by Malcolm Mackerras

Those who view SWITZER and read this website may have noticed my absence over a long period of time this year. I last had a public conversation with Peter late in May while my most recent article for this website is dated 6 May. The title of that article is 'Why commentary on the re-election has been unsatisfactory' and it dealt with the Western Australian Senate re-election on 5 April.

In my last appearance on the television programme I predicted that the new Senate would be co-operative with the Abbott Government. I now argue that my prediction has been proved substantially correct. So, why did I not go on television to claim vindication for that, my latest prediction? Answer: my infected left hip (a replacement inserted in 1999) required repair. Consequently I spent the months of June, July, August, September and October in The Canberra Hospital getting my left hip fully replaced. Five months were taken out of my life as a consequence of my negligence in not getting the problem fixed earlier.

It is worth repeating a proposition I have advanced before. The Senate electoral system is very fair. None of the prime ministers who have operated under the current system (Bob Hawke, Paul Keating, John Howard, Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott) ever had the slightest ground to complain about unfair treatment by the Senate. Nevertheless it is worth comparing Howard with Abbott. In Howard’s new Senate in July 1996 there were 37 Coalition senators out of 76 or nearly 49 per cent. In Abbott’s new Senate in July 2014 there were 33 out of 76 or 43 and a half per cent. Why the difference? Howard’s Coalition received 44 per cent of the Senate vote at the March 1996 half-Senate elections while Abbott’s Coalition received only 37 per cent of the Senate vote at the September 2013/April 2014 half-Senate elections.

There have been a dozen or more political controversies during my absence about which I might have expressed opinions had I been in good health. Forced now to choose one topic I have decided that my opinion on Gough Whitlam should launch my return to political commentary.

I begin by saying that Whitlam was the greatest Leader of the Opposition Australia ever had. When he became Labor leader in February 1967 he took on the leadership of an unelectable party. Over a six-year period he reformed that party and brought it back into office in December 1972, having made major gains at the October 1969 election. Labor WAS unelectable in February 1967 having suffered a landslide defeat at the elections of November 1966.

Those commentators who refer to Whitlam’s courage almost always refer to his courage in that period rather than when he became prime minister. Take, for example, Hugh White, Professor of Strategic Studies at the ANU. In a Canberra Times article dated 28 October and titled 'Whitlam’s Asian daring a lesson for today’s leaders' White begins:

“The decade from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s was a time of great strategic and political change in Asia. Decolonisation came to an end, major Cold War rivalries evaporated, Britain withdrew, and Asia’s transformation into the world’s economic powerhouse began.

“All this constituted one of the biggest, fastest shifts in Australia’s international setting in our history. Our success as a country since then owes a great deal to the leaders who steered us through it. As the region changed, they changed the way we saw our place in the region, and hence the way we saw ourselves.
“Gough Whitlam does not deserve all the credit for this. Some Liberals played major parts, including John Gorton and, especially, Malcolm Fraser. Nonetheless, Whitlam’s role was immense, and should weigh heavily in the balance against his sometimes spectacular failings.

“Whitlam’s opening to China was, of course, at the heart of his foreign-policy achievement, and his audacious visit to Beijing in 1971 remains one of the most important events in the whole history of Australian diplomacy.”

So, that is what I think about Whitlam in the period from February 1967 to December 1972. What about Whitlam as prime minister? I have three friends who deem him to have been Australia’s greatest prime minister but I also have five friends who deem him to have been the worst. To the three I say: “The historian should never place his own judgement above that of the Australian people”. To the five I say: “You are telling me no more than that you dislike the social democratic mind-set.”

Back in August 2008 I had an article published in the 'Inquirer' section of The Weekend Australian, a place where I often have articles published. The article was headed 'Menzies the top Bob amid the greats, duds and a solid middle order'. There were 26 prime ministers at the time and I ranked them in order of greatness. Whitlam was placed number 13, therefore just in the top half.

Today there are 28 prime ministers to be ranked. Whitlam is still 13th and my top half now is, in order of greatness, Bob Menzies (1939-41 and 1949-66), John Curtin (1941-45), Alfred Deakin (1903-04, 1905-08 and 1909-10), Andrew Fisher (1908-09, 1910-13 and 1914-15), Bob Hawke (1983-91), Joe Lyons (1932-39), Billy Hughes (1915-23), John Howard (1996-2007), Ben Chifley (1945-49), Stanley Bruce (1923-29), Paul Keating (1991-96), Malcolm Fraser (1975-83), Gough Whitlam (1972-75) and Edmund Barton (1901-03).

I have discussed this ranking with other experts and there is a reasonably high level of agreement, together with some questions: for example, why do I place Fisher ahead of Hawke? Why do I place Hughes ahead of Howard? Unfortunately I lack the space here to give my detailed reasoning in answer to such questions.

It was my instinct to place Whitlam ahead of Keating and Fraser. That would make him 11th greatest. However, consider this: all of Whitlam, Keating and Fraser were defeated. They were kicked out by the people. There was a difference in the magnitude of defeat, however, Whitlam defeated in a landslide, Fraser and Keating in a respectable loss.

Turning to those prime ministers in the lower half I decided to place Julia Gillard at 17 and Kevin Rudd at 18. Some of my reasoning between these two was set out in earlier articles on this website.

Since all other commentators have decided to tell their Whitlam stories I shall tell mine. I first met Whitlam in December 1955 when I was a school boy at the Sydney Grammar School. I went to his campaign launch at Cabramatta, the suburb to which he moved (from Cronulla) as a consequence of boundary changes to the Electoral Division of Werriwa. I found him most engaging.
On October 7, 1972 I married my wife, Lindsay Margaret Ryan. We received a telegram from Whitlam which read: “Congratulations. Hoping the two-party preferred system will work as well matrimonially as psephologically.” (For those who do not get the allusion, the two-party preferred way of analysing votes at Australian elections is one of my inventions.)

My most recent conversation with Gough Whitlam was in April 2002. I was invited to the launch of one of his books, My Italian Notebook which he dedicated in this way: “To my prima donna Margaret Whitlam”. He signed and dated the book and as he did he said to me: “I hear you have issue here.” For those who do not understand the allusion it is explained by the fact that Lindsay and I invited our son William to come along. It was typical of Whitlam to refer to a son as “issue”.

Malcolm Mackerras is a visiting fellow at the Australian Catholic University’s Canberra campus.