Gough: progress despite the haters

Image from whitlamdismissal.com

It’s been a sad week. I wasn’t alive when Gough Whitlam was Prime Minister, but my parents brought me up to understand that he was a hero. When I asked mum this week how she and dad, who were around my age when Gough was dismissed, could live through this time without being driven insane with the injustice of it all, she told me how they stayed up all night, too angry to sleep, plotting revenge on Malcolm Fraser. But what more could they do back then? There was no quick way to start a protest movement like there is now, via Facebook and Twitter. There wasn’t even a way to send chain emails to bring people together.

When I heard Gough had died, I sent my condolences first to my parents, who have been staunch unwavering Labor supporters since their university days. And then I tweeted that when I met Gough, just one time, at Tanya Plibersek’s Christmas Party, he said to me ‘nice to meet you comrade’. Unlike Malcolm Fraser, whose values have moved away from the Liberal Party as he has aged, Gough stuck by the Labor Party his entire life. Because his values are Labor values. The public good. Equal opportunity. Universal education. Universal healthcare. And of course the pragmatism, character and political will to get good things done. In three years, Gough’s Labor government achieved amazing things which every Australian is still benefiting from. Gough makes me proud to support Labor. And I am as proud to support Labor today as my parents were in 1975.

The way you hear people speak about Gough now, from both sides of politics, you’d swear he had a term as long as Menzies. But he didn’t. He was incredibly unpopular and his dismissal apparently caused a political rift the likes that this country had never seen. And not everything he did was perfect. Of course it wasn’t. He was the Prime Minister. He was making decisions on behalf of the country hundreds of times a day. No matter how great Gough was, he was human like the rest of us.

One example of this ‘less than perfectness’ that my mum reminded me about was that many progressive people were disappointed that Gough didn’t support the independence of East Timor and instead sided with Indonesia. Many progressives preferred Gough’s more left-wing colleague Jim Cairns. Even though the Greens have disgracefully and offensively claimed Gough’s legacy as their own this week, presumably waiting until he died so that the great Labor man couldn’t complain, you can image just how Greens would have responded to Gough’s East Timor decision at the time, had they been there. You’ve all seen the way Greens supporters talk about the evils of the Labor Party, and how they’ve ripped up their support of Labor and written the party off for a lifetime because of Labor’s asylum seeker policy. There is no compromise with these people. There is no pragmatism. There is no acknowledgement that politicians might sometimes make mistakes or be weaker than they should be or scared or unwise. There’s no acknowledgment that major parties, by their very nature, are broad churches that must compromise in order to survive. And that’s what made the Greens opportunistic grave-robbing promotional advertisement using Labor’s greatest leader so very distasteful and so very offensive. Gough hadn’t even been buried yet and he would have already been turning in his grave. He knew how hard it was to work a great policy idea into a great policy. Which is exactly what the Greens have no experience doing, and no right to take credit for when all they really want to do is ignore this hard work and continue to attack Labor from the left.

What I’ve learned this week is that Labor leaders will always be more popular after their time in office. I think we’re already seeing this in the way that the public admire Gillard not very long after her opinion polls were as low as Gough’s. Because Labor reforms are enduring. They might not be perfect at the time, they might not go as far as the Greens would like them to, which is irrelevant when you consider the Greens don’t actually have to fight to turn ideas into policies. And of course Labor governments and oppositions will make mistakes and will be lambasted by their own supporters amongst others and will hopefully stick to their values in the end.

I have no doubt that the same values that drove Gough also drive the modern Labor Party. It’s not fashionable, nor popular, to say this. But I don’t care. I’ll be called a hack, an apologist, a rusted-on-one-eyed-in-denial-groupie, even perhaps, as I have been called, a murderer of asylum seekers. If Twitter is anything to go by, it’s far more vogue to be a left-winger whose taken a moral stand against Labor and will NEVER VOTE FOR THEM AGAIN AND WILL SHIT ON THEM AT EVERY OPPORTUNITY because of asylum seeker policy, national security laws, gay marriage, single-mothers on the dole or a range of other cherry-picked-deal-or-no-deal-make-or-break policies which seem to turn some people into angry-Labor-haters. These haters would no doubt have reacted the same way to Gough on the issue of East Timor. In modern times, it’s Bill Shorten the haters hate and we hear constantly how they can’t possibly ever vote for Labor ever again. But apparently these very same haters loved Gough Whitlam and he was perfect in retrospect. I can imagine they’ll be telling their kids in 30 years’ time that the one-term Abbott government did its best, but failed to completely undo the enduring reforms of the Hawke, Keating, Rudd and Gillard Labor governments. But where are they now, helping these reforms to eventuate? Where are they now when Labor needs every progressive’s eye on the one-term-Tony prize? They’re still bitching about whatever deal breaker policy it is this week which appears to overrides their support of every other Labor policy which we can only assume they do agree with because they haven’t ranted about their opposition to it yet.

One thing I’ve learned about politics is that, like life, it’s complicated. I’m proud to stand by Labor while they keep fighting the good fight. Implementing good public policy isn’t about ideological purity. It’s about outcomes. Outcomes can be messy, ugly, and usually less than perfect and can make enemies of powerful people. Progress doesn’t often come about in a revolution – it can often be just a preference over something worse. But any progress is better than no progress. And of course it’s preferential to be going forwards, however slowly, rather than backwards like we are under the Abbott government. My support of the Labor Party isn’t about aligning my identity so closely to the party that the minute they do something I disagree with, my faith crumbles irrevocably and I turn my back forever on the movement and become bitter and twisted, and likely to lash out. I don’t hold the unobtainable expectation that the Labor party will be everything I want them to be all the time without fail. How is it even possible to be everything to everyone when everyone has different opinions about what this ideal looks like? Being a Labor supporter is about supporting progressive policies that align with my values. This means taking the good with the bad, disagreeing when you disagree and giving credit when credit’s due – all in equal measure.

I don’t think Gough got enough credit for his brilliant political career while he was in power, just as Labor gets no credit for their previous two terms, nor for the work they are doing in opposing Abbott. People always wait to say the nicest things about people after they’re dead – when it’s too late for them to appreciate the compliments. I keep this in mind while I watch in frustration modern Labor deal with the exact same situation. Gough supported Labor to the end. I’m happy to wait 30 years for Labor to get credit, as long as in the meantime, they keep reforming. Because it’s the progressive outcomes that are important. Far more important than what haters say today.


  1. Summary: the labor party aligns with your world view, so you stick with it despite transient deviations or flaws.The same worldview probably leads you to view those who are different as ogres (or similar) for their political preferences.

    Interesting observation re “progressive” policies. It’s chronological arrogance to assume that we know better and are wiser than any preceding generation, and that “progress” from what has served our society well for centuries is necessarily wonderful.

    • The observation re sticking with the labor party isn’t meant as a snide criticism. only that we all choose groups that align with what we want the world to look like. Insofar as when the parties go away from what we want, how many years would it take to give up confidence that the party would come back to its values?

  2. In my view there was a bit too much vinegar in your attack on the Greens. As in any party there are many currents of opinion and the Greens that I know have a lot of empathy for Labor’s attempt to tread the progressive path. My view is that Labor came mightily undone when from the 1980s on a bunch of carpet baggers saw it existing and offering them a job for life, one where they could push their own selfish and mercenary self-interest. In effect, they hollowed out the ALP from the inside. How else can we explain the catastrophic drop in votes in the states such as WA, NSW, Qld., and Victoria? To my mind the members of the Greens kept to the progressive ideals than did a lot of the shady, faction vassals of the ALP and I am proud that the Greens celebrated his reforming ethos during the mourning period for Gough.

    • ” My view is that Labor came mightily undone when from the 1980s on a bunch of carpet baggers saw it existing and offering them a job for life”
      Could not agree more Conrad. Hawke started the rot in my opinion, and the present mob have absolutely nothing in common with true Labor values, but then I’m just a cranky 77 year old despairing at where we are at.

  3. Could not agree with you more, Victoria. The ALP’s fairweather ‘friends’ who believe they have the right to tear down the party because “they have always voted ALP” are either liars or concern trolls. No true Labor voter would ever contemplate bagging & undermining the party the way they try to do.

    Being involved in the grass roots of the Labor Party, in the midst of National territory, we are fighting hard against the Nats’ ‘do-nothing’ conservatism. In our neck of the woods it is the CSG fight. Now that the banning of CSG exploration/mining in far north of NSW is NSW Labor policy with the backing of local councils, the Greens have started to claim it as a victory for them!!! As if claiming Gough as a fellow traveller wasn’t bad enough this would have to take the cake. We are seeing them as untrustworthy opportunists, which is sad as they could be supporting ALP instead of ‘whiteanting’ them at every opportunity. It just plays into the hands of the Coalition.

    Interestingly, Christine Milne, while in Tasmanian state politics, formed an alliance with the Liberals to form government . This ended badly for the Greens & she lost her seat as a state MP, hence the move the the federal senate. (During Bob Brown’s time the alliance had been with Labor in an accord, of which Milne was a part of resulting in her election to Tasmanian state government.)

    @Conrad We can thank the RW shock jocks, Murdoch’s news monopoly in many of the states & the LNP complicity of the rest of the MSM for the “catastrophic” drop in ALP votes.

    • Of course the MSM is much to blame (what can be done now about Murdoch’s stranglehold?), but my view of the ALP workings is coloured by events in my local seat. Here, a traditional strong Labor seat, we had a good, hard-working Labor M.P. who was mostly progressive. Suddenly, he was turfed out by the Sydney factions and into his position was parachuted a type who was more centrist and appeared to be more corporate and pro-development in her stance. But because, to her credit, she got in the way of deals within deals regarding developments, and opposed projects that were clearly going to hurt the local community, the resultwas two senior ALP politicians covertly funded a campaign against her at the next election. The result was that our seat went to the Liberals. During all this process long-term and loyal Branch members were expelled from the Party. And that is only one microscopic view of the way the Party put its factional members’ deals before its enrolled members, and the wider community. My view is that this whole process, led on by carpet baggers and white anters, in pursuit of personal gain, alienated a lot of progressive citizens. Clearly the legacy of Gough stood like a beacon against this tide of sludge, and I am proud that the Greens showed clearly that they were aligned with the tide of progress and honesty that Gough espoused. I can’t understand some misguided Labor members getting upset over the Green’s Gough ad. It is not a big deal, and they should be happy.

  4. Sorry,my comment disappeared.
    I was around when Gough’s govt was dismissed.It was my first experience of the ALP playing fair against an opposition willing to break all rules and conventions.Still happening.
    I am working hard in Vic to help defeat the LNP here.I try v. hard not to enter into discussions of the ALP’ faults……..Albo would have made a better leader,we should be getting more positive media etc .
    .Reading Julia’s book has given me a greater insight into how magnificent her government’s plans were.The ALP at their worst are streets ahead IMO.
    Re the Greens.I admit to active support for them for some time but was sickened by their attacks on and lack of support for the Gillard govt.,who,after all gave them their only hope of achieving any of their agenda.Are the refugees any better off now,?is action on climate change?
    I think they lost many supporters to Labour.I responded to their review after the last election but have heard nothing of the results.In my case their efforts to take votes from Labour backfired
    .In the State election,the Greens seem to be concentrating their efforts to win votes from Labour supporters,and using some dirty tricks against our Labour candidate.
    Keep up the good work,Victoria;your articals are always thought provoking and well argued.

  5. I was lucky to miss the conscription birthday ballot in 1967, to protest in Canberra against Holt’s ‘all the way with LBJ’, and luckier still to see at close hand Whitlam drag Australia away from its British colonial past and tell the Americans where they could also get off. If there’s one aspect of contemporary Labor that irritates me is its subservience to the US. Not that I’ll be handing in my membership, but I did withdraw other support after the party fell in line to drop bombs in Iraq. Plibersek has done better with the Ebola issue, and I’m hoping Dreyfus will follow through on the changes to security legislation. Whitlam’s greatest virtue, I think, was sticking to principle.

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