Over the past week so much has been said of Gough Whitlam’s tumultuous life, and so many fine words have given voice to all the silent tears of those whose lives he radically changed. There is not much more to be said of the man himself, least of all from someone who was born nearly 20 years after his sacking, but there is, I think, a lot we can take from his brief time in office that is relevant to the situation we face today.
As great as Gough was, perhaps a more accurate understanding of the man would be that Gough was the conduit of all the pulsing energy of the times; he was a leader wise enough to open the doors of state to the surging energy below, to the flow of thought generated by a million movements – the Freedom Rides, the Land Rights struggles, women’s liberation, the sexual revolution, the multicultural shift, the anti-Vietnam and anti-conscription movement, the anti-Apartheid movement, the intellectuals and the artists. There was, you could say, ‘movement at the station’, and Gough was the personification of all this energy, but what made the legend was not just his passive acceptance of all this motion below, but his active intervention in the direction of the flow – he did not blindly follow the herd nor muster it with a whip or barking dog, but instead, you might say, he shepherded it. Or so it seems to me.
Now more than ever this country needs a movement capable of capturing again all of these forces below, a super-movement, you might say, strong enough to inspire the millions, to mobilise them, to move them, because so many of us look (too often in vain) to the left for some respite: the underpaid and overworked, the under-recognised and unrepresented, the overburdened and the forgotten; nurses and teachers, the imprisoned and addicted, the elderly and the infirm – the millions of ordinary people who want an extraordinary society. The great question is then, will it be the Australian Labor Party that recognises this yearning for a real democracy, for real representation and radical change, or will it just drift on believing so much in its great past, personified by men and women like Whitlam, that it blinds itself in the mediocrity of the present?
The elevation of the disciple over the messiah, the worship of the word over the prophet – this is what we should be aiming for in Australia, and this is what the ALP should have always been. We are desperate, everyone feels that aching in their muscles and bones, a tired aching brought on from waiting for so long, ‘waiting for a miracle to come’, as the Maestro once said. We’ve been wandering through the desert for nearly forty years since 1975, searching for the Promised Land, but now more than ever it seems like a mirage. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve let out a sigh, how many times I’ve forgiven an inept politician for their inane response to some establishment journalist with an institutional mind.
So if there is anything unhealthy about the Whitlam legend, it is the danger of being lulled into the belief that “Another Gough Is Possible” rather than “Another World Is Possible”, because the only reason we had a Gough – or for that matter a Calwell and an Evatt, a Chifley and a Curtin – was because we built a labour movement strong enough to produce them (and depose them in the case of Billy Hughes), a movement which came close to being bigger than the ‘Big Man of History’ himself.
There is so much left to do, so many fights postponed since Whitlam’s Time, too many towels thrown in too early. Let’s talk about, say; finally forging an independent foreign policy, one that condemns the death of a Gazan child by Israeli missiles as much as it condemns the beheading of a Western by an ISIS extremist. Let’s ask how it is possible that we still have a monarch’s head on our coins in the twenty-first century, how our government can sign a free-trade agreement without a single second’s discussion in Parliament, how wise it is to allow over a thousand foreign troops to set up camp Darwin (nothing to see here, Parliament, nothing to see), to go lock-in-step with the White House in containing China, and lets ask what’s more valuable: a few quick million bucks scored from selling uranium to India or a few billion lives to be scorched in a nuclear Asia? Instead of jumping into every foreign conflict which threatens the geopolitical and financial security of our ‘friends’, why not demand a constitution which says something along the lines of “Australia repudiates war as an instrument offending the liberty of peoples”, to follow Italy and Japan (for now) amongst others? And while we’re at it, let’s ask why we remain the only Western democratic nations in the world without a Charter of Rights (which was first put to Parliament in 1973, by Whitlam’s Attorney General Lionel Murphy)? And let’s confront the fact that around two thirds of our media is controlled by a flesh-and-blood Montgomery Burns. Let’s finally put an end to the indefinite incarceration of innocent refugees and their children on island prisons, and let’s ask why a full-time student working two casual jobs should pay more tax than the Sydney Airport Corporation. Let’s ask whether we have a democracy at all. Vale Gough Whitlam, and Vale an ‘Australia Fair’.