Gough Whitlam: The power and the passion




2013-04-24 04.49.50 am



NICK CATER in The Australian, June 4, 2013

NOT many people know this, but Andrew Denton was once sacked as Year 5 class captain at Roseville Primary School for reasons that are not particularly clear. Who better to talk us through the Gough Whitlam years in the ABC’s two-part documentary The Power and the Passion than Denton, who in November 1975 was aged 15 1/2?

Gough Whitlam, photographed by Bill Mcauley (1975). From the National Portrait Gallery collection

Gough Whitlam, photographed by Bill Mcauley (1975). From the National Portrait Gallery collection

“He knew what Gough Whitlam was going through when he was dismissed,” Denton’s biography in the program notes says.

Filmmaker Paul Clarke, also a teenager in the 1970s, admits his knowledge of Whitlam was limited before the project began. He does remember, however, a tumultuous day in November 1975, crackling with menace, when he tells us, “I felt him fall from his pedestal.”

Clarke describes his documentary as “Shakespeare in safari suits, or Orpheus, in a bogan underworld, illuminating the suburbs with his song of change”.

To be fair, it cannot be easy pitching a historical documentary to the ABC, where interest in the nation’s history is limited and attention spans are short. Even crackling, menacing tumultuous days need a bit of sexing up, if they’re to get a run in prime time.

“I’m really proud of the ‘November 11 sequence’ which is set to Lobby Loyde’s G.O.D., the greatest sharpie anthem of its time, but it had just the crackle and menace to match that tumultuous day.

“My films are music based,” Clarke writes on the ABC website, “and it feels to me like I am playing music upon the collective memory.” The collective memory, with or without the playing of music upon it, is a dangerous way to make a historical documentary. Clarke makes the usual clangers. Did Whitlam pull combat troops out of Vietnam? Did he end the White Australia policy? Were Australia’s economic problems caused by the first oil shock? Yes, says the collective memory. No, say the facts.

Many public figures from the period gave up their time to be interviewed, allowing themselves to be filmed in harsh and unflattering light. They might have been able to put the record straight if they had been allowed to speak for longer than 15 seconds at a time, but why would you listen to an old codger like Bill Hayden when you have secured an interview with Denton, a student of media and communications at Mitchell College of Advanced Education? Denton gives the verdict on the abolition of university fees. It was a brilliant move, apparently. Absolutely visionary.

Hayden, who was treasurer in Whitlam’s final months in office, would have told a very different story. Hayden wrote in his 1996 biography that university fees were abolished “in spite of the quite evident consequences that this could only be done at the cost of the less well off, the battlers, Labor’s traditional heartland”.

Former Labor finance minister Peter Walsh wrote in 1995 that the greatest beneficiaries of Whitlam’s reforms “were those who gained sinecures in an expanded public sector and the white-collar middle class in particular. It delivered few positives to the working class constituency and big negatives in the form of high inflation and rising inflation.”

Kim Beazley Sr, Whitlam’s education minister, wrote: “Making tertiary education free therefore tends to shift resources upwards in the community.”

Yet the image of Whitlam as the father of higher education is engraved on Labor’s collective memory, ritually recited in maiden speeches to parliament and those endless orations about Labor values, Bruce Springsteen and the Light on the Hill.

Wayne Swan told us last year: “Like Springsteen, I and many caucus members came from working-class families and got the chances our equally talented brothers, sisters and friends often never got, after watching our parents being denied the opportunities in life that their talents deserved.”

Whitlam was not able to abolish university fees until 1974, when Swan was starting his second year at the University of Queensland thanks to a commonwealth scholarship, an initiative of the Menzies government, that selected the best and brightest and provided for them according to means.

We can only guess if Julia Gillard would have qualified for a scholarship, but she clearly has her doubts. She told parliament in her maiden speech she owed her opportunities in life to South Australian Labor premier Don Dunstan’s schools and “and the access to universities made possible by the Whitlam government’s abolition of up-front fees”.

The free university policy was a pioneering form of middle-class welfare. One of Whitlam’s private secretaries in government, Peter Wilenski, noted afterwards that the policy made no difference whatsoever to the socio-democratic mix of students.

There was a spike in admissions, but no corresponding rise in the number of degrees awarded, three or four years later when Whitlam’s students should have been graduating. The effect of free education was to increase the failure rate from about 34 per cent at the start of the 1970s to 40 per cent at the end of it.

One shudders to think what ABC chairman James Spigelman made of Shakespeare in Safari suits. Spigelman after all was senior adviser and principal private secretary to Whitlam. Whatever his thoughts may be are largely academic, since the ABC and its board are prohibited from contributing to programming decisions. Instead several hundred thousand dollars an hour was burned to prove what we already know: the ABC has given up any serious attempt to tell our national story and cares little for the facts.