The Whitlam Schemozzle

The best day of the Whitlam government was just over thirty years ago, the morning after its election. After that it was downhill all the way, with crisis following blunders following crisis, and the descent onto Canberra of a flock of political advisers, place hunters, opportunists, rorters of public funds, greedy advocates of special causes, academics, artists, writers, and filmmakers who all thought they had been presented with the keys to the Commonwealth Bank, and journalists who believed in government by leak. A veritable plague of locusts.

What was not realised for some time about the Whitlam government, and what many of its historians and apologists still do not care to admit, is that while Whitlam himself was personally untainted by dishonesty and corruption this was not at all true of the hordes who surrounded him. If it is incompetence in a leader to be indifferent to the quality of his followers, and their ability to formulate policy in a competent and disinterested manner, then Whitlam was indeed gigantically incompetent. From the beginning the orgy of snouts in the trough of the press secretaries, political advisers and hangers-on was in full swing. Ministers and advisers all fell enthusiastically upon the lurks and perks   such as the use of the "black taxis", as the Commonwealth car pool was then referred to, instead of private transport. It was commonplace to have such cars wait for hours outside restaurants (or mistresses' residences), or charge a full day's overtime for taking a single telephone call on Sunday. The car, overtime and travel bills of the press secretaries and other staffers rapidly became a national scandal.

The taint of corruption was there even before the narrow victory over the Coalition led by Bill McMahon, who aroused the universal horror of those who had to deal with him or write about him, regardless of their politics. One of the best known improprieties was the apartment in a then luxurious tower in Park street, Sydney provided by Marrickville Margarine, who hoped to have the shackles imposed on their industry by the dairy lobby removed by a Labor government (they were). This was used continually during the campaign and in the first year of government at least by Labor's bagmen and favoured politicians, all expenses paid (the fridge was regularly restocked with ETA peanut butter as well as other products). This was one of the many scandals which could have blown up if the press gallery had not been besotted by the new government (and if the Opposition had been any good); there were many shadowy figures appearing in Canberra (like the late "Planter", who was encouraging Labor politicians and staffers to invest in land development on the NSW Central Coast, and even offering them finance  some took it up) to lobby for their own pet schemes. The still unknown Tirath Khemlani was really at the end of the queue.

Not that the lobbying came only from the obviously corrupt. Academics were leading the charge, with their hands outstretched. The prize for groundfloormanship must go to the group led by the late Professor Noel Butlin of the ANU who managed to get a Cabinet submission put up on their behalf right at the beginning, in favour of a huge research project to evaluate the environmental aspects of Botany Bay. Needless to say, it would have been a pure waste of money on very impure research, but very lucrative for its empire-building participants. This kind of thing later became the stock in trade of the dreaded DURD, the Department of Urban and Regional Development, under its minister Tom Uren. DURD managed to obtain funding for wildly unlikely and expensive new urban developments (like Albury-Wodonga and Bathurst-Orange), for the refurbishment of inner-urban housing in areas like Sydney's Glebe which was promptly occupied by the rising Yuppie and welfare-dependent classes, and for a desperate effort to promote regional government as a means of undermining, and it was hoped eventually destroying, the power of State governments. It also became, with the help of a few very competent but at that stage naive economists, for a little while a kind of counter-balance to Treasury in arguing the Budget debates.

The public servants, many of whom voted Labor for the sake of change, did not lose their heads in celebration. Instead, they got up early on December 3 and had the new Prime Minister endorse an Administrative Arrangements Order which was not quite so outrageous as that originally drawn up by his new office supremo, the late Peter Wilenski, still then partially under the sway of Maoist nonsense (he had written a pamphlet praising the hoax of the "barefoot doctors"). This marked the beginning of the warfare between the "politicals" and the permanents. Many of the former, with no senior bureaucratic experience, acted as if they had taken power after a coup d'etat, and assumed that policy was to be made by ukase out of ministerial offices, regardless of the advice and expertise of the permanents. They were encouraged in this by the extraordinary action which Whitlam took right at the beginning (December 5), long before the poll was finally declared, of in effect seizing power and distributing all the ministries between himself and his deputy, Lance Barnard (the first minister of defence to enjoy a TPI repatriation pension while in office). The legalities of these initial acts have never been properly examined.

The results were disastrous. When the government was properly formed submissions flowed into Cabinet and were rewritten in the ministers' offices, or by pigheaded ministers in the Cabinet itself. Poor Frank Crean, Treasurer at last after decades of waiting, was totally out of his depth. Other ministers simply ignored or removed their permanent heads. The press coverage revolved around the non-members' bar, which also operated as a kind of meat market (few wives were ever seen there), and the rare political staffers who refused to leak were regarded as peculiar. One minister's staff would leak to the disadvantage of another minister when there were policy disagreements. Nearly every minister assumed he had the right to interfere in other portfolios. As the international situation worsened, with the oil crisis, inflation began to take off and the level of insanity rose. The minister for Labour (national service had been abolished with not a single staff saving) thought he was there to hand out goodies to unionists generally (the 17 per cent annual leave loading, for example); he later repented and attacked them for the greed with which they had accepted his largesse, but never apologised for the consequent unemployment. He also set up the generously funded TUTA (the Trade Union Training Authority), which was supposed to offer training to trade union officials which would enable them to deal more competently with their role. It predictably soon became a rort, with unionists seconded on courses seeing it as a holiday camp and inferior leftwing academics seizing control of its agenda.

There were a few good ministers, and a few good policy initiatives. But it soon became apparent that this was going to be a short term government. By the time of the double dissolution election of 1974 the government was in fact already in total disarray  but thanks to Billy Mackie Snedden, a Liberal leader as bad as his predecessor, and to the tolerance of the electorate Whitlam was re-elected, and assumed once again that a narrow victory allowed him to act like a conquering hero.

One of the few worthwhile initiatives was the establishment of the Taskforce to review the continuing expenditure programs of the previous government, headed by Nugget Coombs. While in the end its report really became not much more than a rewrite of Treasury's hit list of unjustified handouts by the previous government , it did reflect the realisation amongst some at least in the Cabinet that it would be a good idea to review spending priorities in relation to both new and existing programs, and to make some budgetary savings.

Far from being disloyal, Treasury tried in 1974 to convince the government not to be taken in by the folly of the Loans Affair. (The memorandum by John Stone carefully spelling out the dangers is printed in full in Alan Reid's book The Whitlam Venture every point it made was more than justified in the ensuing shambles.)

By then the tendency of various ministers to take control of their areas of policy (and any other areas they could grab hold of) regardless of Cabinet had already been fully established. Uren and DURD were totally out of control, making their own agenda. Rex Connor even before the Loans Affair had, with the support of his permanent secretary Lenox Hewitt, adopted a centralist and secretive policy mode. The printed government directory, one of the many useful minor products of the era, contained detailed structural lists of departmental staffing by section and policy area for all departments save the minerals and energy department which displayed a stark list of names, devoid of job titles or organisational structure. Another oddity of Connors' ministry was that tables in his parliamentary office were stacked high with important departmental files which were thus inaccessible to all senior officials except through the permanent head. (It is worth recalling the late Paddy O'Brien's book The Saviours (1974) which demonstrated how many of Connors' strange policy ideas, like the national energy grid, originated in the bizarre undergrowth of intellectual fantasies like Theosophy.)

The tone for Lionel Murphy's time as Attorney General was set by the infamous ASIO raid early in 1973, when paranoia about that organisation was at its height. Needless to say, no evidence of conspiracy against governments or other organisations or any other evidence of wrongdoing was found. The worst that could ever be said about ASIO, then and now, is that it tends to be politically unsophisticated. Murphy was hugely energetic, despite his extra-curricular activities, and pushed through important, though not necessarily well-considered or beneficial, reforms. His best known legacy is the Family Law Act and the Family Court, both of which have wrought immense damage on Australia's social structure and on families. "No fault" divorce has proved to be a chimera, and fault has been reintroduced by the backdoor in the form of compensation for marital misbehaviour (by men, of course) through property settlements. In tandem with the efforts of the baby-boomer feminists to destroy the traditional family the Family Court has done great damage, while at the same time producing a boom in employment for lawyers in this area, and a much more complex and costly structure than it replaced. Murphy also led the push to use international conventions, treaties and other instruments as a means to subverting the Australian constitution and the federal division of powers.

Horror stories could be told about virtually every minister, with a few exceptions. Charlie Jones the minister for transport and aviation was notoriously pig-headed and impervious to rational argument. Like many other ministers he had long since decided what he wanted to do and cared nothing for facts. His true claim to fame, however, lies in the explanation of PNG aviation policy he delivered in parliament, when he declared, "I told Michael Somare, look Michael, you can argue till you're black in the face, but it's that Ansett who's the nigger in the woodpile". For once there was dead silence in parliament.

Environmental matters were mismanaged by Moss Cass with the assistance of surrounding zealots; Aboriginal affairs under Gordon Bryant began the sorry saga of waste (the famous turtle farming venture), corruption and destruction of what remained of Aboriginal society by those who believed that some form of Apartheid was to be preferred to Paul Hasluck's humane policy of integration. Whitlam, of course, enthusiastically endorsed all the mistaken policies of his colleagues, especially with respect to Aborigines, who of course are still suffering and dying from his legacy.

Frank Crean, a gentle man out of his depth, found handling Treasury beyond him in the context of uncontrollable spending and the international crisis, and was succeeded by Jim Cairns, possibly the worst minister of any government since federation. Even the press gallery could not swallow his appointment of Juni Morosi as his chief adviser, which was clearly improper (though their self-imposed, and self-interested, unwritten rule that the truth should not be told about personal relationships inside the charmed circle of Parliament House prevented them telling the electorate just why); the now-admitted relationship between Cairns and Morosi was the least part of the problem, however. Morosi was ignorant and paranoid, hated Treasury and any other critic of the current madness, and at one stage prevented Treasury officials having any direct access to the Treasurer, such that it seemed that no Budget could be formulated. (One story, emanating from that office, was that on hearing that a certain Milton Friedman was in Australia and was to visit the Treasurer she loudly demanded, "Who is this Friedman guy? What have we got on him?)

Cairns was replaced by Bill Hayden without ever having brought down a Budget. Hayden had, unlike most ministers, slogged away at his own portfolio and had brought about the promised reform of the health insurance system and the creation of Medibank  even as with sinking heart he realised that despite the furious opposition of the medical profession he was writing for them a virtual open cheque on government funding. Plus lots of jobs for administrators. Always interested in economic issues, and following events carefully, he was the obvious person to take over, and managed to produce a Budget which showed the path to economic respectability for the government. But it is doubtful that even without the events of November 11, 1975 the Whitlam government could have been saved. It was already in an electorally hopeless position.

Hayden on becoming acting Treasurer early in 1975 was informed about the Loans Affair, and immediately realised its implications. He told at least one close friend about March that "we (the government) have done something so stupid that we'll be out of power by the end of the year". He was right. The last year of government was a disgraceful shambles with an irresponsible Opposition forcing a desperate government towards illegal financing measures (like the Loans Affair itself, which was an attempt to illegally bypass the Loans Council) until the weak and panicky Governor General decided to cut the Gordian knot, thus making Gough Whitlam a folk hero instead of the miserable failure and policy disaster he was.

Padraic McGuinness . Quadrant  editorial. January-February .  2003

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