Reflections on Gough Whitlam


I recall with great sentiment now, after news of the death of former PM Gough Whitlam today, that Gough gave an excellent after dinner speech at the UQ Law Ball at the Hilton Hotel in Brisbane in 1996. The former PM, a class act, didn’t go over old political ground or criticise the current Government, but rather spoke of his love of trains, and how pleased he was that his Government had funded the construction of the Merivale St bridge. Up until this bridge was built in the mid-to-late seventies, the nearest train bridge to the centre of Brisbane was at Indooroopilly, and trains from the south had to terminate at South Brisbane.

So Brisbane has at least one thing to be thankful to Gough Whitlam for, among other things, of course. While the Whitlam Government had many faults, including a naivety on economics until Bill Hayden was appointed Treasurer (too late, alas), there is no doubting that it transformed the country in a number of positive ways. I commented briefly on the Whitlam Government in my speech to the University of the Third Age Redlands in August:

The 1970s saw the end of the long boom we had enjoyed since the end of the war…The end of the long boom forced Governments starting with Whitlam’s to consider hard policy choices. Whitlam, despite his faults on economic policy, actually did make a number of sensible policy choices. For example, the 25% tariff cut in 1974 and the breaking up of the old Postmaster General’s Department and the creation of Australia Post and Telecom, which ultimately led to greater efficiency in postal and telecommunications services. But there was much more reform to be done. Whitlam was too beset with political and pressing macro-economic problems to do much in the way of micro-economic reform…

Perhaps I also should have added the Whitlam Government’s opening up of tertiary education, although free education proved to be a costly policy which future Governments have had to wind back through introducing and continually increasing HECS, now HECS-HELP. As is well known, the Whitlam Government’s progressive social agenda came at a high cost, and locked in a permanently higher level of Commonwealth Government spending as a share of GDP, a point made at Catallaxy Files by Sinclair Davidson today:

The Whitlam legacy: Big government

There is no doubt that Gough Whitlam transformed Australia and has left a lasting legacy. It’s a great credit to this country that the bitterness associated with politics in the seventies has dissipated, and we collectively mourned the loss of our former PM today.

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