A quiet room, a desk and a lamp

October 23, 2014

By Dennis Glover

On December 15, 1945, the Lockheed Ventura bomber – serial A59-70 – in which Flight Lieutenant E. G. Whitlam was navigator, was badly hit by Japanese anti-aircraft fire while attacking shipping in the Timor Sea. Had the crew been forced to crash-land or bale out, it’s possible they would have met the same fate as other RAAF prisoners late in the war: execution by bayonet or beheading. Whitlam was fortunate – A59-70 limped back to base just before its fuel ran out.

Members of Gough’s generation really did risk their lives to defeat fascism and build a better world. To such people, the things that politicians today would metaphorically die in a ditch for would have seemed un­worthy – the stuff of accountants, not heroes.

Gough’s generation believed in nation-building and equality, and there was nothing metaphorical about their willingness to die for their beliefs. True believers, they were impatient to bring their better world about.

Gough Whitlam certainly wanted power and was utterly ruthless in modernising the Labor Party in order to get it. He risked his career to do so, resigning to get his way over an obstinate party machine in 1968.

And today, his success in reforming the ALP is held up as one of his most important achievements, and one his party must repeat. This is almost right.

Gough did modernise the ALP, but not as some sort of tick-the-box exercise for getting back into office. He did it because he wanted Labor to become an effective agent for the post-war idealism his generation had risked their lives for. He had a heady purpose, and a lot of the Australia we now live in is the product of it. The purpose is the point.

His reforms were introduced at a furious pace – ultimately too furious for the electo­rate, especially in the age of rampant inflation, unemployment and OPEC – and it all quickly collapsed. Or did it? Look around.

A lot of it is still there: university expansion, Medicare, a non-discriminatory immigration system, diplomatic relations with China, a decent social security system, the single mothers’ pension, land rights, and so forth. How many people reading this today were the first in their family to have a quiet room of their own, with a desk to study on and a lamp to read by so they could go to university? That was Mr Whitlam’s dream for every child. When Gough’s government did fall, Labor was quick to learn the lessons – most notably about political orderliness and economic management.

But not all of the lessons have proven beneficial in the long run. Because Gough’s period in power was so brief – less than three years – Labor immediately began coveting longevity of government.

Over time, inevitably and sadly, longevity in office changed from the means to the ends. Did Labor ultimately learn the wrong lesson? Did Whitlam’s three short, event-filled years provide evidence for another conclusion: the longer you aim to stay in power, the lesser will be your legacy?

There’s one more reason why Whitlam’s greatness has endured: his imperious political style. Today in an era when charisma comes cheap, Whitlam’s style is scoffed at as inconsequential, dangerous even.

But Whitlam’s substance and style are inseparable. Like the Kennedys, Whitlam’s idealism relied on inspiration to succeed. Just as economic reform is naturally driven on by the deadening mantras of management consultancy, the social reforms ­championed by Whitlam required classical eloquence of the sort young Whitlam imbibed at Sydney University.

“Well may we say, God save the Queen, because nothing will save the governor-general.” “Maintain your rage.” “Kerr’s curr” He was speaking in Greek meter – in fact the Iambic form that is the backbone of Shakespeare.

That’s partly why we remember it.

And, like a good classicist, Whitlam understood political drama and the importance of seizing the moment. It’s likely that in his greatest moment, making his brilliant extempore speech on the steps of Parliament House on November 11, 1975, Whitlam knew that, like the fall of a great patrician in the Roman forum two millennia before, his fall would be the making of him and would ensure his memory and his achievements would live on.

By not setting out to live forever, physically or politically, Gough Whitlam has ensured he will. And now, as he’s being buried, Labor could do worse than ask the question Shakespeare puts in Mark Antony’s mouth upon Caesar’s death: – Here was a Caesar! When comes such another?