The anniversary of the Dismissal of the Whitlam Government, coming at the beginning of a week when Labor finds itself on the Opposition benches once again, provides an opportunity to reflect on Whitlam’s time as Labor leader and on what lessons we can draw from this period. This is not a rumination on the Dismissal; few other than the most ardent Liberal hack will defend Kerr’s coup of Remembrance Day 1975. Instead, Whitlam’s leadership in rebuilding the Labor Party and introducing a broad reform agenda into Australian politics provide us with valuable lessons that are far more important than the manner of the government’s demise.
Whitlam assumed the Labor leadership in 1967, at a time when the Labor Party had been comprehensively defeated at the previous federal election and was struggling to broaden its appeal beyond its traditional working class base. The party structure allowed for little input from the party membership and the parliamentary party was even denied representation on the federal executive. The Victorian branch in particular was a problem – controlled by the militant left, its poor performance played a key role in Labor narrowly losing the 1969 election.
After a push led by Whitlam and supported by other key players, the Federal Executive was restructured to include the parliamentary leaders, conference was broadened to represent states in proportion to their membership, and conference proceedings were made public. An intervention was made into the Victorian branch to make it electorally viable. These changes were not easily achieved – Whitlam even resigned the leadership at one stage and was almost defeated in the subsequent spill by Jim Cairns.
As well as party reform, Whitlam’s greatest legacy is the near-complete rewriting of the Labor platform – the program as it is known. Under Whitlam’s inspired leadership, reformers put items on the national agenda for the first time that have remained there ever since. These are well known and form a crucial part of Labor’s agenda – universal healthcare, equality of access to education, better services and improved infrastructure to name just a few. In Whitlam’s words, the business “of expanding and spreading opportunities”. This is the signature theme of Whitlam’s time, but also a guiding principle for Labor.
In his recent pitch for the Labor leadership, Bill Shorten invoked Whitlam’s three P’s that Labor needed to focus on: party, policy, people. That is, we rebuild our party, work on our platform and then gain a mandate from the community at the next election. The task is not easy, but Whitlam shows us that it is possible. Community support exists for many of our ideas; the challenge is to make this support electorally potent. By engaging our membership and reaching out to new supporters, we can make headway to achieving this goal. And our platform must, as always, continue to evolve using both expert opinion and community input.
In spite of everything, Whitlam kept the faith even when out of office, continuing to advocate for what he believed in and the ability of the Labor Party to achieve it. On that infamous day 38 years ago, in words often quoted, Whitlam stood on the steps of Parliament and urged the crowd to “maintain your rage and enthusiasm for the campaign for the election now to be held and until polling day.” What is not quoted so often are Whitlam’s words he used in closing his book on this period, The Whitlam Government 1972 – 1975: “The rage was not so important and is now irrelevant. Enthusiasm is all important.”