Remembering Gough

Remembering Gough

July 28, 2015

If it wasn’t for Gough Whitlam I may well have been imprisoned or shot. Like so many of his legacies, people will argue about whether this was a good thing or not.

But by ending conscription he saved me, and thousands of others, from making a choice between going to jail or going into the army and being sent to Vietnam.

It is a common mistake where political debate resembles a Punch and Judy Show to characterise politicians as good or bad, evil or saintly, great or useless. But at the end of the day, what endures are good and bad policies. Gough Whitlam was responsible for plenty of both.

When Gough was sacked as Prime Minister, I was a young veterinarian and a member of the Labor Party. I remember exactly where I was, and was deeply shattered by the news. Australia would be a nastier place if not for Gough, and the policies he implemented that enhanced our personal freedoms were his most profound and enduring bequests.

He pulled our troops out of an unwinnable civil war in Vietnam, and lowered the voting age to 18 so that, in future, those who were old enough to die for our country could also have a say in how it was run.

He removed the death penalty from federal law which, while largely symbolic, was something for us to be grateful for. Governments are not terribly good at doing most things, and are best kept out of making decisions about whether people should live or die.

The introduction of no-fault divorces lifted a huge weight off the shoulders of many thousands of spouses and their children during a difficult time in their lives, avoiding the kinds of rancorous fault-finding we still see in some places overseas.  And while there are still many legitimate complaints about its operation, the Family Court established by Gough was nonetheless an important departure from moralistic government passing judgment on our relationships.

He also cut the sales tax on the contraceptive pill and lifted the ban on it being advertised. He set in train the transfer of crown land, land owned by an impersonal and force-wielding state, to aboriginal people in the Northern Territory.  He removed the last elements of the White Australia Policy, and granted independence to Papua New Guinea.

With the establishment of the Industries Assistance Commission, now the Productivity Commission, he ushered in a more transparent approach to setting economic policy that focussed on the national interest rather than sectoral interests. Opening up trade and diplomatic links with China was also far-sighted, as is now acknowledged by all sides of politics.

Those of us with economic perspectives drier than a toasted SAO might admire the fact he cut tariffs by 25 per cent. Sadly, this initiative could not be sustained, with the automobile and other protected industries succeeding in having tariff rates restored to previous levels within a year.

When Gough committed to removing an overbearing Government from people’s lives, he did enormous good, accruing real benefits to many people. History tends to be kind to governments that give people greater freedom.

But when Gough decided something needed controlling, it often ended badly. Regulated wage rises brought inflation and unemployment, a cruel legacy that continued well beyond Gough’s rein.  ‘Free’ university education, with no obligation to repay costs later on, meant those with lower incomes over their lifetime paid more via their taxes to those who would come to be rich.  ‘Free’ medical care, provided to all rather than just the least well off, led to hurdles and restrictions on specialist care and ever increasing waiting lists.

The centralisation of power in Canberra also infantilised the states, which have acted like needy children ever since.  Equally, welfare rises led to a major problem of welfare dependence and development of an entitlement mentality among those capable of providing for themselves.  And the cost of the Whitlam Government’s prolific spending policies brought dodgy loans, waste and deficits to be paid for by later generations.

And yet, such consequences were not a unique hallmark of the Whitlam Government; they are a hallmark of every government that fails to live within its means.

Perhaps none of us should look at Whitlam as either a great Prime Minister or a terrible one.  The one man did some great and some lousy things.  I am grateful for the great things.