolm Fraser? I think it does enormous disservice to Australians to assume that they had no part to play in 1975. The fact is that the country was divided over Gough, with plenty of countryfolk taking against him, and the elections after the coup showed that – the Libs won by a huge margin. Fraser played every trick in the book to undermine Gough when he was PM and it worked.

    There’s a reason why the Libs had been in power for 23 years until 1972 and it showed afterwards – too many Australians were too far to the right. I think Gough always knew in his heart he was going to be a one-term PM and that’s why he was in such a hurry to reform while he could. That’s why he is remembered so fondly, but also why people like Fraser were so ruthless in their campaign against him. Gough never tried to carry the country with him in the way that modern politicians attempt to. He didn’t plough the middle ground, and that’s why we love him, and why no one really likes Cameron or Miliband, not even their voters.

    So no, I don’t buy the conspiracy idea. Sure, the US and UK didn’t like Gough because he was a scary reformer at the height of the Cold War, but they didn’t rig the elections and Kerr was under plenty of pressure from the Australian right. It might be comforting for Brits to think that they could still pull the strings but no, not really. However much I wish Fraser had lost in 1975, he didn’t win because the US and UK gave him the election on a plate.

  19. I had a vague childhood memory of the name “Gough Whitlam” being spat out from BBC News reports in 1975. Fifteen years later I corresponded with a close friend who had emigrated to Australia and married into a family radicalised by the Whitlam era. When he and his new bride visited I learned more about this shameful episode and began to understand the difference between “Sovereignty of the People” and sovereignty lying with “the Crown in Parliament”.

    Exposure of this cynical constitutional fudge is, I believe, possibly the most under-explored and under-exploited planks of the case for Scottish Independence: The “Crown” is a affectation for the powerful elite who run this country. The People have no legal rights to choose our rulers.

    Thanks, Meaghan, for a moving article about a great leader who really shook them up – and for the stark reminder of where power actually lies.

    1. Fed up with the lies and propaganda of the London Media Industrial Complex says:

      Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh was asked in a television interview ” Do you believe in reincarnation, if so what would you like to come back as ?”

      He replied ” I’d like to come back as a virus and depopulate the world.”

      What a strange thing to say but then that’s what the Ruling Elite thinks of us, useless eaters.

Help keep our journalism independent

We don’t take any advertising, we don’t hide behind a pay wall and we don’t keep harassing you for crowd-funding. We’re entirely dependent on our readers to support us.

Subscribe to regular bella in your inbox

Don’t miss a single article. Enter your email address on our subscribe page by clicking the button below. It is completely free and you can easily unsubscribe at any time.