The Null Device
Gough Whitlam, that lion of the Australian Left who shook up a sleepy, conservative backwater and made it, for at least a few decades, into a modern, forward-looking player on the world stage, died yesterday, aged 98.
Whitlam's brief period in office began in 1972, when the Australian Labor Party which he led won a landslide victory, sweeping aside the arse-end of a decades-long period of conservative rule and cruising into office under the slogan “It's Time”, soundtracked by a groovy rock'n'roll jingle. Whitlam and his party didn't slow down; soon they had abolished conscription and the death penalty, brought in free university education, state-funded health care and arts funding, recognised Aboriginal land rights, passed the world's first no-fault divorce laws, replaced God Save The Queen as the national anthem with Advance Australia Fair (which, though admittedly somewhat turgid-sounding, was at least ours), among other accomplishments. He also had a gift for witty retorts.
This spring was not to last, though, and after winning an early election with a narrower majority in 1974, Whitlam failed to get a budget passed and was dismissed by the Governor-General in 1975, in what some of the more paranoid types still say was a CIA coup. (Interestingly, the Pinochet-figure brought in to replace him, Malcolm Fraser, has, over the past few decades of retirement, drifted considerably to the left of Australian politics, and was last seen endorsing a Greens candidate in the 2013 election; or perhaps he has just stood still, with the political landscape drifting rightward around him.)
Whitlam's accomplishments, however, stuck; by CIA-installed right-wing dictatorship standards, the Fraser government was somewhat of a damp squib, and kept things much as they were, until the ALP's Bob Hawke took over keeping them more or less as they were. It was not until into the first term of John Howard, with his obsession with his idol Robert Menzies, the conservative patriarch of the pre-Whitlam Australia, and the lost father-knows-best arcadia of white picket fences and children who are seen and not heard that he had presided over, that it started to look like what we had thought of as the new, modern Australia was merely a thaw. Howard's successor, Tony Abbott, meanwhile, seems to look even further back; his model of Australia seems to be closer to the authoritarian penal colonies and military outposts of virtuous Empire than to the “relaxed and comfortable” 1950s, dangerously close to outbreaks of rock'n'roll, feminism, male long hair or similar degeneracy.
It's not yet clear which of Whitlam's achievements will be the last to be systematically rolled back by the current government; free education is on the way out, and payments for medical appointments were floated (without any economic planning to make a case for them, but that's not the point; it's the principle that counts, and, to a certain mindset, the very existence of free health care is fundamentally immoral). If Abbott succeeds in unlocking the Strong Wartime Prime Minister achievement, conscription might be on the agenda (though, then again, Australia may take a hint from the US, and eschew outright conscription in favour of, say, making university funding or unemployment benefits contingent on military service). The death penalty may be harder to sell to the public (Australia's regional neighbours threatening our bogans with it should they bring some weed with them tends to do that), but if anyone in Canberra would push for it, the current lot probably would. As for restoring God Save The Queen as the national anthem, for a government that brought back Imperial honours, that would be, if anything, too obvious.