On 2 December 1972, Gough Whitlam became Australia’s 21st prime minister. Arguably, his greatest achievement was already behind him.
Whitlam, during his time as opposition leader, radically transformed the Australian political landscape and the office of opposition leader itself. On the 40th anniversary of his election, it’s time to reflect on this oft-forgotten chapter of his career.
Emerging as opposition leader on 8 February 1967, when the party was still reeling from a crushing electoral defeat, Whitlam fronted the press and defined the type of leader he wanted to be: "I want you to know what I’m for, not what I’m against. What I’ll do, not what I’ll undo or what I’ll resist."
On that day he sketched the first outlines of what would become known as "The Program", and he appointed himself opposition spokesman for foreign affairs, a forceful statement of his internationalist vision.
It was Whitlam’s mission to make the opposition look and sound like "a very powerful alternative government". He goaded his party into action, deriding the oppositionist mentality that equated defeat with ideological purity and daring his colleagues to unite behind him; daring them to govern. "Certainly," he declared in a charged speech to the Victorian executive of the ALP, "the impotent are pure".
Over his five and a half year tenure as leader of the opposition, Whitlam pulled the ALP out of the electoral doldrums, unifying and modernising a dissolute party. But his reforms went beyond party structure and policy; Whitlam had set about changing the very institution of the opposition.
In 1967, Whitlam created the first shadow cabinet in the nation’s history, giving his newly appointed shadow ministers defined responsibilities and putting aside the previous undisciplined and scattergun approach to policy formation and articulation. By formalising the parliamentary executive, Whitlam galvanised his party and concentrated his authority as leader.
In that same year, Whitlam arranged with Prime Minister Harold Holt for the leader of the opposition to be entitled to at least two major international trips each year. The change, Whitlam hoped, would bring international issues into domestic debate. It enabled him to promote his policies and display his credentials throughout Asia, Europe, the Middle East, North America and the Pacific.
His most significant overseas mission, however, came at private cost and pushed the boundaries of opposition to new extremes.
In July 1971, Whitlam took perhaps the greatest risk of his political career and made a daring visit to the forbidding and unknown People’s Republic of China. At the time, the Australian and American governments maintained openly hostile policies towards China. Whitlam met with Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai in Beijing before any other Western leader.
Ten days later, he discovered that he had been caught up in a seismic shift in American policy towards China. The coincidence, as well as the diplomatic breakthroughs during the visit, forced movement on China policy in Australia and irrevocably changed the tone of the debate. This was foreign policy engineered and executed from opposition.
By the time Whitlam launched his "It’s Time!" campaign in November 1972, it seemed certain that the ALP’s 23 years in the political wilderness would come to an end. Whitlam was more prepared to govern than any opposition leader before or since. The groundwork he had laid enabled him, within weeks, to extend political recognition to the People’s Republic of China, end conscription, destroy the last vestiges of White Australia, support equal pay for women, begin reform of the health service, abolish British honours and start the search for a new national anthem.
John Hewson’s "Fightback!" package of 1993 was the last time an opposition leader presented a comprehensive program to the public. The conventional wisdom is that Hewson’s 800-page package was "the longest suicide note in Australian political history", which has discouraged subsequent leaders. The failure of "Fightback!" has fostered a campaign environment where politicians hold their cards close to their chests.
Tony Abbott was Hewson’s press secretary during that campaign, and he learnt an invaluable lesson: detail can be a politician’s undoing. Abbott is already one of the most successful opposition leaders in Australian history. He has seen off one prime minister and has had some success in his relentless attacks upon another. In only three years he has transformed the institution of opposition more than any individual since Gough Whitlam. His form of hyper-aggressive opposition risks becoming the norm.
Anniversaries are important moments to reflect on past achievements, but they also challenge us to assess the present and cast an eye to the future. Whitlam’s great achievement was to modernise the ALP, to internationalise the domestic debate, and to create an opposition that presented itself as a viable alternative government. It’s time we appreciate how important that is.
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