Gough Whitlam

50

Gough Whitlam : biography

11 July 1916 –

Second term

By mid-1974, Australia was in an economic slump. The 1973 oil crisis had caused prices to spike and, according to government figures, inflation topped 13 percent for over a year between 1973 and 1974. Part of the inflation was due to Whitlam’s desire to increase wages and conditions of the Commonwealth Public Service as a pacesetter for the private sector. The Whitlam government had cut tariffs by 25 percent in 1973; 1974 saw an increase in imports of 30 percent and a $1.5 billion increase in the trade deficit. Primary producers of commodities such as beef were caught in a credit squeeze as short-term rates rose to extremely high levels. Unemployment also rose significantly. Unease within the ALP led to Barnard’s defeat when Jim Cairns challenged him for his deputy leadership. Whitlam gave little help to his embattled deputy, who had formed the other half of the duumvirate.

Despite these economic indicators, the Budget presented in August 1974 saw large increases in spending, especially in education. Treasury officials had advised a series of tax and fee increases, ranging from excise taxes to the cost of posting a letter; their advice was mostly rejected by Cabinet. The Budget was unsuccessful in dealing with the inflation and unemployment, and Whitlam introduced large tax cuts in November. He also announced additional spending to help the private sector.

Beginning in October 1974, the Whitlam government sought overseas loans to finance its development plans, with the newly enriched oil nations a likely target. Whitlam attempted to secure financing before informing the Loan Council (which included state officials hostile to Whitlam), and his government empowered Pakistani financier Tirath Khemlani as an intermediary in the hope of securing US$4 billion in loans. While the Loans Affair never resulted in an actual loan, according to author and Whitlam speechwriter Graham Freudenberg, "The only cost involved was the cost to the reputation of the Government. That cost was to be immense—it was government itself."

Whitlam appointed Senator Murphy to the High Court, even though Murphy’s Senate seat would not be up for election if a half-Senate election were held. Labor then held three of the five short-term New South Wales Senate seats. Under proportional representation, Labor could hold its three short-term seats in the next half-Senate election but, if Murphy’s seat were also contested, Labor was unlikely to win four out of six. Thus, a Murphy appointment meant the almost certain loss of a seat in the closely divided Senate at the next election. Whitlam appointed Murphy anyway. By convention, senators appointed by the state legislature to fill casual vacancies were from the same political party as the former senator. The New South Wales premier, Tom Lewis felt that this convention only applied to vacancies caused by deaths or ill-health, and arranged for the legislature to elect Cleaver Bunton, former mayor of Albury and an independent. By March 1975, many Liberal parliamentarians felt that Snedden was doing an inadequate job as leader of the Opposition, and that Whitlam was dominating him in the House of Representatives. Malcolm Fraser challenged Snedden for the leadership, and defeated him on 21 March.

Soon after Fraser’s accession, controversy arose over the Whitlam government’s actions in trying to restart peace talks in Vietnam. As the North prepared to end the civil war, Whitlam sent cables to both Vietnamese governments, telling Parliament that both cables were substantially the same. The Opposition contended he had misled Parliament, and a motion to censure Whitlam was defeated along party lines. The Opposition also attacked Whitlam for not allowing enough South Vietnamese refugees into Australia, with Fraser calling for the entry of 50,000. Freudenberg alleges that 1,026 Vietnamese refugees entered Australia in the final eight months of the Whitlam government, and only 399 in 1976 under Fraser. However, by 1977, Australia had accepted over five thousand refugees.