Gough and Julia

deb_7_history-420x0The most striking thing I found about watching the ABC docudrama Whitlam: The Power and the Passion over the last two weeks was the extent of the parallels between Gough’s crew and the current Gillard government.

We (or at least I) often think that the Internet and the general evolution of post-industrial society over the last 40 years mean that politics is radically different from what it was back in the 1970s. However, the Whitlam doco reminds us that the fundamentals actually haven’t changed at all. A quote from Jane Caro sums it up for me:

It did feel like a lot of hopes were dashed quite quickly, that the Whitlam Government was extremely good at ideals, it was even extremely good at policy but it was really bad at politics.

I would have to concede that the parallels are anything but precise. In this more technocratic age, it is much harder to identify clear social-democratic or other ideals in the rhetoric or (at least in some respects) the performance of either the Rudd or Gillard governments than in the Whitlam era. Moreover, not even her most passionate supporters (assuming any still exist) would accuse Julia Gillard of being good at espousing ideals. The virtues of hard work and a good education hardly resonate inspirationally with most people.

However, the Gillard government’s policy performance actually stacks up quite well against that of Whitlam. The National Broadband Network, major reforms to health funding initially touted by Kevin Rudd but eventually delivered under Gillard, the Gonski education reforms (if they are ever delivered) and previous education reforms already implemented, and the National Disability Insurance Scheme have all been major reforms that will transform Australian society on an ongoing basis in much the same way that the Whitlam government’s initiatives did. Even the much-maligned carbon pricing regime is actually a worthwhile and well-designed reform which will have modest ongoing positive effects in the unlikely event it survives the Abbott government’s attentions.1

In fact looking at that list of major reforms, you can actually identify a clear social-democratic and nation-building theme running through them. It is just that Gillard and her colleagues have been very bad at articulating that theme. Mind you, in fairness to Gillard, the combination of an increasingly frenetic media cycle and the endless feeding frenzy of minority government would have made it difficult even for a superlative orator like Whitlam to deliver a “cut through” message.

One other necessary qualification to my proposition that there are striking parallels between the Whitlam and Gillard governments relates to economic policy and performance. The Gillard government and its  Rudd-led predecessor have been much better economic performers than Whitlam’s team of economic nincompoops (at least they were nincompoops until Bill Hayden took over as Treasurer after the horse had well and truly bolted in 1975). On the other hand, Wayne Swan’s persistent promises of a return to surplus suggest that he may have had as little understanding of the post-GFC world as Whitlam’s Treasurers had about the collapse of the Bretton Woods system and the dynamics of the OPEC oil crisis.

Perhaps as much as anything else the greatest parallel between the Whitlam and Gillard/Rudd governments is that both had the misfortune to govern at times of massive and quite sudden International economic discontinuity whose causes and effects hardly anyone understood without the benefit of hindsight. On the other hand, the current Labor regime might well have survived even so had they not decided to depose the admittedly odious Kevin Rudd in 2010, thereby sentencing themselves unknowingly to minority government.

  1. Then there’s the Murray-Darling Basin Plan and the Tasmanian forests settlement, both major initiatives that settled seemingly intransigent environmental problems. It is a measure of the other-worldliness of current political debate that I suspect hardly anyone has even noticed these huge reforms. ~ KP []

About Ken Parish

Ken Parish is a legal academic, with research areas in public law (constitutional and administrative law), civil procedure and teaching & learning theory and practice. He has been a legal academic for almost 20 years. Before that he ran a legal practice in Darwin for 15 years and was a Member of the NT Legislative Assembly for almost 4 years in the early 1990s.
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nottrampis
8 years ago

interesting article Ken,

I will be highlighting it on Friday

Steve 1
Steve 1
8 years ago

First off, I don’t agree that the Whitlam Government were a bunch of economic nicompoops. Life changed very dramatically for western economies and alomost every western nation struggled in that period.
Secondly, the Government has been criticised for rejecting Treasury advice but no one ever analyses that advice and what it would have meant for the Australian economy and people. Basically the Treasury’s advice that was rejected was to bring on a sharp and deep recession. It has to be remembered that Treasury opposed the opening up of the Australian economy and the Floating of the dollar under Hawke & Keating. They also haven’t been able to predict taxation revenue accurately for the past 15 years also.
Many of the policies the Whitlam Government implementesd were right, like the 25% cut in tarrifs, but basically there was an economic and political world wind occurring and they didn’t manage the politics very well.
Finally the glibness of Howard saying all Whitlam needed to do was go to the Australian people and say that circumstance had changed and he had to break his promises and everything would have been right flies in the face of what we see today.
If you are a reforming Labor Government and the media is against you then you are not going to get a fair go.

Nicholas Gruen
Admin
Nicholas Gruen(@nicholas-gruen)
8 years ago
Reply to  Steve 1

Steve, some good points, but the 1974 budget was a shocker

Steve 1
Steve 1
8 years ago
Reply to  Nicholas Gruen

Nicholas, I am not saying they didn’t make mistakes, but economic policy is more than federal budgets, which should be the argument today. If the advice from Treasury is to bring on a sharp and deep recession, it is little wonder it is rejected. If your main econonmic Department is then sidelined, who is going to control the demands on the spending Departments. It was the politics within Canberra that caused the problem, the 1974 Budget was the consequence. By the time 1975 Budget was framed, the internal political pressures were more under control due to a number of cathartic events, and Labor demonstrated it had the capacity to manage itself. But it was too late and the victors write the history

Senexx
8 years ago
Reply to  Nicholas Gruen

It seems that is universally agreed upon.

Catching up
Catching up
8 years ago

All the so called crimes were quickly forgotten, once Fraser got his hands on the tiller of power.

The Whitlam government changed life in this country, like none other.

All reforms have survived until today. His government, in retrospect, will be seen in a positive light.

I see it as Whitlam, breaking the mould, Hawke and Keating carrying on with the reforms, and cementing the work of Whitlam into place.
I see the PM once again taking up the business of reforming the nation, carrying on the work of Whitlam, Hawke and Keating.

History will treat this government in a like manner.

Adamite
Adamite
8 years ago

Hayden’s revelation about Whitlam’s view of the initial two man Labor ministery – it was twice the size necessary – suggests another significant difference. Gillard clearly doesnt possess the enormous hubris which proved so fatal to Gough’s primeministership, perhaps most fatally in his decision to appoint Kerr as Governor General without consulting others.

m0nty
m0nty
8 years ago

Abbott shows every sign of failing to contribute anything at all of worth in his time in government, like Baillieu and O’Farrell. In lieu of the right contributing anything at all to the policy debate in this country, he has adopted pretty much the entire Labor platform lock, stock and barrel. His promises to end the carbon price are hollow, since he won’t have the numbers in the Senate. He is pulling a Rudd, aligning his platform to mimic all the popular policies of the other mob in the hope that he will maximise his time in office.

The upshot of this is that, like Whitlam, Gillard’s achievements will become permanent. The right just don’t have any positive ideas. At all. Where is Sinodinos and his massive brain? The only new policy they are touting, the paid parental leave scheme, is as wet as a Bangladeshi flood plain and highly economically irrational. The modern right have nothing constructive to contribute of their own, and once they find out that reforms work (especially ones they thought up twenty years ago like Obamacare) and are too popular to remove, they have no cogent response. Abbott will be as big a disappointment as Fraser was. But Gillard will have the last laugh.

Alan
Alan
8 years ago

The great difference is that Whitlam, like every other Labor leader, understood that you have to persuade the people. Whitlam, for example, would not have relied on notoriously fickle opposition to secure electoral reform.especially when opposition support was not needed to pass the bill and the opposition’s demands were likely to weaken the reform elements in the bill. Julia Gillard is repeatedly described as a great negotiator (the Greens and Wilkie could well disagree) but her priority should always have been, and never was, closing the deal with the Australian people. It’s also hard to see this as a great reforming government when it is so timid on so many issues and so reactionary on others.

Foreign policy has degenerated into sucking up to Foreign Leader X so a good communiqué can be flourished to the Australian media. Thus the cringingly bad speech to the US congress, the subordination of Pacific relations to being seen to be doing something nasty to asylum-seekers, the abandonment of human rights as any kind of consideration in foreign policy, and leaping into bed with the thoroughly reprehensible Barisan Nasional government in Malaysia. But hey, we’ve got joint military exercises with China!

An example, the alleged Gonski reforms have been so watered down that Gonski has disavowed them. Whitlam’s changes enjoyed popular support, so much so that, for example, it took Fraser several elections before he could gut Medicare. Abbot can and will repeal most of the flagship reforms including pseudo-Gonski, as soon as he can.

If anything I think as time passes history will be less and less kind to this government.

Nicholas Gruen
Admin
Nicholas Gruen(@nicholas-gruen)
8 years ago
Reply to  Ken Parish

Not to mention East Timor

nottrampis
8 years ago
Reply to  Nicholas Gruen

nick,

I am onto the major reason why they going to be beaten easily.

Read it at my place.

not as important as Castle though!

nottrampis
8 years ago

No-one who lived around the time of St Gough would believe it was a government of any great note.

Maybe if he had won in 69 as he should have but he didn’t it.

Remember this brilliant genius thought it more important to eat a steak after being sacked by Kerr than thinking about tactics at all!

Alan
Alan
8 years ago

Ken

I cannot help feeling your own admirable commitment to seeing both sides sometimes leads you to scatter rose petals beneath the prime minister’s chariot wheels if only because so few others will.

I’m not in the business of promoting either Rudd or Whitlam for sainthood. I also know people bitterly critical of Rudd’s working methods. While that would be true of almost every prime minister we’ve had, I accept Rudd is prolly an extreme case. I just don’t see a reforming government in Canberra at present. I do see a lot of relatively minor reforms that will be extremely vulnerable to the Abbot government.

However, nobody is going to much care if the Gillard office was an Elysian paradise of elevated discussion, grace, loving-kindness and warm human feelings. The government lost 11 seats in 2010 and looks set to lose many times that number in 2013. That’s going to be the about the whole of the epitaph.

The reforms, whether you think them good bad, are going to be gutted in short order. In some cases, such as climate change, popular support for those reforms was destroyed by the present prime minister’s own U-turns. DisabilityCare will survive but enacting things that have bipartisan support is not a fast route on the road to immortality.

The government lost 11 seats in 2010 and looks set to lose many times that number in 2013. Some policies were enacted and then repealed by the next government. That’s going to be about the whole of the epitaph.

Andrew Elder
8 years ago

The virtues of hard work and a good education hardly resonate inspirationally with most people.

Sorry Ken, can’t agree with you there. We/They most certainly do. I think that is the one proposition that has the possibility of redeeming Gillard, at the coming election and/or beyond, particularly if the alternative is that these two factors will do you no good whatsoever.

Then there’s the old saw about “getting the message out”. Gillard is the first PM since McMahon to have got that job without courting the media. Time and again Gillard makes a speech or some other communication and the media, en bloc, refuse to report it (and then ask “are you frustrated that you’re not getting your message out?”).

Take this speech, for example – as good a set-piece offering as from any public figure in recent times, chock-full of policy goodness – yet the media boiled it down to two points: the election date and the fact that she wore glasses while reading it. Communication is not the responsibility of one party alone.

Whitlam bought into the politico-media relationship as it was developing. He underestimated the extent to which Murdoch was on side and the speed and degree to which he turned – at a time when Murdoch played a smaller role in the nation’s media than he does now.

Gillard bought into the politico-media relationship at its peak and can surely have no illusions about it – particularly when it comes to Murdoch, powerful in Australia but wounded and prideful and keen to assert that he’s Still Got It when it comes to wiping out governments that displease him. A victory for Gillard (whether at the coming election or some sort of vindication by history) is a victory over the message-framing of the contemporary media.

The Coalition is still playing by the old politico-media rules and are unprepared for the media to let them down, as they surely will, whether before the election or afterwards. Don’t get me started on that (and besides it doesn’t address your post).

Nicholas Gruen
Admin
Nicholas Gruen(@nicholas-gruen)
8 years ago

It’s funny you compare Gillard with Gough – I can see the points you’re making but for me the similarity is with Keating. Of course they’re quite different in some respects – he had a lot more charisma than her (I’m not sure a lot of his much vaunted ‘vision’ wasn’t borrowed and hyped too).

But the thing they both have in common is that they are creatures of the back rooms. Whereas Hawke saw himself as having a relationship with the Oz people – as did Howard, Keating had disdain for that. Gillard is not distainful but has the most extraordinarily tin ear when it comes to her relationship with the Oz people.

You wouldn’t need to be Einstein to realise that as a woman who’d knocked off a popular bloke you’d have to do what you could to diffuse the Lady Macbeth meme. Hawkie would have lapped it up “Thanks for your question Kerry, it was tough. I was a loyal deputy, and didn’t want to run. It was tough for me and eventually I had to put my party and my country first”. Thing is with Hawkie it needn’t be true but in her case it was. Yet rather than insist on her loyalty to Rudd – and the fact was she’d actually hosed down campaigns to get her to knock him off before she eventually did – she adopted an evasive ‘form of words’. Anyone with any political nous would have known you had to tackle that head on – especially when you had a good story to tell.

The most extraordinary one was carbon pricing. She went to an election with the outstanding policy being a fixed price permit scheme for two years as the backdrop to her promise to introduce carbon pricing via a citizens assembly and her promise NOT to introduce a carbon tax. Then she agreed to increase the phase in period. Then, when tackled on it instead of making some decent street theatre about her agonies in the garden, she said “I’m going to be honest, it’s a fair cop, it’s a carbon tax”.

Keating probably wouldn’t have made the second of these mistakes but certainly made the first kind of mistake – allowing his enemies to paint him as a power-hungry, lean and hungry meglo when he was capable of great charm.

Neither had any sense that the skills they needed to get where they got – the backroom skills and the parliamentary debating skills were not the skills they needed to stay in power.

I’m also in a minority it seems who thinks that the minority government was not a real political problem for Gillard. Of course it served up lots of dilemmas for her, but they were also opportunities to show how genuinely good she was in that situation. Steve Bracks had no problems in a similar situation. Just becomes a platform on which you build a base for the next election.

Still it is remarkable how badly she seems likely to do. Whether you’d vote for her or not, there have been lots worse PMs than her, just like there have been lots of worse Premier’s than Anna Bligh. It’s kind of scary how badly they’re doing given that they were both competent pollies doing a reasonable job.

Steve from Brisbane
8 years ago

The more you think about it, the more disastrous you have to assess Labor’s original decision to run with Kevin Rudd. I remain completely puzzled as to why anyone (such as Phillip Adams, or John Quiggin) continue to assess him as impressive on policy or general intellect. His appeal to the public seems to be based on sympathy for someone displaying cheery (at least in his public face), self-assured wonkiness.

This contradiction about Rudd – public popularity combined with great resentment from most of those who have had to work directly with him – has caused Labor to tear itself up in the most ridiculously self harming behaviour by a political party since the Howard/Peacock personality wars. At least they did that from Opposition, not government.

The Coalition, on the other hand, is currently comprised by just about the most unappealing set of personalities I can remember – Morrison, Abetz, Pyne, Mirabella and Bernardi strike me as carrying on in an awful fashion. Julie Bishop has always seemed to me to have a career based mainly on her robotic death stare; Brandis I understand to be highly divisive within his own party; and even Bronwyn Bishop is still hanging around for goodness sake.

There’s a real shallowness to the Coalition and its policy approaches at the moment. And you know what – attitude to climate change continues to be the very reliable guide for unreliability and general flakiness in a politician (or an economist, for that matter) both in Australia and the US.

But back to Gillard: I agree that she handled the carbon pricing issue poorly, and it is truly remarkable the public backlash that it engendered. She has made other mistakes, but most of them in political handling rather the actual economic or policy decision. Swan suffers from a real lack of charisma and ability to explain economic matters in convincing fashion. The problem of the (unexpectedly and persistently) high Australian dollar has been under-appreciated by the public, and it is very unfortunate that it only now seems to be on the way down to a level which will be definitely helpful, but not in time to help Labor. There is also irony in how the weather disasters of the last couple of years have caused economic pain which has been borne by Labor governments, when they are the ones that actually have a reasonable policy re future climate.

Life can be very unfair.

Steve from Brisbane
8 years ago

I would add: I was but a young teenager at the time of Whitlam, and may well have been too influenced by the ferocious media campaign against him, but my general feeling is still that there was a continual air of crisis, incompetence and stumbling around on economics at that time which was about an order of magnitude greater than the alleged economic harm caused by the Rudd/Gillard governments.

nottrampis
8 years ago

Steve,

much of the economic problems that occured during this time had their orogons overseas HOWEVER until their last days with Hayden, McCelland etc the government of the time was hopeless.

Only a mad catallaxian ( tautology) would even attempt that with the present government!

Senexx
8 years ago

I haven’t watched the second part yet and whilst I would take small issue with a couple of things you said, they no longer matter.

A parallel I noticed was Gough when deputy wanted to reform / go around the factions as did Rudd. The difference was Rudd was PM at the time which is in a manner of speaking one of the things that got him the boot.

nottrampis
8 years ago

as promised!!

Ken, everytime I try to get Troppo generally ( that is not because of a speficic topic I get a message saying OZblogistan is broken. This is the only blog of Jaques empire that it occurs at!)