Gough Whitlam

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Gough Whitlam : biography

11 July 1916 –

Whitlam’s relationship with Calwell, never good, deteriorated further after publication of a 1965 article in The Australian. The article reported off-the-record comments Whitlam had made that his leader was "too old and weak" to win office, and that the party might be gravely damaged by an "old-fashioned" 70-year-old Calwell seeking his first term as Prime Minister. Later that year, at Whitlam’s urging, and over Calwell’s objection, the biennial party conference made major changes to the party’s platform: deleting support for the White Australia policy and making the ALP’s leader and deputy leader ex officio members of the conference and executive, along with the party’s leader and deputy leader in the Senate. As Whitlam considered the Senate unrepresentative, he opposed the admission of its ALP leaders to the party’s governing bodies.

Sir Robert Menzies retired in January 1966, and was succeeded as Prime Minister by the new Liberal Party leader, Harold Holt. After years of politics being dominated by the elderly Menzies and Calwell, the younger Holt was seen as a breath of fresh air, and attracted public interest and support in the run-up to the November election.

In early 1966, the 36-member conference, with Calwell’s assent, banned any ALP parliamentarian from supporting federal assistance to the states for spending on both government and private schools, commonly called "state aid". Whitlam broke with the party on the issue, and was charged with gross disloyalty by the executive, an offence which carried the penalty of expulsion. Before the matter could be heard, Whitlam left for Queensland, where he campaigned intensively for the ALP candidate in the Dawson by-election. The ALP won, dealing the government its first by-election defeat since 1952. Whitlam survived the expulsion vote by a margin of only two, gaining both Queensland votes. At the end of April, Whitlam challenged Calwell for the leadership; though Calwell received two-thirds of the vote, the ALP leader announced that if the party lost the upcoming election, he would not stand again for the leadership.

Holt called an election for November 1966, in which Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War was a major issue. Calwell called for an "immediate and unconditional withdrawal" of Australian troops from Vietnam. Whitlam, however, said that this would deprive Australia of any voice in a settlement, and that regular troops, rather than conscripts, should remain under some circumstances. Calwell considered Whitlam’s remark disastrous, disputing the party line just five days before the election. The ALP suffered a crushing defeat in the election, being reduced to forty seats in the House of Representatives. At the caucus meeting on 8 February 1967, Whitlam was elected party leader, defeating leading left-wing candidate Dr Jim Cairns.

Notes