Gough Whitlam and the party of the fair go

Anthony Albanese

In his first speech to Parliament, my late friend and mentor Tom Uren spoke about his experiences as a former prisoner of the Japanese during World War II. He recounted his experience in an anecdote that is as powerful today as when he first delivered it. Tom said: In our camp the officers and medical orderlies paid the greater proportion of their allowance into a central fund. The men who worked did likewise. We were living by the principle of the fit looking after the sick, the young looking after the old, the rich looking after the poor. Tom went on to describe an alternative approach he observed a few months later when 400 British POWs arrived and were temporarily housed in tents near the Australian camp.The officers selected the best, the non-commissioned officers the next best, and the men got the dregs. Soon after they arrived the wet season set in, bringing with it cholera and dysentery. Six weeks later only 50 men marched out of that camp, and of that number only about 25 survived.

In just a few sentences, Tom Uren cut to the heart of what Australians understand as the ‘fair go’. The fair go is an Australian phrase that is beautiful in its simplicity and where two words encapsulate a deep philosophic belief. Too often such phrases lose all meaning through overuse. But Australians understand what the fair go means. And Tom Uren lived and breathed its truth. Which brings me to the man whose legacy we honour tonight.

Gough Whitlam sought to enshrine the essence of the fair go in the way in which we order national affairs in this country. Gough was born into relatively comfortable circumstances. From the perspective of traditional Labor, Gough’s lack of a trade union background made some colleagues joke he was born on the ‘wrong side of the tracks’. But he despaired when he looked around him and saw how many of his fellow Australians were denied the same opportunities that he enjoyed, due to the circumstances of their birth.

To many conservatives, then and now, individual disadvantage is just rotten luck, or even worse, self imposed. What a miserable and narrow view. It is held by those without empathy to understand poverty, disadvantage or inequality. Gough understood that uplifting the working class and improving opportunities for women, migrants and the First Australians was critical to the nation’s future capacity. As he summed up perfectly in his 1969 election campaign launch. 'Poverty is a national waste as well as individual waste. We are all diminished when any of us are denied proper education. The nation is the poorer – a poorer economy, a poorer civilisation, because of this human and national waste.'

This was an extraordinary and audacious declaration of political intent. Gough imagined a better Australia. And he took concrete steps to realise his vision. Universal Health care. Access to university education based on merit. The Racial Discrimination Act. Indigenous land rights. Serious policy on the productivity, sustainability and liveability of cities. Support for the arts. An outward looking foreign policy including engagement with China.

The achievements were enormous. They unleashed the ambition and potential of an entire people. They still resonate today. All of the Whitlam reforms were important. But the cumulative value of Gough’s legacy exceeds that of the sum of its parts. Paul Keating once described the conservative government of the post-war years as ‘asleep at the wheel’. A description that applies equally today, it must be said. After 23 years of conservative rule, under Whitlam, Labor was brave. Brave about our ambitions. Brave in the face of our critics. And unstintingly brave in the pursuit of our shared vision of opportunity for all.

In 2018, Gough’s legacy calls out to us down the years, reminding us of what is possible when Labor is at our best. After nearly six years of government by a frightened, divided and negative coalition, Labor must be at our best if we are to secure victory at the next federal election. Whilst our times and our challenges are different, we must continue to embrace the reformist spirit that drove Whitlam and Tom Uren. It is the spirit that has driven Labor for a century. Tonight, let’s discuss contemporary lessons for Labor from the Whitlam era.

The overriding lesson is that Labor must always be in the ideas business. Our conservative opponents seek power for its own sake. They rarely think beyond tax cuts for the wealthy and slashing spending on education, health and essential services. Our opponents think that if government just gets out of the way, the market will sort things out. Labor sees government as the great enabler of opportunity and supports intervention when markets fail to produce outcomes which serve the national interest. Some in the coalition pretend modernity and change in areas like technology, culture, gender and sexuality, the environment, and in industry and international relations just isn’t happening.

Others in the government want to actively resist and not only stop change, but turn Australia back towards an imagined past. Consider Tony Abbott. Mr Abbott is not just frightened of the present, he is terrified of the future. The problem isn’t that Tony Abbott wants to live in the past, it’s that he wants the rest of us go back there just to keep him company. From the moment he became Leader of the Opposition, Mr Abbott’s only desire was to wipe out the reforms of the previous Labor government. He had then and has now no agenda of his own. He amplified fears, created doubt and harnessed division. He had a plan to take government, but no plan to govern. That’s why his administration collapsed. Mr Abbott failed to understand that Australians are fundamentally a positive people, who want to see their nation moving forward to a better future.

In 2018 there is no doubt that the pace of change is accelerating and many Australians are apprehensive about this. Technological change affects where and how we work. Social change alters concepts of the roles and legitimate expectations of segments of our diverse society. Demographic change alters the face of our communities. Climate change is already impacting our environment and energy use. Governments can’t stop change. They must manage it in the national interest. They must bring the community on the journey, rather than pander to fear of change. As Gough Whitlam once said: 'A conservative government survives essentially by dampening expectations and subduing hopes'. Conservatism is basically pessimistic, reformism is basically optimistic.

So Labor must always be optimistic. We must always outline a vision for progress – a plan to advance our nation. We must never make the mistake of hoping to slide into government off the back of our opponents’ failures. It’s not good enough to say: 'Elect us because the other mob are useless’. That is true of course. But from Bill Shorten right through Labor’s team, that is not our approach. Labor’s path to government must be paved with policy. Bold policies such as reform of negative gearing and other taxation reform proposals from Bill Shorten and Chris Bowen show that modern Labor is acting in the reform tradition.

Like Gough, we must imagine a better future and then take the necessary actions to both anticipate and create that future. We must be determined to avoid allowing tactics to marginalise strategy. We must stick to our values and craft responses to the real challenges that affect Australians in their daily lives. We must be brave enough to offer visionary leadership – but smart enough to know that effective reform requires that we bring the people with us.

The key to an effective plan for government is an understanding of the aspirations of our fellow Australians. We in Labor must always ask ourselves: What do Australians want out of life and how can we help them achieve it. If you asked Malcolm Turnbull or Scott Morrison what Australians want out of life, they’d say more money. And if you asked Tony Abbott, he would probably say Australians want a return of Imperial Honours.

I’ve got a different view. Australians do care about quality of life. But they define quality of life as something more than the value of their share portfolio or how much money they have in the bank. Australians want happy and productive lives. And like every parent in every generation they want to build a society where their children have more opportunities than they enjoyed themselves. The opportunity for a rewarding job, a great education and access to top-quality health care. They also demand a critical safety net. Australians see human dignity as a birthright, not an optional extra. People don’t tolerate poverty, in the land of plenty.

Maintaining a connection with working Australians must begin with cherishing and maintaining our enduring links with the Australian trade union movement. Unions are our link to workplaces. And our workplaces link us to families. The conservatives will always wage war against organised labour. They can’t conceive of the idea people might work together towards a shared vision. Their creed is self-interest and the law of the jungle – the political philosophy of selfishness propagated by the likes of Friedrich Hayek. They are wrong. While Australians have personal aspirations, they extend beyond individual needs to family, community, environment and indeed, to encompass a fair nation. That’s who we are.

Labor must also recognise the importance of party branches to our understanding of what is happening in our country. This is not 1950, when most Australians were members of trade unions. Indeed, many people from working class backgrounds are not members of unions because they were beneficiaries of Gough Whitlam’s education reforms. They became the first people in their families to go to university, work in the professions and non-unionised industries, or start their own business. We cannot afford to ignore this demographic. We need the energy and ideas of our membership. Their engagement enriches our platform and makes us a stronger, more broadly based political force.

Labor must empower our membership by giving them more direct say in elections for public office and internal positions. Labor must also maintain our internal processes that emphasise policy making from the bottom up. Policy ideas that come from branch meetings or workplaces are gold. Sometimes they are ahead of their time. But they are always valuable. For example, just last year, the nation voted for marriage equality. But the fight for this reform began years ago. It took long-term advocacy to deliver this change.

Let me pay tribute to my friend and our host tonight, Stephen Jones. In 2012 Stephen’s Private Member’s Bill that would have delivered marriage equality was defeated. But only five years later, 60 per cent of Australians backed the idea at a national ballot. It’s now law. My point here is the push for reform came from the community and made its way up through the party and ultimately through Parliament and into law.

Labor listens to the currents of emerging ideas. That’s Labor at our best – listening to the drumbeat of human empowerment and arguing the case. By contrast, the conservatives lack our broad base. Their platform is not created by the energy of their members, but by the strictures of their ideology. Because they are subservient to traditional established power structures, they are too often clueless about what is really happening in this country.This happened in 2005, when John Howard actually believed that Australians supported WorkChoices. He was wrong.

Today, Malcolm Turnbull and Scott Morrison appear to be utterly convinced that Australians believe in trickle-down economics. They are just as wrong. And just last weekend, the Liberal Party showed how disconnected they are by voting to privatise the ABC. Perhaps the worst example of just listening to those who share your views, is Peter Dutton’s indefinite detention of asylum seekers. Everyone in this room knows that asylum seeker policy is difficult. We are a nation state. No mainstream politician believes in open borders, but a policy that uses its prolonged treatment of detained people as an ongoing deterrent to others has a deep flaw at its heart.

Labor supports offshore detention and regional processing, in order to stop the people smuggling trade. But we call out the government’s failure to settle refugees in third countries, despite the clear offer of assistance from countries including New Zealand. You can be tough on people smugglers without being weak on humanity. You can protect our borders without losing our national soul.

A strong economy is the foundation of a successful Australia. Without economic growth, we can’t spread opportunity or fairness. Labor is the better manager of the economy. When last in office we saw Australia through the Global Financial Crisis, with what has been recognised as the world’s most effective economic stimulus plan. We achieved this, while retaining a Triple A credit rating from all three international agencies. Spending as a proportion of GDP exceeded 25% just twice, compared with the fifth straight Budget of the current government. Bob Hawke and Paul Keating’s time in office provides an excellent blueprint for effective economic policy as an enabler of reform. Bob and Paul understood that making the Australian economy stronger and more resilient would provide them with the means to deliver social reform. They understood the message at the heart of the Tom Uren allegory.

That by protecting all, you protect each. Floating the dollar, reducing tariffs and opening the Australian economy to the world were difficult. These visionary reforms generated economic growth that continues unabated 27 years later. Consider for a moment the achievements made possible by this growth. Medicare, doubling Year 12 completion rates, expanding tertiary education, compulsory superannuation. Hawke and Keating also understood the importance of long-term government.

If you are in the reform business, you need to occupy office for several terms so the roots of your policy can grow deep and withstand the storms of conservative Government. That’s what happened to Gough, when the Fraser Government abolished Medibank, which Bob Hawke reintroduced in 1983 as Medicare. By the time John Howard took office after 13 years of Labor Government, Medicare was entrenched.

In recent months there have been welcome signs of improvements in the global economy. Our national challenge is to continue to drive sustained economic growth.The ingredients to sustain growth are investing in education and infrastructure. Investing in education empowers individuals. Education is also a benefit to the entire community because it boosts national capacity. I cannot understand why the current government is content with a situation in which there are 140,000 fewer apprentices today than there were under the former Labor government. According to the independent Parliamentary Budget Office, infrastructure investment will halve over the next decade as a proportion of GDP from 0.4 to 0.2% Investing in the right nation building projects creates jobs and economic activity in the short-term. But over the long term, they lift productivity, which in turn establishes a basis for higher rates of growth and job creation.

Malcolm Turnbull likes taking selfies on trains and trams, he just won’t invest in them. The next Labor government will invest in public transport in our cities. Under-investment in public transport is reducing Australia’s quality of life. It is a tragedy that many Australian parents spend more time in their cars than they spend playing with their children. Labor will build the railways and roads Australia needs. And in the process, we will revitalise Australian manufacturing. The various rail projects being planned by state governments in this country will require the construction of at least 1000 new trams and train carriages in coming decades. We should build them here. Labor’s National Rail Industry Plan will focus on building the skills and capacity to build this rolling stock here in Australia. In the process, we will be developing a national skills base that can expand into other sectors of advanced manufacturing.

I’m ambitious for Australian cities. They are undergoing a fundamental transformation caused by population growth. In government, Labor will engage heavily with other levels of government as well as the private sector to manage this transformation in the public interest. That must include ensuring that our cities provide public housing, accommodation for the elderly and the public facilities that enrich communities. But great cities also contain galleries and music venues, pubs and bars, sporting events and community markets. They are places where people enjoy living and which enrich and celebrate life. Gough Whitlam knew this. He understood that you can have both roads and art galleries, sewerage pipes and Blue Poles. Successful cities are not disconnected enclaves of privilege and disadvantage. Great cities are diverse, vibrant, and above all, inclusive.

Regional Australia, including great regional cities like Wollongong, must not be treated as second best. The Whitlam government understood very well the benefits of decentralisation and the need to deliver complimentary policies for urban and regional development. Regional and rural Australia is suffering, with access to health and education being compromised. The effects of climate change hit hardest there. Labor understands the importance of high speed broadband in overcoming the tyranny of distance for those outside our capital cities. We should never forget the origins of our Party can be traced to Barcaldine. The next Labor Government will invest in regional infrastructure and our regional cities to underpin economic growth and expand opportunity.

Successful Labor governments collaborate with unions, the business sector and civil society to achieve positive outcomes in the national interest. Strong leaders like Hawke and Keating understood that engagement with interest groups is a crucial pre-condition for change. It’s a pity Malcolm Turnbull doesn’t get it. He not only refuses to engage with unions; he wants to destroy their legitimacy. Mr Turnbull and his ministers consciously set business and unions against each other. But division is worse than doing nothing. It saps national energy. It gets you nowhere. A better course would be to seek to enlist competing interest groups as partners in progress by encouraging collaboration and compromise. That’s the approach of the best Labor governments.

Our job is not to sow discord. It is to bring people together in the service of the national interest. Labor doesn’t have to agree with business on issues such as company tax rates, but we do have to engage constructively with business large and small. We respect and celebrate the importance of individual enterprise and the efforts and importance of the business community. In my own area of infrastructure and transport, I have maintained a close working relationship with the sector, which has broadly supported our agenda and called out the gap between government rhetoric and action. Working with industry helps us to understand its perspective and also helps business to understand ours.

Across the board Labor will continue this engagement whilst also representing those who work in those businesses. One of the great privileges of my life occurred in 1987, when I accompanied Tom Uren to the opening of the Memorial at Hellfire Pass on the Burma-Siam Railway, with his fellow former Japanese prisoners-of-war. One of the remarkable men I met was a giant of the Liberal Party, Sir John Carrick, who passed away just last month. In my view, along with Menzies and Howard, one of the three most significant Liberal Party members. Indeed, we spent several hours talking about his life and our very different philosophies on an extended journey along the River Kwai. Spending a few hours with this great man brought home to me how important comradeship and its political equivalent – bipartisanship, is to a civil political life.

Some of the issues I have spoken about here tonight would best be solved by bipartisanship. Climate change, education and infrastructure, Closing the Gap.  But this relies on qualities that few in the current government possess. They can barely achieve bipartisanship within their own coalition and are not capable of the kind of magnanimous generosity that bipartisanship requires. That Carrick and Uren possessed. That is a shame.  We can and must do better.

Gough Whitlam built a better Australia. The cumulative value of his legacy does exceed the sum of its parts. His gift to 21st Century Labor is the vision, compassion and love for his nation that drove his contribution to public life. If I may for just one moment I would like to echo the great man’s rallying cry. It’s Time. For quality jobs, For education and training, For healthcare, For infrastructure and nation building, For women to be equal, For diversity to be respected, For Aboriginal Australians to tell us what they need rather than for us to tell them what is in their interest. For the rights of workers to organise for their collective interest through unions, For our farmers and our business community to have certainty, For our environment to be cherished,

It’s Time for a ‘fair go’ for all Australians. Labor is not a grab bag of ugly neo cons, weak liberals and agrarian socialists fighting like cats in a bag. We are not a single issue party that puts abstract policy ahead of the working lives of people. We are not bitter, frightened xenophobes. As Gough Whitlam understood, if changing lives for the better is your ambition, Labor remains the only game in town. The Party of mainstream Australia The Party of courage and ambition for our nation. The Party of the fair go.


The Hon Anthony Albanese MP is the Shadow Minister for Infrastructure, Transport, Cities and Regional Development and the Shadow Minister for Tourism. This is the text of his speech presented at the Shellharbour Workers' Club on Friday 22 June 2018.


See also:

Suggested citation
Albanese, Anthony, 'Gough Whitlam and the party of the fair go', Evatt Journal, Vol.17, No. 2, June 2018.<https://evatt.org.au/papers/gough-whitlam-and-party-fair-go.html>