When I was growing up, I received the understanding from my parents the Gough Whitlam was the worst Prime Minister of our nation’s history and the dismissal was something that saved us from total social calamity. So, of course, I believed he must have been terrible.
This afternoon, when I heard of Christopher Pyne’s response – that his mother celebrated his dismissal, he reminded me of a fact I don’t often wish to recall – that I was very similar to Chris Pyne in my late teen / early 20s, in most ways. The main difference was that my parents weren’t wealthy enough to send me to a snooty private school. They were both from working class backgrounds – one Ulster / Scots, the other Irish – but were no fans of “rough” unionists and genuinely believed that the Liberals were “nice” people that supported the arts and small business. Add to that my father’s belief that Gough was really a Liberal in Labor shoes (which was, in retrospect, interesting).
This is why when I was at Sydney Uni in the early 90s, I thought it ridiculous that there was a group on campus called the Dewy Eyed Whitlamites. Why celebrate the actions of such a terrible PM?
And then I grew up.
As I studied history, then went to work as a teacher in the outer suburbs of Sydney, I could see exactly why people like Gough were crucial for our maturity as a nation. I could see the benefits of multiculturalism, the increase of working class university graduates wanting to improve the lot of their fellow community members. I could see the excellence of having grand infrastructure visions (each time I drive down the grandiose Raby Rd in what was Gough’s electorate, I am reminded of his government’s vision for such areas, which led to that road, amongst other things).
There will be, of course, so many other things that will be said about Gough’s legacy by people more intimately connected to his work as PM. There will also be articles on how his government wasn’t prudent, was incompetent and the rest. But they won’t understand the legacy Gough left.
His was a government that believed that people should be at the centre of what Governments do and that ideology is important for the improvement of the lives of more than a few. It’s also a Government that polarises us as a society because they stood for things, took on opponents, took on the negative, reactionary forces. As anything Great that has change as their core business, polarisation will always be the result.
That’s not what we see from our politics today. We don’t see the braveness of ideas and thinking into the future. All of the parties have people in them fighting old battles that have nothing to do with the future and plenty about lost battles in the past. And that’s a toxic, mean spirited and reactionary way to do politics. That wasn’t Gough’s way and that’s the chief thing we can take away from those times.
I would also add that maybe when compared to the current Government, Gough’s government wasn’t really that shambolic after all. At least things got done for the increasing levels of debt we had to pay off.