Gough Whitlam

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Gough Whitlam : biography

11 July 1916 –

The ALP had been out of office since the Chifley Government’s defeat in 1949 and, since 1951, had been under the leadership of Bert Evatt, whom Whitlam greatly admired. In 1954, the ALP seemed likely to return to power. The Prime Minister, Robert Menzies, adroitly used the defection of a Soviet official to his advantage, and his coalition of the Liberal and Country parties was returned in the election with a seven-seat majority. After the election, Evatt attempted to purge the party of industrial groupers, who had long dissented from party policy, and who were predominately Catholic and anti-communist. The ensuing division in the ALP, which came to be known as "The Split", sparked the birth of the Democratic Labor Party (DLP). It was a conflict that helped to keep Labor out of power for a generation, since DLP supporters chose the Liberal Party in preferential voting. Whitlam supported Evatt throughout "the Split".

In 1955, a redistribution divided Whitlam’s electorate of Werriwa in two, with his Cronulla home located in the new electorate of Hughes. Although Whitlam would have received ALP support in either division, he chose to continue standing for Werriwa, and moved from Cronulla to Cabramatta. This meant even longer journeys for his older children to attend school, since neither electorate had a high school at the time, and they attended school in Sydney.

Whitlam was appointed to the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Constitutional Review in 1956. Biographer Jenny Hocking calls his service on the committee, which included members from all parties in both chambers of Parliament, one of the "great influences in his political development". According to Hocking, service on the committee caused Whitlam to focus not on internal conflicts consuming the ALP, but on which Labor goals were possible and worthwhile in the constitutional framework. Many Labor goals, such as nationalisation, ran contrary to the Constitution. Whitlam came to believe that the Constitution – and especially Section 96 (which allowed the federal government to make grants to the states) – could be used to advance a worthwhile Labor programme.

Deputy leader

By the late 1950s Whitlam was seen as a leadership contender once the existing Labor leaders exited the scene. Most Labor leaders, including Evatt, Deputy Leader Arthur Calwell, Eddie Ward, and Reg Pollard, were in their sixties, twenty years older than Whitlam. In 1960, after losing three elections, Evatt resigned and was replaced by Calwell, with Whitlam defeating Ward for deputy leader. Calwell came within a handful of votes of winning the cliffhanger 1961 election. He had not wanted Whitlam as deputy leader, and believed Labor would have won if Ward had been in the position.

Soon after the 1961 election, events began to turn against Labor. When President Sukarno of Indonesia announced that he intended to take over West New Guinea as the colonial Dutch departed, Calwell responded by declaring that Indonesia must be stopped by force. Calwell’s statement was called "crazy and irresponsible" by Prime Minister Menzies, and the incident reduced public support for the ALP. At that time, the Federal Conference of the Labor Party, which dictated policy to parliamentary members, consisted of six members from each state but not Calwell or Whitlam. In early 1963 a special conference met in a Canberra hotel to determine Labor policy regarding a proposed US base in northern Australia; Calwell and Whitlam were photographed by the The Daily Telegraph peering in through the doors, waiting for the verdict. In an accompanying story, Alan Reid of the Telegraph wrote that Labor was ruled by "36 faceless men." The Liberals seized on it, issuing a leaflet called "Mr Calwell and the Faceless Men" which accused Calwell and Whitlam of taking direction from "36 unknown men, not elected to Parliament nor responsible to the people."

Menzies manipulated the Opposition on issues that bitterly divided it, such as direct aid to the states for private schools, and the proposed base. He called an early election for November 1963, standing in support of those two issues. The Prime Minister performed better than Calwell on television and received an unexpected boost after the assassination of US President John F. Kennedy. As a result, the Coalition easily defeated Labor on a 10-seat swing. Whitlam had hoped Calwell would step down after 1963, but he remained, reasoning that Evatt had been given three opportunities to win, and that he should be allowed a third attempt to win the Prime Ministership. Calwell dismissed proposals that the ALP leader and deputy leader should be entitled to membership of the party’s conference (or on its governing 12-person Federal Executive, which had two representatives from each state), and instead ran successfully for one of the conference’s Victoria seats. Labor did badly in a 1964 by-election in the Tasmanian electorate of Denison, and lost seats in the 1964 half-Senate election. The party was also defeated in the state elections in the most populous state, New South Wales, surrendering control of the state government for the first time since 1941.