Politics Opinion

Governing for the people: Gough had the guts to get things done

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Gough Whitlam during his 1972 election win (Photo courtesy of Bill McAuley)

As we approach the 50th anniversary of the election of the Whitlam Government, Victor Kline asks, what would Gough do to solve the chronic deficiencies of our current society?

MY PROBLEM is I am old enough to remember the root and branch reforms of the Whitlam Government, so it’s hard for me to get excited about many of the new Labor Government’s policies. Sure, there are some promised reforms and that already puts them way ahead of the Morrison regime.

But both major parties are cut from the same neoliberal cloth, which means they fight over ten centimetres when we have ten kilometres of problems to deal with. There is no attempt at overview, at finding big solutions to big problems.

Therefore, as each new "solution" – or lack of solution – disappoints me, I find myself asking: what would Gough do?

Full disclosure — I was and am a huge Whitlam fan. But I would argue that is no bad thing. He was a man with a vision; a politician with actual solutions to chronic deficiencies in the society of his time. And most of all, as a leader, he embodied justice and compassion for the nation. 

So, as we approach the 50th anniversary of the election of the Whitlam Government, what would Gough do to solve the chronic deficiencies of our current society? What would he bring to the intellectual and political banqueting table? Well, he would bring a banquet, for starters. Not the peanuts and cordial his successors, on both sides of the aisle, would have us survive on.

I know the first thing he would see is the 3.2 million "men and women of Australia" living below the poverty line. It would near break his heart. So, I imagine his first act would be to introduce a federally funded and locally administered job guarantee scheme, to ensure everyone had a secure full-time job on a good living wage.

His advisors would warn him against that. It will destroy the gig economy, they would tell him — on which so much modern business depends. But Gough would know that investing in putting people back to work only stimulates the economy. It restores dignity to the struggling and increases profits for others.

We are Australians, he would scold them. We don’t scrounge for a living. Australians should never go hungry. Australians should never be homeless. And when advisors warned the big end of town would come after him – would get the media to crucify him – he would proclaim: Just let them try!

Similarly, Gough would double JobSeeker, knowing that people who are down and out don’t save their meagre incomes. The money they get is immediately spent and respent across the economy, stimulating small and large businesses alike, and creating jobs.

Assuredly, he would end homelessness and end it quickly. Short term, he would accommodate the homeless in hotels, hostels, government facilities and empty apartment blocks. He would billet them if he had to. But he would not allow himself to walk the streets of his beloved Sydney, passing people living rough.

In the long term, he would accommodate the homeless by investing in public housing, knowing that every new house built stimulates the economy, giving work to tens of thousands and business opportunities to so many.

Gough would give us affordable housing, a long overdue Bill of Rights — a university sector properly funded for research, so it didn’t have to depend on foreign students to survive.

He would not bow down before Rupert Murdoch. He would set about restoring cross-media ownership laws and introducing anti-monopoly laws. He would not hide and cower from that bully, but would stare him down and drive him from our shores.

Equally, Gough would advocate for truth in journalism and political advertising and put strict limits on political donations. He would be scandalised by how the modern political party is bought and paid for.

He would immediately abolish mandatory detention of asylum seekers. He would shudder at that worst stain on our national character — that iniquity which has trapped people behind bars, sometimes for more than a decade, for doing nothing more than asking for our help!

He would see no point in any further concession to fossil fuel. He would cringe at the pettiness of debate about whether we should have 33 per cent or 46 per cent net-zero emissions by 2030 and get on with doing what we need to do as proper global citizens.

"Gough's ICAC" would actually have the power to see crooked politicians go to gaol — not just pretend to have that power by telling the country an ICAC is coming... one "with teeth".

And he would give us back two of his gifts which have been rudely stolen from us: free tertiary education and a properly funded legal aid system which evened the playing field and stopped deep-pocketed bullies from litigating their poorer opponents into bankruptcy.

Despairing at what had been done to his Medibank, Gough would give us one of the best health systems in the world — something he was well on the way to doing the first time around.

You might well be thinking if Whitlam did all that so quickly, he would be making the same mistake he made the first time — terrifying people with too much too soon. But really, isn’t it time we put that myth to bed?

Gough was attacked by an anxious establishment, which pulled in every possible combatant from then-Queensland Premier Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen to the governor-general of the day, to stop his reforms. It feared he was about redistributing wealth and would have attacked him no matter how fast or how slowly he went.

The irony is that Gough was never about redistributing wealth. He understood that wealth is not a limited pie. If you give an unemployed person a job, the money they are paid in wages is not paid at the expense of the boss’s profit. It grows the boss’s business and increases their profit. He knew the world didn’t have to be about winners and losers, about the haves and the have-nots.

He knew that it was possible for the working person to be in work and have food on the table, for the middle class to be very comfortable, and for the wealthy to be wealthy, all at the same time. After all, that was the world he grew up in. He knew the wealthy don’t need to be obscenely wealthy – to crush three million of their fellow citizens – to be secure.

Gough would bring that understanding to solving the injustices and inequities of our current society. He probably would be attacked again – and even defeated again by the powerful elite – but that wouldn’t stop him from trying.

And in the process, he would leave a legacy of justice and compassion built into our institutions, which would take the fearful and the greedy another 50 years to dismantle.

Victor Kline is a writer and a barrister, whose practice focuses on pro bono work for refugees and asylum seekers. You can follow Victor on Twitter @victorklineTNL.

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