HARNESSING the power of the state in the dogged pursuit of public ideals may seem like an anachronistic notion nowadays, but it was something of a novelty for Australians when, back in December 1972, they voted in their first Labor government in 23 years.

The new prime minister, who both literally and figuratively towered above his contemporaries, was a man in a hurry. He couldn’t have known then that his government, despite a second electoral victory in 1974, would last for less than three years. He somehow realised that there was no time to waste.

Gough Whitlam and the party’s deputy leader, Lance Bernard, were sworn in as a two-man government and immediately began implementing the platform that had won them a parliamentary majority.

This platform included an end to military conscription, disengagement from the Viet*nam War, equal rights for women, lowering the voting age, free higher education, health insurance for all, land rights for Aborigines, funding for the arts, an inclusive immigration policy, and a broadly independent foreign policy.

A key step in the latter respect was formal recognition of China. As opposition leader, Whitlam had visited Beijing in 1971, and been pilloried for doing so by the conservative government. That inevitably invited ridicule when it turned out that a concurrent visitor to the Chinese capital was none other than Henry Kissinger, and Richard Nixon followed shortly afterwards.

As PM, Whitlam realised there was no time to waste.
On a subsequent visit to China as prime minister, Whitlam was tickled when he asked Mao Zedong what he thought would have happened had Nikita Khrushchev been assassinated rather than John F. Kennedy, and the chairman responded that he was sure of only one thing: Aristotle Onassis would not have married Mrs Khrushchev.

Whitlam’s tremendous sense of humour, frequently self-deprecating, has been much talked about in the week since he died, falling short by two years of the century he was keen to complete, reportedly lucid-minded to the end. Just last year, queried by a carer as to whether she was correct in assuming that he had four children, the 97-year-old replied: “So far.”

By the time Whitlam entered his 90s, he was widely regarded as more than a national treasure. Folk hero would be a more accurate description, putting him in the same league as Don Bradman and highwayman Ned Kelly.

This stature had much to do with Whitlam’s political martyrdom. On Nov 11, 1975, his government was dismissed by a governor-general Whitlam had appointed, Sir John Kerr. The ostensible excuse was that the Senate, the upper house of parliament where the Labor Party did not have a majority, was blocking the supply of funds required to keep the country running.

Kerr, notorious not just for his predilection for drink but also for his close connections with the intelligence community, swore in opposition leader Malcolm Fraser as prime minister. The conspiracy also involved the profoundly conservative chief justice of the high court. Even more disturbingly, there is substantial circumstantial evidence that the CIA was a party to what was effectively a coup — even though, unlike Chile two years earlier and Pakistan less than two years later, the military was not directly involved.

This aspect of the dismissal tends to be dismissed by most commentators in Australia, and Whitlam himself was apparently unconvinced — despite a telling encounter with newly inducted US deputy secretary of state Warren Christopher in mid-1977, in which the latter passed on a message from president Jimmy Carter to the effect that “the US administration would never again interfere in the domestic political processes of Australia”.

Expatriate journalist John Pilger makes a compelling case in this relation in a chapter titled ‘The Coup’ in his 1989 book The Secret Country, suggesting that the urgency in getting rid of Whitlam related to the fear that he would call time on the arrangement that allowed the US to maintain a crucial listening post at its Pine Gap base in northern Australia.

Labor, under Whitlam, decisively lost the post-dismissal election in 1975 and another one two years later, whereupon Whitlam withdrew from parliamentary politics. Some of his government’s colossal lapses in 1974-75 — including a ridiculous attempt to raise billions of petrodollars via a shady, and possibly CIA-aligned, Pakistani financier called Tirath Khemlani to fund government initiatives — contributed to this. There can be little question, though, that the global economic crisis of 1973-74, amid skyrocketing oil prices, decisively queered the pitch.

Some of the Whitlam government’s achieve**ments were subsequently reversed but several have endured, reinforcing the impression that, rather than an aberration, the advent of Whitlam signalled the birth of an era.

The best verdict on Australia’s most erudite head of government came from a literary acquaintance. “It was an unusual experiment for Australia to choose as its prime minister its most intelligent man,” noted the American novelist Gore Vidal. “It will not, I fear, be repeated.”