Gough Whitlam (born 1916), prime minister of Australia from 1972 to 1975, was one of the most skillful and controversial leaders of the Australian Labor party.
Edward Gough Whitlam was born on July 11, 1916, in Kew, an upper-class suburb of Melbourne, Australia. He dropped the "Edward" and was known usually as "Gough." His father, H.F.E. Whitlam, was Australian Crown Solicitor and Australia's representative on the United Nations' Human Rights Commission.
Whitlam attended schools in Canberra and Sydney and enrolled in Sydney University, where he got a law degree in 1946. In World War II he served in the Royal Australian Air Force (1941-1945), rising to the rank of flight lieutenant. He was admitted to the bar in 1947, served as a member of the New South Wales Bar Council from 1949 to 1953, and served as a junior counsel assisting the Royal Commission into the Liquor Trade in 1951-1952.
Broadened Labor Party's Appeal
In 1952, Whitlam was chosen as the Australian Labor party candidate for an election in the district of Werriwa. He won and kept that seat in the House of Representatives until his retirement in 1978. In contrast to his upbringing, Whitlam lived in the working-class suburban section of Sydney which he represented. Most of his Labor colleagues had working-class backgrounds and were suspicious of upper-class people. But Whitlam worked hard in his electorate to earn the trust of his constituents.
His first major position in government was on the Joint Parliamentary Committee on Constitutional Review between 1956 and 1959. By 1959 Whitlam had gained enough support in the party to become a member of the party's federal parliamentary executive, and in 1960 he became deputy leader of the party. On February 8, 1967, Whitlam was elected leader in a fiercely contested election, succeeding Arthur Calwell.
Under Whitlam the Labor party reorganized its internal decision-making structures and broadened its electoral appeal to include the middle-class. Whitlam helped the party put aside its longstanding ideological disputes long enough to appear as a united party with a sense of direction.
Though Labor lost the 1969 election, it increased its seats in the 125-seat House of Representatives from 42 to 59. Whitlam had a mandate within his party to develop a broad range of policies seeking more attention to education, health, urban life, the environment, and equality for women, migrants, and aboriginal peoples. Whitlam's moderate respectable tone helped the party shed its longstanding onus of being pro-communist. Whitlam's prestige in foreign policy was established in 1971 when he led a delegation to China, shortly before U.S. President Richard Nixon made his historic China trip.
Headed Labor Government
With a vigorous campaign whose slogan was "It's Time," Whitlam led the Labor party to victory on December 2, 1972. The party gained a majority in the House of Representatives, winning 67 seats, and Whitlam became the first Labor prime minister in 23 years. But Labor did not gain a majority in the Senate.
Whitlam overturned the slow-moving bureaucracy of the Liberal-Country party coalition which had ruled since 1949 and instituted rapid changes in policy. He pushed for better treatment for aborigines and a limit to U.S. and British influence in Australia. He ordered Australian troops to return from Vietnam, where they were fighting in support of American policies, and ended the military draft. But soon the international oil shortage and Whitlam's dramatic increases in government spending led to serious economic problems: first inflation and then stagnation.
The Liberal-Country majority in the Senate blocked several major pieces of Labor's legislative package. Seeking a stronger mandate, Whitlam called an election in May 1974. He remained prime minister, but Labor lost seats in the House of Representatives and failed to gain a majority in the Senate. Despite the deteriorating economic situation and bitter disputes within his own party, Whitlam continued his attempts to create a "new" Australia, changing the relationships between the central, state, and local levels of government. He introduced ideas about participatory democracy at the local level and using the public service to set the pace for wages and workers' rights. But many of his policies were bitterly opposed at home and by the United States. His efforts to develop a more independent role for Australia and his criticism of American policies in southeast Asia antagonized Washington.
The rising Liberal party under the new leadership of Malcolm Fraser and a critical mass media put Whitlam's government on the defensive. Scandals undermined public trust. The most damaging was the Loans Affair, in which the government tried improper means of raising several hundred million dollars from Arab oil sources. The deputy prime minister was forced to resign, and the minister for minerals and energy was fired. The Senate, under Fraser, challenged the Labor government by refusing to pass the budget. Whitlam called for an immediate election in the Senate. Instead, on November 11, 1975, the governor-general, Sir John Kerr, a Labor appointee, dismissed Whitlam as prime minister, appointed Fraser as "caretaker" prime minister, dissolved both houses of Parliament, and called an election. Shocked, Whitlam declared it a day of shame and called for Australians to "maintain their rage" and carry it into the election. His appeal failed. The Labor party soundly lost the 1975 election, with only 40 percent of the vote.
Whitlam continued as leader of the Labor party until 1977 and retired from politics in 1978. After that he taught at the Australian National University (1978-1980), at Harvard (1979) and at the University of Sydney (1981-1983, 1986-1989).
Whitlam led the revival of the Labor party and made it more appealing to voters. Despite the failure of many of his policies, Whitlam changed the political map of Australia. After his defeat in 1975 he remained a respected figure in Australia. He was Australia's representative to the United Nations' Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in Paris (1983-1989). He was on UNESCO's executive board from 1985 to 1989. He served on Australia's Constitutional Commission from 1986 to 1988 and was chairman of the Australia-China Council from 1986 to 1991.
Further Reading on Edward Gough Whitlam
Whitlam wrote extensively on policy and constitutional issues. His books include The Constitution vs. Labor (1957), Australian Foreign Policy (1963), Beyond Vietnam: Australia's Regional Responsibility (1968), The New Federalism (1971), Living with the United States: British Dominions and New Pacific States (1990), and his spirited defense of his 1975 position in The Truth of the Matter (1979), a book which should be read in conjunction with Matters for Judgement by Sir John Kerr. He also wrote Labor Essays (1980), The Cost of Federalism (1983), and a retrospective on his leadership years, The Whitlam Government 1972-75 (1985). Books about Whitlam include G. Freudenberg, A Certain Grandeur (1978); L. Oakes, Crash Through or Crash (1976); P. Kelly, The Unmaking of Gough (1976); and A. Reid, The Whitlam Venture (1976).