Magazine article Review - Institute of Public Affairs

Julia Gillard vs Gough Whitlam

Magazine article Review - Institute of Public Affairs

Julia Gillard vs Gough Whitlam

Article excerpt




James Paterson asks, is Gillard really worse than Whitlam?

In April 201 1 Prime Minister Julia Gillard delivered the first annual Gough Whitlam oration at the Whitlam Institute at the University of Western Sydney. The Institute, founded in 2000, lists as its objectives the promotion of 'equality' and the commemoration of the 'life and work of one of Australia's most respected prime ministers'.

Gillard, Australia's 27th prime minister, did not miss the opportunity to heap praise upon Whidam, the 21st. Crediting him for helping to 'create modern Australia', and for having 'forever changed the way Australia provides health care', Gillard also singled out Whitlam's key role in transforming the Labor Party organisation from opposition.

Unsurprisingly, as the man who returned the Labor Party to government after 23 years in exile, Gough Whitlam is held in high esteem by Labor devotees. In no mean feat, Whitlam rehabilitated a party that had been defeated - almost always easily- at successive elections since 1949 by the Liberal Party, which was fast becoming the natural party of government. In doing so, Whitlam overcame many previously insurmountable political obstacles, and also led reform of the Labor Party's outdated structure and ideology.

It is not as if Whitlam's government was totally bereft of achievements, even from a classical liberal perspective. His government's decision to end national conscription was undoubtedly a major advance for individual liberty in Australia. He also ended the death penalty for federal crimes. In perhaps the only example of sensible economic policy making, the Whitlam government unilaterally slashed import tariffs by 25 per cent in 1973, a policy shamefully reversed by incoming Liberal prime minister Malcolm Fraser in 1975.

Of course, as the historical record shows, the government led by Gough Whitlam was not only disastrous from an economic perspective, but also so widely regarded as a failure that the ALP suffered one of the worst ever election losses under his leadership in 1975, less than three years after coming to office.

Yet even the most jaded anti-Labor critic would grudgingly acknowledge that the Hawke government, elected in 1983, avoided many of the mistakes of the Whitlam era. Indeed, some go as far as recognising the reformist zeal of 1980s Labor as the cornerstone of Australia's modern prosperity. Though undoubtedly profligate with public money, particularly under Keating's prime ministership, the Hawke-Keating governments have an enviable record of achievement which spans floating the dollar, deregulating the financial markets, privatising vast swathes of inefficient state businesses and opening Australia to global trade.

How then, does the current government measure up against other post-war federal Labor governments? Can it boast the reformist credentials of the Hawke-Keating era, or does it echo the policy ineptitude of the Whitlam years?

Politically, the answer is clear, as Julia Gillard plumbs poll depths that would make the most hardened true-believer wince. In almost every measure - two party preferred, primary votes and leader approval - Labor and Prime Minister Gillard are at historical lows. While an election is likely still years away, and the federal opposition's position by no means secure, current polling points to a 1 975-style bloodbath for the Labor Party. Julia Gillard may yet prove to be an equally politically disastrous leader for the ALP as Gough Whitlam.

A comparison in policy terms is more difficult. Indeed, in some ways a direct comparison between the current Gillard government and Whitlam's is unfair. After all, the current government should be much better. Since the 1970s technology, which has transformed productivity in the private sector, has advanced dramatically. Thanks to the bipartisan pro-reform political consensus of the 1980s, Australia is also much wealthier, healthier and arguably more secure than it has ever been. …

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