The lost vision of Gough Whitlam and second-rate copies

Gough Whitlam (July 11, 1916 – October 21, 2014) became Prime Minister of Australia as I was growing up. I remember pretty clearly the impact of this man’s policies on the country and on me in particular and so his death at the age of 98 was sad.  I made some early observations about politics and who stood for what because of political advertising in the early 1970s. The ads from one side of politics – I will leave it to you to decide which side – seemed to specialise in vicious personal attacks, scare mongering and what felt to me like hate speech and so I formed some pretty early views about power and the misuse of it in federal and state politics. Because of this, I developed a distaste for politics – a state of affairs I worry affects young people today when they should be taking an interest more than ever. I don’t think too much has changed as the experts on attack are are still convincing Australians to be scared and manipulating public discourse.  Let’s be clear at this point – I have never been a member of any political party but I do find it tragic and ironic that Mr Whitlam died at a time when Australia’s current Prime Minister and Team Australia are racing to dismantle what is left of Whitlam’s progressive policies of forty years ago. Whitlam’s death caused me to compare today with yesterday and I began to understand my distress at the state of contemporary Australia more deeply in light of history.

An article in The Conversation drew my attention to a piece written by the Institute of Public Affairs calling for Abbott, our current Prime Minister, to be the new Gough and provided a manifesto for the transformation of Australia to the far right. The missing pieces fell into place and the disasters playing out in a bizarre era of Australian politics where egos and the misuse of power are more potent and obvious than anything I have ever seen before became crystal clear. Since Whitlam, perhaps as a reaction to his management of the economy, Australia’s success is now measured solely in economic terms by both sides of politics or so it seems. The shift and loss of a social conscience has laid the ground for political extremists and fundamentalist ideologues.

From where I sit, there are obvious differences between Whitlam and Abbott apart from their ideological positions– physical stature, intellectual curiosity and capacity for oratory. Beyond the obvious, the differences are greater particularly when we think about humanity and the capacity to care about the welfare of others and society as a whole.

The Bendigo Advertiser with The Sydney Morning Herald  published a list of some of Whitlam’s achievements while in government on the 21st October. This is how I see the comparison:-

Whitlam introduced free tertiary education, established needs-based funding for schools, examined inequalities between private and state schools and introduced the first commonwealth funding for state schools. Abbott is reducing education funding except for private schools and chaplains, and creating a U.S. type tertiary education system that will reduce affordability and access to higher education.

Whitlam introduced universal health care, invested in a focus on community health and the establishment of Medibank – a commitment to equality in healthcare. Abbott is intent on dismantling the healthcare system as we know it, creating greater user-pay systems that privilege insurers, disadvantages those on average and lower incomes and will inevitably lead to poorer health outcomes and increased inequality.

Whitlam reformed social security reforms – introduced income support for mothers raising children alone, equal pay for women and non-punitive divorce, and addressed stigma, discrimination and outdated stereotypes. Whitlam was intent on leaving the 1950s. Abbott is constantly under fire for sexism and stereotypical notions of women and the conscious stigmatisation of people in lower socioeconomic circumstances as non-tax payers, bludgers, ‘leaners’ and outside society as we know it, also established through welfare reform.  He relentlessly pursues middle class welfare while punishing the less advantaged in society – intent on returning to the 1950s not leaving it.

Whitlam on human rights – abolished the death sentence, established the Legal Aid Office and the Australian Law Commission, and promoted equal rights in Indigenous affairs, drafted the land rights legislation and moved away from the White Australia Policy to name a few. Abbott on human rights, quite frankly Abbott and his cronies leave me speechless – if a right can be trodden on let’s do it and do it in a big, big way and of course fuel racism, discrimination and the marginalisation of minorities.

Whitlam stopped conscription and pulled Australian out of the Vietnam War, an anti-war position. Abbott seems to have an over-eagerness to involve Australia in conflict – is decidedly pro-military intervention and wants to play with the big boys.

Whitlam generally respected knowledge, education, the Arts and research. Abbott ignores knowledge, cuts research funding, prefers ideological positions, abolishes learned committees and is some cases prefers the advice of celebrities and mostly those with vested interests, and cuts funding to the arts and the ABC.

Whitlam lowered the voting age to 18. Abbott seems not to care what the public (or experts) think – rather he is happy with media monopolies, rewriting curriculums, and generally withholding information and limiting transparency in all activities because – after all everything is for national security isn’t it?

In my view, Whitlam had the limelight and Abbott chases it at every opportunity. Partisan politics aside how people are treated in Australia today (or at sea) is a disgrace. Judy Garland is reported to have once said “Always be a first-rate version of yourself, instead of a second-rate version of someone else”. Let’s face it cheap imitations are never the same – and if you must copy seek to emulate the good things. Unfortunately a lot of damage can be done along the way if you don’t.

Noel Pearson’s Eulogy




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