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Whitlam was a lesson for today’s politicians

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I first met Gough Whitlam in 1975 four days after the dismissal. He was attending a multi-cultural event, booked for him to attend as Prime Minister, but the crowd was just as happy to welcome him as a martyr. Indeed, like him they were maintaining the rage.

I asked him if he would give me, a reporter for the local WIN News, an interview. He asked me my name.

“Ah, Italian,” he said and we got down to business. He quickly argued that he was the victim of an outrage.

“You know, a colpo di stato!” he said. A violent overthrow of the government.

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Even though he felt there had been a grave injustice visited upon him, he didn’t attempt to call out the army to retain power. He hoped the ballot box would reverse the “Kerr putsch”.

It didn’t. He lost in a landslide, a victim of the shambles his government had become as he fought a rising tide of of scandals and dodgy deals. Behaviour that a hostile Senate was never going to let Labor get away with.

The miracle is that an administration that lasted only three turbulent years was able to change the nation so profoundly.

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Outside Parliament House, speaking about the dismissal. Photo: Getty

There can only be one explanation – the sheer brilliance, guts and determination of Edward Gough Whitlam himself. A towering intellect and a visionary who had the enormous courage of his convictions, the ability to communicate them and inspire the electorate to embrace them. Labor’s Bill Shorten captured it: “Great leaders can create national values.”

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop told parliament: “His speeches had the power to move public opinion.”

The real point is, he was in touch with the post-war ethos of the nation, held back by a sclerotic conservatism, bereft of ideas and tied to a fading empire. Britain, the mother country, was adjusting to the realities, embracing the European Common Market and leaving us largely to our own devices.

Whitlam identified the yawning gaps in national policy and assiduously set about addressing them. He met as much resistance within the Labor Party as from outside it. Famously he chided the left: “Only the impotent are pure.” He understood that vision without executive power is the prerogative of protest groups, not of a party wanting to govern.

The lessons here are enduring.

The Whitlam program, 80 policies unveiled in the 1969 election campaign launch were crafted primarily to improve the nation and then to convince voters they stood to gain from it. But more than that, when he met fierce resistance in the parliament, rather than run away from policies that he had told the nation were important, he risked it all in the 1974 double dissolution.

After that election the historic sitting of both houses gave him the numbers for universal health care, Medibank (now badged as Medicare), one vote one value (“sheep don’t vote, people do”, he famously goaded the then Country Party), and senate representation for the the territories.

The Whitlam legacy challenges our contemporary leaders. Take people into your confidence, convince them with articulate arguments and inspire them with rhetoric that does not insult their intelligence.

Vale EG Whitlam, patriot, statesman and reformer.

Paul Bongiorno AM is a veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery, with 40 years’ experience covering Australian politics. He is Contributing Editor for Network Ten, appears on Radio National Breakfast and writes a weekly column on national affairs for The New Daily. He tweets at @PaulBongiorno

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