True political courage


If you’re in my neighbourhood, please drop in. I’ve just put the finishing touches to my vanity wall and I’m eager to show it off.

The vanity wall is an affectation I picked up while living in Washington D.C., where starry-eyed commentators – and, more disturbingly, ingratiating lobbyists – display pictures of themselves with the famous and powerful.

I won’t list all the faces on my wall, suffice to say that alongside South Africa’s Archbishop Desmond Tutu and East Timor’s Jose Ramos Horta, it features every unsuccessful Democratic presidential candidate, from George McGovern in 1972 to Mike Dukakis in 1988. There are even some, like the Reverend Jesse Jackson, who didn’t even make it that far.

The salient point was brought home to me by a friend who, in her broad Brooklyn accent, proclaimed: ‘They’re all losers!’ True, although Gough Whitlam, whose visage also beams down from the wall, did win twice before also losing twice – and quite spectacularly.

Perhaps the real point about these political figures is that while they were famous, they were not often powerful. Indeed, their principles helped starve them of power.

Thanks to Hive

Thanks to Hive

George McGovern campaigned to end a genocidal war that his government was waging against the peasants of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. Walter Mondale, who ran against Ronald Reagan in 1984, told rich Americans he was going to raise their taxes to help poor Americans. Michael Dukakis, in a clinical, clumsy but truthful way, declared his lifelong and sincere opposition to judicial murder, otherwise known as the death penalty.

As for Whitlam, I’m well acquainted with the argument that in 1969 and 1972 he was a social democratic moderate, distrusted by the Left and declaring that ‘only the impotent remain pure’. But once in office, his reforms – from equal pay to universal health insurance to a more independent foreign policy – offended most of the powerful interests in this country. Subsidised farmers, anti-Medibank doctors and ambitious media moguls all hated Whitlam.

And yet, as our latter-day Franklin D. Roosevelt, who once said he welcomed the fact that America’s avaricious captains of industry were ‘unanimous in their hate for me’, Whitlam, by and large, stood firm. Even John Pilger, who pulls no punches in his criticism of mainstream left-wing poseurs, said that apart from Whitlam’s grievous blindness on East Timor, he was our greatest social reformer.

Whitlam’s courage was repaid with defeat, with utter electoral devastation. And yet somehow I think Whitlam and Australian progressives are better for it, for we have had at least one leader prepared to die on his feet rather than live on his knees.

Comparatively speaking, what a sorry lot of Labor leaders we have had in Whitlam’s wake. The state premiers are generally too small-fry to worry about but think of how Bob Hawke squandered his chance. I have always had a residual affection for the lovable, rogue-ish elements of Hawke’s character. So my resentment is all the more profound when I think how this intellectually brilliant and charismatic leader could have rebalanced the power equation in this country. Instead, he put much of his government at the service of the big end of town.

But I now concede he was right when, speaking of his friendship with a certain Perth entrepreneur, he said it was silly to think there should be no place in the concerns of the Labor Party for ‘the Alan Bonds of this world’. Indeed, Labor must always believe in the rehabilitative prospects of convicted criminals and ex-jailbirds.

(Paul Keating is best forgotten, unless it is to lament the way he managed to dupe the Left into thinking that a man who had cut taxes on multi-millionaires, concentrated media ownership and driven our manufacturing industries into extinction really was some sort of true believer.)

What drives this timidity among modern leaders, especially Labor leaders is, unsurprisingly, a fear of defeat. Sure, I’d prefer to win, and defeat is always painful and often has terrible consequences. But the modern school of politics decrees that defeat is also shameful, a sign of weakness, especially in New South Wales, where the unofficial dictum of the ALP is ‘power without purpose’.

But I can think of only one recent defeat that was shameful – Kim Beazley’s in 2001, where he prostituted the party’s honour and conscience by supporting the Howard government in blocking the arrival of the refugee-laden freighter, the MV Tampa. The public saw through Beazley’s craven performance and decided if they were going to elect reactionaries, it may as well be the authentic item.

There is an honourable place for failure in our political system, a view articulated by a most unlikely source. Last year I heard former US Republican leader Newt Gingrich explain there was nothing wrong with failure as long as we ‘failed forward’. (He had actually lifted the concept from the self-help author John Maxwell). The important thing was for politicians to use the opportunity – the campaign – to nudge their agenda further down the road.

The classic example is Barry Goldwater, the Republican extremist – remember his quote that ‘extremism in the defence of liberty is no vice’ – who ran against Lyndon Johnson in 1964 election. He went down to flaming defeat yet his manifesto – ludicrous to the point of obscenity, from our perspective – was realised sixteen years later when Ronald Reagan won the White House with a mandate almost as strong as Johnson’s in ’64.

So I propose that we recognise and honour, not so much defeat but political risk – true political courage.

A few weeks ago I met the woman who runs the John F. Kennedy Profiles in Courage Award at the Kennedy Library in Boston. Every year they celebrate a politician who has laid his or her career on the line for a matter of principle. They have stood up for something or someone unpopular. Why not the same award for Australia?

A couple of years ago, the Kennedy Library honoured a Republican, David Beasley, who as governor of South Carolina tried to remove the Confederate battle emblem, a wicked symbol of slavery, from the state ensign. He lost.

But the body politic – indeed our entire humanity – is always enriched when someone is prepared to fight and lose on principle.

There could be no better Australian institution to initiate such a project for this country than the Whitlam Institute at the University of Western Sydney, which honours the last politician who was prepared to stake his future on a big and virtuous dream. The Gough Whitlam Medal for Political Courage. How about it?

As the writer J.M. Barrie once said: ‘We are all failures – at least the best of us are.’

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