Dr Martin Hirst puts paid to long held claims that the Whitlam reign was a disaster by comparing its achievements with the lacklustre maladministration that is the Turnbull Government.
IT HAS BEEN a stable myth of Australian politics for nearly half a century but was the Whitlam Government of 1972-1975 the “worst” in Australian history?
I don’t think so and believe we can now safely make the claim that Whitlam’s record of so-called disaster is about to be overshadowed by the ongoing disaster that the Abbott-Turnbull Government appears to be.
Perhaps we might even be so bold as to suggest that Turnbull’s legacy will be his ham-fisted attempts to dismantle some of the major reforms of the Whitlam period.
Was Whitlam really “that bad”?
All the ageing so-called “superstars” of Australian political journalism would agree that Whitlam’s crash or crash through demeanour was at times rash or ill-considered. They would also chime in that Whitlam’s cabinet was the most incompetent of all time. Laurie Oakes, Paul Kelly and several others have written books on the Whitlam Government and its dismissal that paint a picture of disaster and ill-considerd policy.
They would point to the Khemlani Loans Affair, Jim Cairns’ sexual affair with Juni Morosi, the debacle of some economic policies and a general air of chaos, then they would argue that Whitlam and the ALP were out of their depth, not ready to govern and lacking in individual talent or vision. They would argue that Whitlam’s dismissal by the governor-general was justified.
It wasn’t really until Whitlam’s death that the achievements of his government were properly acknowledged and celebrated.
Now it is time for history to rewrite itself
We are less than three full years into the Abbott-Turnbull era that began in September 2013, yet already it is possible to raise the argument that this is now on track to be remembered as Australia’s worst ever government, the most incompetent bunch of ministers and Turnbull the most arrogant, out-of-touch and gormless PM at least since Whitlam but perhaps now for all time.
A straight comparison is difficult given the passage of time and the changed social and economic climate, but even a cursory examination is telling enough.
Let’s start with big ticket items like health care reform and education.
Whitlam introduced Medibank as a national health insurance scheme in 1972 with the aim of providing universal health care that was not reliant on your wealth to determine the quality of care you would receive.
Turnbull is slashing public spending on health and wants to roll back even further the legacy of Whitlam. He is also undermining the National Disability Insurance Scheme which was introduced by Julia Gillard.
There have also been budget cuts for hospitals, the introduction of a co-payment scheme which raises the cost of visits to the GP and increases out of pocket expenses for patients. We now have longer waiting times for hospital admissions, lower staff-patient ratios and a shortfall in the number of doctors we need.
When it comes to education the differences are also quite stark and can be summed up very simply.
Whitlam gave us free degrees, scholarships and student financial assistance for working class kids, while Turnbull is happy for tertiary education to be so expensive that all but the wealthiest are priced out of university. The cost of some degrees is now set to reach over $100,000.
I was able to access a Whitlam scholarship to become the first person in my whole family to get a degree. Today, the grandchildren of my peers are facing a lifetime of debt to get a tertiary education that is probably second-rate and delivered by disillusioned academics who are more worried about hanging on to their jobs in the neoliberal degree factory than they are about the pass/fail rate in their classes.
Turnbull wants tertiary education reserved for the privileged folk like him who “deserve” it because they are entrepreneurial, hard-working and innovative but who, above all else, are not from the working class.
Whitlam also introduced federal funding for state schools which is now under threat again.
When it comes to Indigenous affairs and promoting the welfare of Aboriginal people there is an unbridgeable gulf between Whitlam and the Abbott/Turnbull years. We have come a long way from Wave Hill to Don Dale.
While he was the selfie Prime Minister, Tony Abbott spent a few token days in the outback pretending to care about Indigenous health and welfare and promoting shonky employment schemes run by his mates in the mining industry. Turnbull has done nothing for Indigenous well-being and won’t even commit to Abbott’s tokenism. Aboriginal culture and welfare are going backwards today and Whitlam’s initiatives are being whittled away.
Whitlam returned land to traditional owners and began the long march towards reconciliation. Today, incarceration rates, the rate of suicide and self-harm and early deaths due to preventable diseases are all on the up in Aboriginal Australia. Turnbull has cut funding for Indigenous health, welfare and legal services and just wants to ignore the downward spiral in Aboriginal well-being.
Turnbull’s response to the health, welfare and incarceration disaster in Aborignal affairs was to do nothing until forced to recently by the shocking reports of violence against youth in detention in the Northern Territory. Even then he’s stuffed it up royally. He announced a Royal Commission and then spent several days having to pick up the pieces from the explosion of anger that his inappropriate appointment of former judge Brian Martin as commissioner invoked.
Australia’s place in the world
Whitlam made Australia important but we have become a global laughing stock during the Abbott-Turnbull years. We are derided for our stance on climate change and our treatment of refugees. We have become a pariah in the world’s eyes.
Whitlam’s legacy also reaches in to international affairs. He withdrew Australian forces from an unwinnable and unjust war in Vietnam. He led the international recognition of China as an important player on the world stage. Whitlam granted independence to Papua New Guinea, increased foreign aid spending and ended the White Australia policy. Under Abbott and Turnbull, the racists are back with a vengance and openly fascist groups are parading around the streets pretending to be patriots.
In the Abbott/Turnbull era we tried to “shirtfront” Vladimir Putin, have cut foreign aid spending almost to zero and have recreated the Fortress Australia policy via draconian and largely secret border protection policies. These policies have allegedly “stopped the boats” but only at the expense of making Australia a rogue state in relation to international human rights treaties.
Abbott also spent millions on a pointless search for a missing jet liner and Turnbull continues with the incarceration of asylum-seekers in Australia’s offshore gulags. We have allowed people to be murdered, raped and continually harmed by sadistic and racist thugs in uniform under the guise of a tough on smugglers’ policy. The response of the allegedly responsible minister Peter “Potatohead” Dutton is to blame the asylum-seekers and deny any responsibility.
We should also briefly mention trying to subvert international processes of scrutiny around controversial policies that may well contravene global human rights law. Australia’s place in the world is going backwards under Turnbull.
This is perhaps a little ironic as it was Whitlam who took Australia into some of the more important international treaties on human rights. Whitlam’s achievements remain impressive and looking at this list you can easily see that Turnbull is intent on rolling back Australia’s commitment to many of these key human rights instruments.
The human rights agreements enacted by the Whitlam Government include the:
- 1953 Covenant on the Political Rights of Women
- 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons
- 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness
- 1966 International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights
- 1966 International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination
- 1967 Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees
- ILO Convention No. 86 — Contracts of Employment (Indigenous Workers) Convention, 1974
- ILO Convention No. 87 — Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organise, 1948
- ILO Convention No. 98 — Right to Organise and to Bargain Collectively, 1949
- ILO Convention No. 100 — Equal Remuneration, 1951
- ILO Convention No. 107 — Indigenous and Tribal Populations
- ILO Convention No. 111 — Discrimination (Employment and Occupation), 1958
- ILO Convention No. 131 — Minimum Wage Fixing, 1970
Records on the environment could also not be further apart. Whitlam introduced World Heritage listing for the Great Barrier Reef, Turnbull wants to remove it to allow more shipping, more mining and more destruction of the reef.
Turnbull wants to wind back environmental protections to free up polluting industries. Whitlam took the environment seriously at a time when green politics were in their infancy.
Turnbull couldn’t care less and is keen to see coal and oil continue to be staple energy sources while also winding back green initiatives such as carbon pricing and clean energy research. What makes this worse is that he is doing this at a time when the science of climate change is undeniable. But Turnbull is hostage to the dangerous conservatives in his party on the environment and other issues.
Domestic rights and Australian democracy
This Whitlam versus Abbott-Turnbull contrast is also relevant to domestic human rights issues.
Whitlam introduced the racial discrimination legislation that we have today. Turnbull had raised again the possibility of repealing 18C and 18D of the Racial Discrimination Act in order to empower the bigots and racists both within and around his Government.
Whitlam also ended conscription and abolished the death penalty.
The Whitlam Government introduced reforms of the Family Law Court to allow no-fault divorce and introduced equal rights and equal pay for women. Whitlam actually also appointed a woman to lead the Women’s Affairs ministry. The reactionary, anti-abortion, anti-feminism, pro-virginity till marriage Tony Abbott made himself minister for women (no, I’m not joking!).
Turnbull is dragging Australia even deeper into a “war” against terrorism that is making us even more suspicious, racist and xenophobic on the home front. He has laid the foundations for the growth of a virulent racist right wing in Australian politics and he seems to be happy with this. Turnbull is responsible for the One Nation numpties having a significant voice in the Senate.
Whitlam also lowered the voting age and attempted to democratise politics. He gave the ACT and the NT representation in the senate. Turnbull tried (and failed spectacularly) to rig the senate voting system to ensure a two-party monopoly on power.
Whitlam laid the foundations for Advance Australia Fair to replace God Save the Queen as our national anthem. Abbott is a monarchist and Turnbull a weak, non-commital republican with no stamina to take the cause any further.
Whitlam replaced the British honours system with the Order of Australia. Abbott reintroduced the “knights and dames” system and stupidly gave Prince Philip an Australian knighthood to derisive hoots of laughter from everyone else.
And briefly there’s this: community radio, ethnic radio, FM radio, the National Gallery, the National Parks Service, the Australian Council for the Arts, the Heritage Commission, maternity leave for public servants, the single mothers' pension, the Productivity Commission, the Australian Legal Office, the Trade Practices Act, the ACCC, the Australian Law Reform Commission, bringing Australia into the global market by cutting tariffs and the national sewage progam.
Can Abbott or Turnbull boast anything like this record on domestic reform?
Whitlam is a towering figure, Abbott is a joke and Turnbull a useless toff
There’s more to say on this but you get the picture. A comparison shows that Turnbull is approaching (if not overtaking) Whitlam as the worst PM ever but Turnbull is doing enough on his own to steal the crown from Gough.
Not only was the July 2016 double dissolution election a debacle for Turnbull, it highlighted his arrogance, lack of political skill and his self-serving hubris.
But really there’s no need for a comparison to Whitlam to make the argument that Turnbull is an incompetent charlatan. What is the Abbott-Turnbull record of positive achievement?
Here’s a list of everything that’s actually been achieved by the Abbott/Turnbull Government since the 2013 election.
- Stopping the boats*
- Failing to get the bulk of two budgets through parliament
- Screwing the NBN rollout
- Killing and torturing refugees (with the ALP’s help)
- Failing on marriage equality
- Stuffing up the 2016 election and handing the Coalition a hospital pass
- Enabling the bigots by whipping up anti-Muslim hysteria
- Making the 2016 Census a total disaster
*It was arguably the Rudd Government that actually achieved this.
Given this record, it is now virtually impossible for Turnbull to recharge his government or inspire much confidence from the electorate. He is hostage to all the grubs and nasties on the right of his own party and Abbott is stalking the corridors again.
Perhaps Malcom’s greatest achievement will be the disaster that was the 2016 election when he took the Coalition from an unassailable position to being a lame duck administration from day one after the election.
It was said of Whitlam that if he can't rule the ALP’s factions how can he govern the country? When will the Press Gallery superstars start laying the same mantra on Malcolm’s maladministration?
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