It’s Time?

In the midst of all the Whitlam nostalgia over the last week or so I couldn’t help thinking of the contagious hope and excitement that was generated by the “It’s Time” campaign theme in 1972. It still sends tingles down my spine listening to it today.

The year of Whitlam’s election was my first year at the University of Sydney on a Commonwealth Scholarship. My parents certainly could not have afforded to send me there. By the next year it didn’t matter because tertiary education was free, at least for a while. That year I was also looking down the barrel of conscription when I turned 20 in 1973, with the strong possibility of ending up in Vietnam. That prospect also ended with Whitlam’s election.

Can you imagine running an election campaign for Bill Shorten and today’s ALP using the “It’s Time” theme?  Time for focus groups, expedient cynical policies; time for me-tooism on data retention and anti-terror laws, and sending the troops off to make a risky token gesture supporting the Americans fighting ISIL in Iraq. Time for tiptoeing towards supporting Abbott and Morrison on turning back asylum seeker boats. Time for doing a deal on a reduced Renewable Energy Target, while opposing essential tax reform because the focus groups dictate it.

Exciting, inspiring, no? I can hardly wait to rush down to Labor headquarters and renew my long lapsed membership.

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.
This entry was posted in Politics - national. Bookmark the permalink.
Subscribe
Notify of
guest
23 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
zoot
zoot
7 years ago

Hear, hear!

john Walker
john Walker(@johnrwalker)
7 years ago

Ken
I was only 15 in 1972 and do not really remember it that much.
Re conscription to Vietnam, is it not true that we had pulled out, all but a small group (about 200) of advisers , well prior to Whitlam becoming PM?

steve from brisbane
7 years ago

I hardly find these comparisons very fair, except for the bit about “focus groups” (to any extent they use them.)

Whitlam was elected at a particular time of social and cultural change, and since then, with the ground having been conceded by the Right (eg on matters such as Medicare, divorce laws, equal pay, recognition of de facto relationships, recognition of China!) there is only so much left for the Left to grandstand on. As far as I’m concerned, it’s a good thing that both parties have moved to the centre somewhat on many matters, and while that may mean you don’t see the Whitlameque enthusiasm repeating itself, so what?

It’s particularly odd, Ken, that you mention the asylum seeker issue, as you have gone into detail here about what a difficult problem it is, and how the Left’s (now the Green’s) idealism about it didn’t pan out in practice.

That’s not to say that I don’t wish that on some issues politicians would not “play it safe” – the current obvious one being the unwillingness to talk frankly about increasing tax to meet the revenue spend that is popular with voters (for disability services, better education, etc.) But it is a tricky game, getting the timing of such frankness right. (See Hewson, John.)

steve from brisbane
7 years ago

I also meant to add: you can imagine how badly Labor would get burned on obstructing security laws if there was any attack on police, the military or a Parliament in Australia within the next few months. I’m also sure I’m not the only one thinking that such a copy cat attack would be completely unsurprising. They have to be very careful on how that one’s handled

conrad
conrad
7 years ago

Or worse, if there was an attack that killed large numbers of people. If that was the case, I imagine there would be utter hysteria, and the political discourse would be entirely changed.

conrad
conrad
7 years ago
Reply to  Ken Parish

I personally don’t think they should, but I think it’s fairly obvious why they do. I also don’t think it’s just whether something happens or not — it’s the whole spectrum of possibilities and they all have different risk profiles. I also suspect they think it is one of the things they think they could lose the election with under any circumstances because it’s potentially a very hot issue (just look at what the Libs did, where George Brandis was forced to go from its great to play hate-your-neighbour to what we have now).

For example, let’s say they didn’t support it. If nothing happened, that might push Abbot over the line given how close things still are. If something minor happened, that would definitely push Abbott over, possibly for years. If something major happened, that would destroy the Labor party for years and years. So there is almost no political reward compared to very serious risk. So other issues are simpler easier.

You might like to compare that to other issues you mentioned where you really could get some reward. For example, let’s say they took children out of detention. If no more refugees turned up by boat, they could call themselves compassionate and win some votes. Even if more did turn up, I doubt it would make too much difference.

I suspect part of the reason we don’t hear anything now is that they’ve simply worked out what Abbott worked out. You don’t need to propose anything to win, and you may as well wait until you get in before you do anything (as Abbott did but is now failing to implement). Even for things like sending soldiers overseas, I doubt they care — it’s not like the Australian public does (even when they die it appears), and the arguments for sending them are clearly more mixed than other issues.

derrida derider
derrida derider
7 years ago
Reply to  conrad

It’s what the French call cran (roughly, guts) Conrad. Labor took risks in the 60s and 70s for what it believed and in 1972, and still in 1983, reaped the reward.

You will slowly lose the poker game if you only ever pass. This is not to imply that you shouldn’t ever pass – pick your fights by all means, but make damned sure you do pick some, and make them savage ones.

The point is that playing it too safe carries a long run risk too – that you will be seen, correctly, as corrupt cowards not worthy of anyone’s vote. And anyway on the specific issue supporting these laws puts you in a weak position to pin the government when the absolutely inevitable scandal of misuse of them arises (think Habib), which could also easily happen just before an election.

David Walker
David Walker
7 years ago

Ken, I hear what you’re saying, and have a deal off sympathy for most of it. I’m from a later generation, and we didn’t have a TV in 1972, so the nostalgia thing doesn’t work for me, but the ad’s emotional power is obvious.

On the other hand, Whitlam’s way is not the only way that Really Real Labor (TM) can act. The less dramatic and more pragmatic approach of Hawke and his colleagues, and indeed of Chifley and his, has its own appeal.

Shorten is in the Hawke/Chifley mould. Like them, he seems to believe in a model where you get into government, then govern. Last time he was in government, he got up the National Disability Income Scheme and the Future of Financial Advice reforms, which seems a pretty good aaort for a bloke who wass a junior minister for much of that time. He just pushed his reforms through doggedly, making his case and winning over some of his opponents in the process, to the point where the attempt to roll back FoFA has actually hurt Abbott politically. At the moment Shorten’s doing the same thing on marriage equality, confronting critics and making his case.

In all this, Shorten’s the anti-Whitlam. But his style doesn’t look obviously idiotic to me. In the aftermath of the Rudd governments, I suspect it’s the best way Labor can go.

P.S. I understand the point about focus groups. But if you are going to appeal to idealism, then free uni and draft abolition are not necessarily the two policies to discuss. If you were a 40-year old factory worker in 1972, your advocacy of those ideas could be called idealistic. If you were 19 and male, they inevitably raised the issue of self-interest. In your young male demographic in 1972, those are the two policies that would have focus-grouped their heads off.

steve from brisbane
7 years ago
Reply to  David Walker

A very fair take on the matter, I think.

And you certainly don’t need to be a “bold vision” leader to make a big difference. Look at John Howard’s steady style and lack of physical or oratory charisma (even though I found his modesty quite endearing.) Insisting that politicians have a “big vision for the nation” is for the birds. We just need practical leadership moving towards practical ideas incorporating economic responsibility and taking advice from sensible sources. And that’s not what we’re getting from the Abbott government.

RexR
RexR
7 years ago

What we need I think is years, even decades of uninspiring conservative political control over the country. We need to let it develop into a ‘born to rule’ mentality, and a self satisfied smugness only interested in maintaining the status quo. We need to become more insular as a nation, withdraw from global initiatives unless it involves trade or war. We need to strengthen the social hierarchy, and make people learn their place. We need to jack up tariffs and increase the censorship powers. We need an opposition that is bland, grey and hidebound by stultifying and completely outmoded rules, and a power structure that will not allow even the most obviously beneficial change lest it decrease the influence of key individuals. We need political parties who are beholden to media moguls, and dare not threaten their power or influence.

I think we’ve still got a way to go yet.

Marks
Marks
7 years ago
Reply to  RexR

Yes, I can see that vision taking many long weeks to come to fruition.

I used to be and still am Not Trampis
I used to be and still am Not Trampis
7 years ago

The ONLY reason Whitlam and others didn’t use focus groups was because they were not around then.
Perhaps if they were he wouldn’t have stuffed up as much.

Me I am glad there are no Whitlam’s around today but then I lived in the 70s and REMEMBER it!

I used to be and still am Not Trampis
I used to be and still am Not Trampis
7 years ago
Reply to  Ken Parish

Ken, for a start you are older than I!

On focus groups you don’t get it. ALL politicians use them. To take an american example. Clinton used them correctly yet Dole didn’t.
I beg to differ on a lot of Whitlam legislation ( both that was passed and most that was rejected by the Senate). It was always going to done. Australia had for far too long had Liberal government thus when ‘Bad’ Malcolm came to power in 1975 he did things he actually opposed pre 1972. Quite a few Liberal State governments had ‘progressive’ legislation post Whitlam as well.

I would add Murphy, Grassby, Stewart, Doug McClelland , Bishop, Jones, Bryant at least to the list.

As I have said at my Blog Whitlam had a lot of good policies he simply didn’t recognise you could not implement them all at once.
He was way too sentimental in favouring people for Cabinet in 1972 and paid for it.

He never had decent people management skills and when Barnard left it was a matter of time!

derrida derider
derrida derider
7 years ago

[Whitlam] was way too sentimental in favouring people for Cabinet in 1972

In those days Caucus selected Cabinet, not the PM. Whitlam disdained some of those on your list from day one – but he had no choice.

Still it’s true people management was never his forte, unlike Bob Hawke whose main strength it was. Bob was less persuasive face-to-face, but he was a great chairman of Cabinet meetings and knew how to control his ministers while still getting the best out of them. Gough didn’t.

I used to be and still am Not Trampis
I used to be and still am Not Trampis
7 years ago

DD ,I didn’t say Whitlam could select then merely favour.

Even then Making Hayden treasurer was something most economic ‘reformers’ at the time heavily favoured and quite a few thought Whitlam would do this. He proved sentimental.

If any person has the time go back and read some AFR’s from before the election and just see how much people were expecting.
Whitlam was expected to be a major economic reformer.That is why the Late Lord Paddy of Balmain joined Hayden’s staff and wore the appropriate Tshirt which was not black!

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

I don’t really remember the ad all that well but like you say David, it is moving without any memory of it. Hard to think of any other piece of modern Australian political propaganda that is. Quite remarkable really.

On Shorten, he’s an enigma to me. What skills I have in reading his body language – lead me to be suspicious of him as an apparatchik’s apparatchik. Yet if you look at his record it is as David says – full of achievement – as much as any minister in the previous government I would have thought. The NDIS is a huge achievement.

I accept that the Opposition may feel compelled to go along with the government. But here’s what I don’t get. Why doesn’t it just agree to back the government if it inserts a sunset clause into the legislation. Since the Government says that it’s implementing these changes reluctantly, the Opposition can take them up on it. The Government can put its money where it’s mouth is and make it temporary – to be renewed on a bi-partisan basis.

Mike Pepperday
Mike Pepperday
7 years ago

As RexR above so eloquently reminds us, times are different now. But one thing stays the same: for the left to get up, it must be led by a charismatic leader. Confirming examples, here and overseas, are numerous, refutations are difficult to think of. There is no harm in charisma on the right but the left needs it. On that basis, however competent he may be, apparatchik Shorten will never be PM.

The “It’s Time” clip led me to this one
https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=e1k-VXszb54

which is Turnbull’s eulogy for Gough. There is someone without charisma whose competence suits him to conservative PMship.

derrida derider
derrida derider
7 years ago

Hmm. Ken, we seem to be the same age and in 1972 in the same situation. I too was the first in my extended family to go to uni, on a Commonwealth Scholarship. I had a younger sibling who could only go to uni when tuition became free. And conscription was a big, big motivator in doing my first political activity – handing out how-to-vote cards.

Australia is a much less idealistic place than it was then. We’ve grown old, selfish and narrowminded – the ALP just reflects that.