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Well may we say the times suit us

31 March 2012 896 views No Comment

AUSTRALIA’S transformation from the Whitlam years onward gets an ambitious, if occasionally uncertain, reappraisal.

Politics is a funny old business. Who would have thought, for example, that one day Malcolm Fraser would be praising Gough Whitlam? According to Fraser, Whitlam had a sense of Australian identity and a bold vision for our future as an independent country. Although Fraser argues that ”a succession of ministers, including Rex Connor, seriously let Gough down”, Whitlam had ”a grand idea of Australia with which I really wouldn’t disagree”.

For this ambitious and often engaging book, subtitled How We Were Made for These Times, George Megalogenis attempts to trace the development of that grand idea from then until now – presumably the ”moment” of the title.

He interviewed five prime ministers – Malcolm Fraser, Bob Hawke, Paul Keating, John Howard, and Kevin Rudd. To a greater or lesser extent, they all praise Gough Whitlam, whose views are here represented by his talented speechwriter and confidant, Graham Freudenberg. By far the most generous is Fraser who, after his time in Federal Parliament, became good friends with Whitlam.As Megalogenis makes clear, Fraser supported Labor’s position on Aboriginal land rights and its multicultural agenda, even though he didn’t share Whitlam’s love of the arts. Fraser, Megalogenis maintains, over-identified with sport in general and Australian football in particular, especially when his team, Carlton, were premiers under his watch in 1979, 1981 and 1982.

Indeed, Fraser ushered in a situation where our political rulers became sports-barrackers-in-chief. This continued with a vengeance with Hawke and even applied to the elitist cultural icon Keating, who opportunistically allowed himself to be Collingwood’s No.1 ticket-holder. Howard and Rudd reflected different sporting passions, coming from what some refer to as ”the rugby league states”.

Julia Gillard – the only recent prime minister not interviewed for the book – is a fanatical supporter of the Footscray football club, the Western Bulldogs. Not everyone cares about that, of course.

Hawke – who stopped drinking alcohol for the period of his prime ministership and whose approval rating as prime minister once reached 80 per cent – says Whitlam brought the ALP up to date in many ways. Most notably, Hawke says, Whitlam was ”a true internationalist and regionalist”. Similarly, Keating argues that Whitlam helped us earn the world’s respect. In particular, Whitlam realised that Australia had to come to terms with international realities, including recognising the People’s Republic of China and exiting Vietnam. Although more circumspect, Howard – the only prime minister since Stanley Melbourne Bruce to lose his seat – praises Whitlam’s introduction of equal pay for men and women and universal health insurance, which we still have.

Yet despite the above, the stark reality is that Whitlam and his deeply unstable ministry lost control of the economy. The Whitlam years were followed by the recession of the early 1980s and the even more severe recession of the 1990s. This meant Treasury forcefully argued that, in order not to go under, we had to improve and adapt to these new and very difficult circumstances.

Megalogenis seems to attribute most of what he regards as our fiscal and economic reforms to Labor. In contrast, he is sometimes grudging about the important role of Howard and Peter Costello.

Yet the reality is that, for better or worse, almost all these changes had bipartisan party-political support, which was coupled with highly orchestrated pressure from the private sector and from those members of the public who were increasingly resentful about paying inflated prices for overseas goods. These policies, it was argued, were largely a result of what most economists labelled and lampooned as old-fashioned protectionism.

However, it can be cogently argued that the underlying reasons for these fiscal and economic changes were much more practical and pragmatic, rather than being the result, as Megalogenis suggests here, of supposedly great themes and visions.

According to its blurb, The Australian Moment demands that ”we reconsider what we have achieved and our place in the global economy, and how we might purposefully approach the future”. Yet this reviewer, at least, sometimes finds it difficult to determine the book’s main thesis.

Also, Megalogenis’s rather dense writing style often makes it hard to pinpoint what he is trying to express. Yet perversely, it is a tribute to the intellectual power of the book that it provokes the reader to consider seriously the compelling counter-argument that, instead of continuing to progress, we have in some crucial ways squandered our inheritance.

How it is possible, for example, that a nation that introduced an eight-hour day now has many of those who are employed working at least 10 hours a day and that more than 50 per cent of our workforce are casual employees?

The reality is that by cutting tariffs by 25 per cent Whitlam began the destruction of Australia’s manufacturing base. In doing so, Whitlam was following American rhetoric, though not its internal practice. The economic reforms of deregulation, introduced by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, were here strongly supported and often initiated by Labor politicians, in what seemed to the Left to be a sellout of the socialist origins of the ALP.

As for leaving Vietnam, Australian troops were no longer combatant when Whitlam withdrew them. The US knew the war was lost and was secretly negotiating with North Vietnam, so it can be argued that he was actually following American policy. From this perspective, the fact that all five prime ministers pay tribute to Whitlam tells it all.

There are also some puzzling omissions in Megalogenis’s stimulating book. This includes the absence of any mention of the hugely influential Dr Stephen FitzGerald, who was Australia’s first ambassador to China.

George Megalogenis will be a guest at the Sydney Writers’ Festival.

THE AUSTRALIAN MOMENT
George Megalogenis
Penguin, 400pp, $32.95

The Weekend Australian, March 31-April 1, 2012 SPECTRUM p 37.