: The Whitlam Legacy

The Whitlam Legacy

Rob Lehrer

the-whitlam-legacyTroy Bramston (ed); Federation Press, 2013, 544pp; $59.95 (hardback).

Growing up in suburban Melbourne and attending the local primary school in the early 1970’s I had a window into what broader Australia was like at the time of the 1972 election. At Monday morning assembly the drumming squad marched us in to the quadrangle as the flag was raised and we sang God Save the Queen. The kids ate white bread sandwiches and the majority had sandy hair and freckled faces. Those of us with an ‘ethnic’ background, or with University-educated parents who read literature and attended performances of Modern Dance or art galleries, were in the distinct minority as were those who held progressive political and social views, or at least so it seemed.

The genuine excitement generated by Labor’s 1972 campaign and the accompanying It’s Time slogan and song represented more than just hollow advertising and electioneering. Something was about to happen. It was as if Australia lay in the political doldrums and was about to experience an immeasurably powerful gust of wind in its sails, in the form of Gough Whitlam and his new government. Whitlam came to power with an ambitious political and social agenda that was to ultimately change Australia forever.

Reviewing the enduring legacy of a towering figure of Australian history, this multi-authored comprehensive book, edited by Troy Bramston, with 38 contributions from Whitlam’s contemporary colleagues, leading political commentators and well known Australians from various fields, provides insights into the Whitlam story, at both personal and political levels. The book covers the key elements of Whitlam’s broad and potent, if short lived, political agenda between 1972 and 1975. The book is broken into five main themes: the Whitlam Years and Political Style, Managing Government, Policy and the Whitlam Government, The Dismissal, and Reflections and Assessments.

Gough-lgSignificant areas are addressed, such as international relations and defence policy, innovations in the arts and cultural policy, health policy, industrial relations, economic reform, education, environment, immigration and multiculturalism, and Aboriginal affairs — all central to the Whitlam legacy. The chapter on law reform points to the substantive developments in Aboriginal land rights, legal aid, electoral reforms, the abolition of the death penalty, race discrimination laws, and innovations in trade practices, family law, and administrative law are explained. Many leading cases and key legislation studied by law students today reflect the legacy of Whitlam’s legal reforms.

No book on Whitlam would be complete without an examination of the contentious Dismissal, and four separate chapters deal with this divisive moment of Australian political history. The chapter on the ‘Untold Story of the Dismissal’ provides a rare examination of the roles of Justices Anthony Mason, Ninian Stephen and Chief Justice Garfield Barwick, as well as Sir John Kerr’s secret notes on the dismissal power and the conditions of its use. It provides insightful observations into Kerr’s background and personality. The book also contains reproductions of some key original documentation, such as Kerr’s statement of reasons for the dismissal, Barwick’s advice to Kerr, and Whitlam’s motion of no confidence in Malcolm Fraser.

The volume concludes with a series of reflections and discussions on the enduring legacy and role that Whitlam played in changing the social, legal and political fabric of Australia. To any scholar of Australian political or social history or the law, it contains an important retrospective analysis of motivations, personalities and events that are key to our understanding of Australia today. Whitlam, in a short foreword to the book, suggested the unifying theme to all his work could be stated as, ‘contemporary relevance’, and, in his own words, ‘this book meets the standards of contemporary relevance splendidly’. It is hard to disagree with him on that.

ROB LEHRER grew up in the Whitlam era and still believes It’s Time.

(2014) 39(4) AltLJ 281
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