In one of those weird moments when the whole universe seems to come into alignment, I spent the afternoon of 11 November 1975 marking undergraduate essays on the dismissal of Jack Lang.
I was a very junior tutor at the University of Queensland, with a phone-less office in an overflow building on the outskirts of campus. There were neither mobile phones nor the Internet, so it wasn’t until I carried my pile of marked papers back to the History Department that I heard radios blaring from offices, and realised something extraordinary had happened.
Sir John Kerr, the Governor General, had dismissed Prime Minister Gough Whitlam and appointed the opposition leader, Malcolm Fraser, as caretaker PM. An election was called immediately, and Fraser won in a landslide.
First, for those many people not writing undergrad essays for me in 1975, a bit of background on Jack Lang. He was a Labor Premier of New South Wales through the hard years of the depression, a populist who decided that the NSW government should temporarily suspend payments of interest on government debts to British bondholders – or default on their credit obligations, depending on your political viewpoint.
The NSW Governor, an imported Englishman, Sir Philip Game, sacked the Premier in May 1932, appointed the opposition leader Bertram Stevens as caretaker Premier, and called an election that Stevens won in a landslide.
Interesting coincidence, no?
I’ve never been a member of any political party, but in late 1975, like a lot of basically left of centre people, I was pretty steamed up. For one thing, the lecturer in Australian history, the course I tutored, was Denis Murphy a Labor party activist who later became a reformist President of the Queensland branch of the party. One afternoon a few days before, I’d been in Denis’s room tallying final marks (no computers, remember) when the phone rang. I picked it up and found Gough Whitlam, the great man himself, on the other end. I was so shocked to hear his voice I dropped the phone back in its cradle and fled the room.
After the December 1975 election, Whitlam became opposition leader. He wasn’t a very good leader, just as, to be honest, he hadn’t really been a very good Prime Minister, and he left Parliament in 1978. The manner of his fall was significant. For True Believers, Whitlam was brought down by the unremitting hostility of political opponents who constantly questioned the legitimacy of a Labor government after 23 straight years of conservatives, and betrayed by an apparent ally (Kerr had Labor links that stretched back 2 decades). For them, Whitlam remains the Great Man, still receiving a hero’s welcome at party conferences, though at 97 and recently widowed, he has finally begun to withdraw from public events.
The 3 years from 1972-5 marked a watershed for Australians in both significant and symbolic ways: withdrawal from the Vietnam War, recognition of China, welfare for single mothers, divorce law reform – even a new national anthem. Many of those changes would have occurred incrementally in any case, but they took place against an atmosphere of crisis and chaos that took years to unravel.
As it happens, Jack Lang also had a long afterlife in politics. At odds with Federal Labor, Lang formed his own ‘Lang Labor’ Party, which won 9 seats in 1934, though it gradually declined after that. He remained a hero to some True Believers in NSW, amongst them Paul Keating. He was finally readmitted to the party in 1970 at the age of 94. He died in 1975, so Whitlam still has a year or so to go to beat him.
Last night, the former Prime Minister Julia Gillard broke her silence for the first time in a public interview with feminist historian Anne Summers, and the twitterverse lit up. The audience’s enthusiasm was electric, for there is a largely female, largely left of centre part of the Australian electorate that feels disenfranchised by the last election. The belief is palpable that Julia Gillard was brought down by unremitting hostility from her political opponents who refused to accept the legitimacy of her government, and apparent betrayal by some of her own side. Today, it seems, the True Believers are mostly women.
Human beings have always had a penchant for magnificent failures rather than uninspiring successes. Just think of Roland and Oliver, or the Battle of Kosovo, or the retreat from Dunkirk. But when push comes to shove, the hard truth is that a failure, no matter how undeserved or magnificent, is still a failure. The failings of Jack Lang or Gough Whitlam got sidelined in the subsequent outrage of their dismissal, and it has taken a long time for a proper evaluation of their strengths and weaknesses.
I hope that Julia Gillard doesn’t morph into Gough Whitlam, who was 7 years older than her when he left office in 1975. She can do a lot more with her next – hopefully 40+ – years, and by the look of it, she plans to. Her 3 years of government brought some great achievements, but they took place against an atmosphere of crisis and chaos that may take years to unravel.
As it happens, Malcolm Fraser turned out to be less draconian than he was considered in 1975, as well as less effective. Today, on social issues at least, he is far to the left of the current ALP – if these binary opposites of left and right still have any meaning.
For now, I’ll reserve judgement on Tony Abbott, but I finally threw away my Shame Fraser Shame badge when I cleaned out my office a couple of years ago.