Contemporary Relevance, Comrade! - Australian Fabians
21 May, 2023

Contemporary Relevance, Comrade! Whitlam for a New Generation by Charlie Joyce


‘Throughout my public life, I have tried to apply an overarching principle and a unifying theme to my work. It can be stated in two words: contemporary relevance’ — Gough Whitlam, 2002


December last year marked fifty years since the 1972 election victory of Gough Whitlam’s Labor Party. It is a milestone which warrants reflection, particularly for those of the younger generations for whom the Whitlam government is merely the subject of increasingly distant and intangible stories. To our great regret, today’s Australia bears little resemblance to that of the Whitlamist vision. The country of education inequity, housing insecurity, punitive welfare, decimated public services, and hollowed out institutions of national culture bears little resemblance to an Australia which ‘liberated the talents and uplifted the horizons’ of its people. It is thus a worthwhile opportunity to reflect on the Whitlam legacy: as a nation, as a movement of the Left, and particularly also as a new generation seeking reform today.

This anniversary has also been given greater relevance following the 2022 federal election. The victory of Anthony Albanese’s Labor Party bears several similarities to that of Whitlam’s nearly 50 years prior. Both ended extended periods of conservative Coalition rule, finally putting to rest tired and damaging governments. Both men came to power with substantial mandates for change. Both were immediately faced with a multitude of overlapping crises both domestic and international; social, political, and economic. Both began their governments with momentum, seeking to make up for lost decades in opposition. Indeed, in many ways it appears that Albanese has consciously sought to channel the Whitlam legacy.

However, these similarities should not be stretched too far. Where Gough thundered into power with an elaborate and comprehensive program for reform, Albanese’s victory came with a stagnant Labor primary vote and a small-target policy platform. Moreover, the present Labor government aspires to a slower and more deliberative mode of governance than that pursued by the combative and zealous Whitlam. Perhaps it is warranted; the Australian population has certainly reacted strongly to the antagonistic and careless politics of the Morrison regime. Nevertheless, it may be an inadequate response to the intersecting and escalating social, ecological, political, and economic crises which we face — and which younger generations seem set to face in perpetuity.

It is therefore important to take this opportunity to reconsider the Whitlam era: a task which is both complex and contradictory. The Whitlam Government represents an exemplary case of radical reform, bursting through Menzian stagnation to usher in a modern welfare state with a bold, reformed national identity. The construction of a universal health insurance system, the establishment of free tertiary education, the passing of the Racial Discrimination Act, and the abolition of conscription are only samples of its legendary social reform agenda which fundamentally reshaped the country. 

However, attempts to write a hagiography of this era must confront the fact that Whitlam’s Government devolved into crisis and dysfunction, and was ultimately subject to a constitutional coup and a subsequent landslide democratic rejection. Moreover, the comparison of the Whitlam reform agenda with the recent platforms of democratic socialist insurgent movements around the globe, such as the candidacy of Bernie Sanders, the Labour Party of Jeremy Corbyn, and other such opponents of neoliberalism, obscures the nascent economic rationalism pursued by the government following the 1975 ALP Conference at the Terrigal Hotel. It also disguises the ways in which the professionalisation and managerialism of Whitlam’s reformist style prefigure the largely unchallenged technocratic neoliberalism that has dominated Australian politics for decades; a mode of governance which has produced an increasingly alienated government, stagnating living standards, and long declines in popular trust in politics. These factors certainly cannot be blamed on or credited to the Whitlam Government, but it is problematic to altogether disentangle them from its legacy.

Despite this, there are fundamental points of difference which separate the Whitlam Government from any major Australian political projects that have come since. Never again have we experienced such an ambitious and transformative reformism underpinned by steadfast values of humanist universalism.

Furthermore, never since has any political project of the Left inspired such animosity from entrenched structures of power as to provoke its overthrow, via obscure constitutional means or otherwise. Indeed, there are legitimate reasons why the Whitlam legacy looms over contemporary Australian politics, growing more relevant with the passing years. For a generation raised in a political context of policy triangulation and liberal technocracy, increasingly unable to reckon with the challenges of post-GFC stagnation, climate emergency, and health system breakdown, the bold Whitlam reformist vision appears equally attractive and impossible.

For these reasons, it is important today to reassess the Whitlam era,to acknowledge that, in both its shining example and deep contradictions, within that legacy resides the strongest tradition of modern Australian radical reform. It is essential to seize this tradition and give it contemporary relevance. The Whitlam Government reshaped Australian society; perhaps, it can be reshaped once more.

The Whitlam Era: Winning Power and Using Power

How should a new generation relate to the Whitlam legacy? What is this inherited tradition of radical reform? It is these questions we seek to answer in our forthcoming essay collection Contemporary Relevance: Whitlam for a New Generation. In advance of these answers, it is important to understand the events of the Whitlam era; in particular, the rise and fall of this most reforming of Australian governments.

It was 1967 when Gough Whitlam ascended to the leadership of the Australian Labor Party. He inherited a party suffering nearly two decades of consecutive electoral defeats to the dominant conservative Liberal Party-led coalition. The legacy of the 1955 ALP split loomed large, particularly in Victoria and Queensland, where preferences from Democratic Labor Party voters upheld many Liberal Party seats, a bulwark against electoral defeats for the Menzies government. The effect of this was most apparent in Victorian state politics, where the weakened Labor Party responded to its electoral marginalisation by recommitting itself as the political wing of the trade union movement. It embraced its status as a sectional party of the industrial working class. While this afforded the Victorian labour movement a certain stability, it was a stability based on electoral marginalisation. This acceptance of marginality fundamentally conflicted with the parliamentary, constitutional, and reformist faith of the middle-class Whitlam. 

There was also the matter of policy. Through this era, the ALP had remained committed to the model of democratic socialist reform pursued by the 1940s Curtin and Chifley Governments: principally, of nationalisation and state ownership. Despite Curtin and Chifley’s failures in implementing much of this program, the party did not reckon with the constitutional limits to achieving these ends and the reluctance of the Australian public to embrace constitutional reform. The fact that this public opposition was largely reflective of a conservative ruling class hostile to challenges to their power did not diminish the reality of this public sentiment. Indeed, it made it even harder to shift. 

Whitlam was no constitutional conservative. On the contrary, he reflected in 1957 that the Australian constitutional framework ‘enshrines Liberal policy and bans Labor policy’. Moreover, he detailed in 1961 that the experience of campaigning for Curtin’s ultimately failed 1944 constitutional changes left him resolved to do ‘all [he] could to modernise the Australian constitution’. Nevertheless, Whitlam was a pragmatist. He argued that the public reluctance to endorse constitutional change must result in a recalibration of ALP policies towards the construction of a democratic socialism within the present constitutional framework. Anything less would be a concession that reformism in Australia was impossible, which Whitlam would not permit.

In the 1960s, Australia was undergoing profound transformations. The long post-war economic boom and Keynesian policy consensus had led to a massive expansion of the middle class, who rushed from the urban centres, the regions, and post-war Europe to make their newly comfortable lives in the rapidly growing suburbs. This expanding middle class and the corresponding baby boom led to a transformation in social relations and traditions. Higher education expanded to fill the growing demand for complex labour in the increasingly technical economy, and universities became hotbeds of transformative youth social experimentation and radicalism. Reflecting the social optimism of the time, movements for change and justice burst from this generational milieu, demanding peace, equal rights for women, an end to racial discrimination, and national liberation for decolonising countries. The trade union movement in Australia also embraced this radicalism, with half a million workers striking across the country in 1969 demanding an end to draconian anti-worker laws. This profound optimism, radicalism, and momentum of the rising baby-boomer generation shocked Australia out of its Menzian conservatism. It heralded the possibility of a radically different society.

It was in this context that Gough Whitlam ascended to leadership of the ALP. Labor ‘modernisers’ such as Whitlam, Lance Barnard, Clyde Cameron, and Don Dunstan saw in this growing social radicalism the potential to enact the Party’s vision of egalitarian reform. These modernisers also recognised a sharp disconnect between these processes of social transformation and the Labor Party’s electoral stagnation. For this reason, Whitlam embarked on a program of party reform and policy revision to streamline the path to power.

Most notably, this involved a controversial federal intervention into the Victorian branch of the ALP. This intervention transferred power from ossified Victorian party bureaucratic structures, dominated by industrial union officials who opposed the Whitlam leadership, to parliamentary and democratic branch structures. It also involved a revision of Labor Party policy, particularly with regards to health and education. Recognising that the Constitution prohibited nationalisation of health and education without ‘just’ compensation, policy emphasis in these areas shifted to an outcome-oriented egalitarianism. The policy of state-run healthcare shifted to one of state provision of health insurance: the origins of contemporary Medicare. More controversially, the policy of support for state-run public education shifted to a needs-based funding for the entire education sector, including independent and Catholic schools. Though anathema for hard-line socialists in the ALP, this policy shift was a shrewd and politically necessary step that attracted support from the constituencies serviced by non-government schools, including Catholics and the middle class. These policy shifts, prompted by political necessity and constitutional clarity, reflect the commitment to contemporary relevance pursued by the Whitlam leadership. 

The political substance of Whitlamism through this period is often obscured by criticism from Left and Right, subsequent political changes, and linguistic shifts. It is possible to view Whitlam, the middle-class party ‘moderniser’, as a precursor to the modernisers of the 1980s and 90s in Australia, New Zealand, and Britain, who shifted their labour parties away from socialist roots towards a ‘Third Way’: a progressive-inclined technocratic accommodation of the global neoliberal transformation. Such a view is often advanced by Third Way adherents seeking to claim the Whitlamite tradition, as well as by their critics on the Left. Nevertheless, where these Third Way modernisers eschewed universalism in favour of marketisation and means-testing, Whitlam remained committed to universal social programs. The Hawke Government’s transformation of the policy of free tertiary education into the income-contingent loans of the HECS system is indicative of this shift. Moreover, where Third Way social democracy pursued longevity in government, the Whitlam government accepted that reform may often be electorally detrimental. Whitlam sought power, but only as a means for reform and social progress. 

While Whitlam was always a stalwart of the Right of the Labor Party, it is deceptive to portray him as opposed to socialism. Whitlam certainly shifted his party away from a steadfast commitment to the socialist shibboleth of public ownership. However, he did so out of commitment to leading a ‘broadly based socialist and radical party’ which could construct a majoritarian electoral coalition for change and then rapidly implement a reform agenda. Political and constitutional circumstances significantly constrained the models of reform the ALP could pursue; Whitlam responded accordingly. To do otherwise would have been to continue the marginalisation of the Labor Party which had occurred over the previous two decades. Whitlam was also the last leader of the ALP to publicly describe himself as a socialist. His apparent moderation may have prefigured changes to come, but there is a marked distinction between the pragmatic reformism of Gough Whitlam and the seeming abandonment of socialist principles by subsequent Labor leaders. 

Ultimately, Whitlam’s approach can be summarised — as he often did — as ‘contemporary relevance’. He sought to develop the political relevance of the ALP, shifting the party’s priorities to suit the concerns and aspirations of the Australian people. To be clear, contemporary relevance would always come first, but only as a means to the end of winning power and enacting reform. This lesson in pragmatism motivated by deep principle should be a model for those seeking reform today.

Unravelling: The Dismissal and After

The Whitlam Government’s time in power was infamously brief. A constitutional coup engineered by a Governor General acting outside his remit transferred power from the democratically elected Labor government to the minority Liberal Party in response to an escalating series of crises and a perceived parliamentary deadlock. However, the shock and awe generated by this undemocratic dismissal was followed by a resounding democratic rejection of the Whitlam Government in the 1975 election. This final undoing at the 1975 election represented the end of a transformative, if turbulent, period in Australian political history. Although the circumstances were not in its favour, it is difficult to argue that the Whitlam Government was not destined for defeat. 

However, this should not provoke a determinism that the Whitlam reformist project was doomed from the beginning. Indeed, such a determinism is advanced by Right- and Left wing critics of Whitlam. The former have argued that Labor’s radical reform agenda was always doomed, given the ‘irresponsibility’ and ‘dishonour’ associated with the Loans Affair, the Cairns-Morosi embarrassment, and the rising economic woes of 1974. They have argued that such governmental conduct vindicates the system of constitutional monarchy — the Governor General merely acted prudently to restrain the dysfunction of the government. The latter — Left wing critics of Whitlam — posit that Australian capitalism and its entrenched power structures could never entertain such a reforming project. Indeed, persistent discussion of the roles of ASIO, the CIA, and the British monarchy in the dismissal reflect this belief that Whitlam would always fail in the face of entrenched international and domestic opposition. 

The implication of both narratives is the impossibility of substantial reformist politics in Australia. While such fatalism has its own attraction, it cannot be seriously entertained. To do so is to diminish the real achievements of both the Whitlam era, as well as prior and subsequent democratic victories in Australia. Instead, we must seriously analyse the real ways in which the Whitlam project came undone, seeking to learn from these failures just as we learn from their victories.

What is true however, is that the crisis of the 1970s which unmade the Whitlam Government also created the conditions for the failures of social democratic politics in subsequent decades, in both Australia and in comparable countries. The breakdown of the Keynesian consensus through the 1973 Oil Shock and subsequent inflationary crisis created an existential challenge for the model of collaborationist welfare state social democracy pursued through the post-war era. The global neoliberal turn ended inflation and stagnating profits by breaking the back of wages, and the attempt by the Hawke-Keating Government to negotiate this transformation while maintaining the conditions and power of Australian workers came undone through the subsequent fragmentation and decline of organised labour. 

Today’s economic environment of low unionisation and casualised work presents a major barrier to organised working class politics and undermines the potential of a Whitlam-style coalition between the organised working class and a socially conscious middle class. Indeed, the ‘Brahmin Left’ dynamic famously described by Thomas Piketty, where the Left is primarily constituted by people of middle income and high education, arguably has its roots in the baby boomer middle class radicalism that Whitlam championed. The victory of the Albanese Labor Party, and moreover of many global Left-of-centre parties since the beginning of the pandemic, present interesting cases in the much theorised decline of social democracy. Nevertheless, the weakness in the 2022 ALP primary vote demonstrates the fragility of its victory and reflects the existential challenges to social democracy. 

The Path Forward — Whitlam for a New Generation

The challenges faced by any reformist project today are innumerable, in Australia and elsewhere. For young people, a failure to confront and overcome these challenges will mean a failure to act on the existential crises that define our time. Yet despite these challenges, hope remains. 

Regardless of the fragmentation of pre-neoliberal organised political life, politics is not dead. The social movements of the past decade, including Occupy, School Strike for Climate, and Black Lives Matter show that people remain willing to mobilise against injustice and for a better world. Despite their failure to positively transform conditions for the better, these movements have de-legitimised the present order. It remains to be seen whether a new generation can transfigure this reactive mobilisation into an organised and protagonistic coalition for radical reform. 

If we decide to embark on this course, the legacy of the great Australian reforming government of Gough Whitlam will have more contemporary relevance than ever. It will be essential to seize this radical tradition of motivated pragmatism, majoritarian coalition building, and zealous reform. It is our greatest inheritance. We need it to build a better country and a better world. 


Charlie Joyce is a contributing co-editor of the forthcoming Contemporary Relevance: Whitlam for a New Generation, a forthcoming collection of essays by young Australians reflecting on the relevance of the Whitlam government today. This article was written in intellectual collaboration with Contemporary Relevance co-editors Swapnik Sanagavarapu and Henri Vickers. 

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