Whitlam’s win

December 01, 2018

Gough Whitlam's Labor wins the election and Australia suffers a cultural revolution

On 2 December 1972 - Labor ended 23 long years in the Opposition wilderness, winning government under its leader of six years, Gough Whitlam. So began Australia’s long leftist cultural revolution which, barring the odd ebb and hiccup, continues apace today (and will accelerate under a Shorten-led Labor government).

Amidst the Vietnam War, conscription and concerns about communism to our north – including Whitlam’s controversial visit to Chairman Mao’s China in mid-1971 (see further details below) – Labor promised or implied many “progressive” social reforms, a bigger and lavishly-paid public service, plenty for the unions, a focus on “cities, schools and hospitals” and lots of “free stuff”.

Meanwhile, the 21 month-old McMahon-led Coalition administration was seeking re-election based on imperfect but nonetheless conservative economic management, keeping inflation under control, surplus budgets, increasing trade and a steady set of hands – a comparatively dry, low key message of responsibility after decades of post-WWII growth, prosperity and perpetual liberty.

The Whitlam campaign prominently featured the “It’s Time” slogan, accompanied by a vacuous but catchy jingle repeated on high rotation. Whitlam’s Labor was even supported by Rupert Murdoch’s The Australian newspaper.

Whitlam’s Labor achieved a swing of 2.5% at that election, winning eight new seats for a slim four-seat majority. 

The Whitlam era lasted just three short years, spectacularly ending with his ignominious dismissal on Remembrance/Armistice Day in November 1975. Seven years of a Fraser Coalition Government followed - a government that failed to fix many of the reckless changes and chaotic mess it had inherited. The Whitlam legacy lives on in Australia’s governmental, economic, social and cultural space – the tide of which no government or group in Australia has been able to reverse (or effectively resist for very long) since.

Mark/mourn/commiserate the beginning of the brief but seismic Whitlam Labor government's deep impact on Australian society and culture by:

Further details on the Whitlam era/legacy

Under Whitlam, Labor increased Federal government spending (a.k.a. size of government) as a share of GDP from 18.9% to 24.3%. This near-30% expansion (in GDP share) over three short years was largely caused by real spending growth of 19.9% and 15.7% respectively in his last two years. It plunged a healthy surplus budget deep into deficit – a negative turnaround of almost 4% of GDP – without it returning to surplus until the early-1980s (and then only briefly, until the next recession).

  • This rampant post-GFC Rudd-like spending was the context in which the late-1975 Australian Senate seriously considered and then “blocked supply”, helping to precipitate the Whitlam dismissal and subsequent Fraser-Coalition election landslide (13 December 1975).

The 1972 election was Australia’s 28th Federal election since Federation, wherein Whitlam built upon gains made at the October 1969 election. In 1969 Whitlam achieved a large 7.1% swing against the then John Gorton-led Coalition Government  – the one upon which the Australian play and movie, “Don’s Party”, by David Williamson was based.

The 1969 and 1972 elections were held without a half-Senate election accompanying them (as had been the case ever since the 1961 Menzies Government cliff-hanger election). The May 1974 double-dissolution election – the last that Whitlam’s Labor called and/or won – re-aligned the electoral cycles of both Federal Houses of Parliament, which no PM or government has dared alter since.

Whitlam's mid-1971 visit to China

In 1971, the communist “democratic republic” of North Vietnam was badly losing its war to engulf free and anti-communist South Vietnam. In the West, this was seen as a proxy war against imperialist Chinese and Soviet Union communism. The US, Australia, South Korea, Thailand and other anti-communist military forces were assisting South Vietnam to remain free from communist tyranny and misery, and to prevent further Marxist incursions into Indo-China. Maintaining political and economic solidarity in the West against the imperialist tide of Marxism – ie prosecuting the Cold War and not blinking – was seen as the best method to contain and eventually defeat this scourge.

  • Without capitalistic incentives to produce and innovate (and without support from larger or more productive nations), Marxist economic systems eventually wither on the vine and collapse. This decline reduces/eliminates their capacities to support wars or Marxist insurgencies in neighbouring territories (eg North Vietnam and Indo-China), let alone resource, even feed, themselves. Once on their knees, and seeking truce (or having their own people eventually topple the tyranny too weak to maintain its power over them), better terms can be extracted from such mea culpas for the path forward – a more lasting, prosperous peace.

Mid-1971 was also five years into Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution, which was purging China’s institutions, streets and countryside of dissidents to Marxist ideology – or re-educating them in camps of hard labour, torture, disease and famine. No one in the West had any truck with this second, disastrous Mao-Marxist grand plan for China* – until Whitlam and his Labor delegation of appeasement visited in mid-1971. This helped to precipitate:

changing the course of world history, which we in the West and our region are having to grapple with today.

*The Great Leap Forward was the first grand plan (1958-62 incl.), where tens of millions starved to death during Mao’s attempt to fast-track, Soviet-style, the collectivisation and industrialisation of agrarian China, with the usual methods of ensuring dissidents didn’t get in the way.

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