Gough Whitlam

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Gough Whitlam : biography

11 July 1916 –

By the time of the 1969 party conference, Whitlam had gained considerable control over the ALP. That conference passed 61 resolutions, including broad changes to party policy and procedures. It called for the establishment of an Australian Schools Commission to consider the proper level of state aid for schools and universities, recognition of Aboriginal land claims, and expanded party policy on universal health care. The conference also called for increased federal involvement in urban planning, and would form the basis of "The Program" of modern socialism which Whitlam and the ALP would present to the voters in 1972.

Since 1918, Labor had called for the abolition of the Australian Constitution, with the vesting of all political power in Parliament, a plan which would turn the states into powerless geographic regions. Beginning in 1965, Whitlam had sought to change this goal. He finally succeeded at the 1971 ALP Conference in Launceston, Tasmania, which called for Parliament to receive "such plenary powers as are necessary and desirable" to achieve the ALP’s goals in domestic and international affairs. Labor was also pledged to abolish the Senate; this goal would not be erased from the party platform until 1979, after Whitlam had stepped down as leader.

Leader of the Opposition

Soon after taking the leadership, Whitlam reorganised the ALP caucus, assigning portfolios and turning the Labor frontbench into a shadow cabinet. While the Liberal/Country Coalition had a huge majority in the House of Representatives, Whitlam energised the party by campaigning intensively to win two by-elections in 1967: first in Corio in Victoria, and later that year in Capricornia (Queensland). The November half-Senate election saw a moderate swing to Labor and against the Coalition, compared with the general election the previous year. These federal victories, in which both Whitlam and Holt campaigned, helped give Whitlam the leverage he needed to carry out party reforms.

At the end of 1967, Holt vanished while swimming in rough seas near Melbourne; his body was never recovered. McEwen, as leader of the junior Coalition partner, the Country Party, took over as Prime Minister for three weeks until the Liberals could elect a new leader. Senator John Gorton won the vote and became Prime Minister. The leadership campaign was conducted mostly by television, and Gorton appeared to have the visual appeal needed to keep Whitlam out of office. Gorton resigned his seat in the Senate, and in February 1968 won the by-election for Holt’s seat of Higgins in Victoria. For the remainder of the year, Gorton appeared to have the better of Whitlam in the House of Representatives. However, in his chronicle of the Whitlam years, speechwriter Graham Freudenberg asserts that Gorton’s erratic behaviour, Whitlam’s strengthening of his party, and events outside Australia (such as the Vietnam War) ate away at the Liberal dominance.

Gorton called an election for October 1969. Whitlam and the ALP, with little internal dissension, stood on a platform calling for domestic reform, an end to conscription, and the withdrawal of Australian troops from Vietnam by 1 July 1970. Whitlam knew that, given the ALP’s poor position after the 1966 election, victory was unlikely. Nevertheless, Whitlam scored an 18-seat swing, Labor’s best performance since losing government in 1949. Although the Coalition was returned for an eighth term in government, it was with a slim majority of seven seats, down from 41 after the writs were dropped. Labor actually won a bare majority of the two-party vote; only DLP preferences in four Melbourne-area seats kept Whitlam from becoming Prime Minister. by Antony Green The 1970 half-Senate election brought little change to Coalition control, but the Liberal vote fell for the first time below 40 per cent, representing a severe threat to Gorton’s leadership.

In March 1971, Gorton lost a vote of no confidence in the Liberal caucus. The Liberals elected William McMahon as their new leader, and he became Prime Minister. With the Liberals in turmoil, Whitlam and the ALP sought to gain public trust as a credible government-in-waiting. The party’s actions, such as its abandonment of the White Australia policy, gained favourable media attention. The Labor leader flew to Papua New Guinea and pledged himself to the independence of what was then an Australian possession. In 1971, Whitlam flew to Beijing and met with Chinese officials, including Zhou Enlai. McMahon attacked Whitlam for the visit and claimed that the Chinese had manipulated him. This attack backfired when US President Richard Nixon announced that he would visit China the following year. His National Security Advisor, Henry Kissinger, had actually been in Beijing (unknown to Whitlam) at the same time as the Labor delegation. According to Whitlam biographer Jenny Hocking, the incident transformed Whitlam into an international statesman, while McMahon was seen as reacting defensively to Whitlam’s foreign policy ventures. Other errors by McMahon, such as a confused ad-lib speech while visiting Washington, and a statement to Indonesia’s President Suharto that Australia was a "west European nation", also damaged the government.