The 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.
- 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