Wednesday, 22 October 2014
In 1972, the AWU, one of Australia’s largest union, then and now, officially abandoned its commitment to the White Australia Policy. If some find it surprising that the glorious AWU left its distinctly inglorious past, er, rather late, it perhaps shows how much we now view the past through the prism of the political settlement that followed, a political settlement that Whitlam had a leading role in making, but at the time of his death, is now unravelling.
There were three aspects to that political settlement that Whitlam had a hand in during his political heyday in the late 60s and early 70s. The first was international, especially Whitlam’s visit to China. The second was both international and domestic, the abandonment of the White Australia immigration policy and the impact it would have on Labor and its relations to the unions. The third was domestic, most notably the resolution of the “indigenous question”.
It’s perhaps best to start with the international situation, as that provides the context for what else happened. When Whitlam made his surprise visit to China in 1971 as opposition leader, it became the clearest indication that the Coalition’s 23 year period in office was coming to an end. The McMahon government’s attack on Whitlam for making the visit blew up in its face as Nixon followed shortly after, and for the Coalition, being out of step with the US is generally not an option.
The move towards China was not so much because of what was happening in China. Whitlam’s visit was during the height of the Cultural Revolution. While Whitlam was visiting cultural treasures, Mao’s Red Guards were busy smashing others up elsewhere.
More the trigger was a much bigger problem for Australian and US governments, the containment of Vietnam after the tide turned against the US military in the Vietnam war. The US setbacks in Vietnam resulted in a realignment of US and Australian foreign policy in the region with hopes that its neighbours could assist in the job. China obliged by supporting the anti-Vietnam Pol Pot regime in Cambodia, and then directly by invading Vietnam from the north in 1979, the year the US reopened formal relations with Beijing. In Australia this strategy of containing Vietnam reached its dismal low with Fraser sticking to recognising the murderous Pol Pot regime even after Vietnam invaded and toppled it.
The realignment forced by defeat in Vietnam, however, was part of a broader accommodation to rising strength of anti-colonial liberation movements in Asia and Africa that forced the major western powers to tone some of the more overt trappings of colonialism. The UK wound down the overt symbols of Empire and the US began dealing with segregation in the south.
For Australia, which like Rhodesia and South Africa, had formally racist policies in both in its treatment of indigenous people and the White Australia immigration policy, this posed particular problems, especially for Labor given that it was the union movement that was the bedrock of WAP. Fortunately, without the pressure of black majorities such as faced by Rhodesia and South Africa, Australia had more flexibility and avoid the ostracism they began to suffer from the 1960s.
Nevertheless, while the Menzies and Holt government were dismantling the White Australia policy, Labor and the unions were arguing over it. Attempts to remove “White Australia” from the ALP’s immigration policy failed in the 1957 and 1961 Conferences, finally succeeding in being dropped in the 1965 Conference.
The move to dump the White Australia policy was a key point of difference between then Labor leader Calwell and his deputy Gough Whitlam and others of the “New Guard”, who Calwell referred to as “long-hairs” in the party. But for Whitlam, dropping the White Australia Policy not only pitched him against the Labor leadership and much of the Federal Executive, but also against the unions, many of which, most notably the AWU, held on to the policy long after.
The WAP became one moral stick used by Whitlam to beat the unions with and reduce their power in the ALP after Whitlam took over the leadership in 1967. They weren’t the only target. While Whitlam is now lauded by the left, it is hard to think of any Labor leader that was so committed to eroding their influence in the party, most notably with his intervention in the Victorian party in 1970.
Eroding the influence of the unions and the left in the ALP, politely known as “modernisation”, was done to improve Labor’s electoral success given the growing social irrelevance of both. And it worked. It’s hard to remember now after the 1975 and 1977 election debacles, but electorally, Whitlam is Labor’s most successful leader behind Hawke, with what was called at the time the new “technocrat Labor” model.
Yet the Whitlam government showed the paradox of that technocrat approach. While modernising Labor helped broadened its appeal to get into government, eroding the union ties also undermined its rationale for being there. When economic turbulence hit in 1973-75, the Labor government was limited in its ability to use its relations with the unions to bring in a counter-crisis strategy. It is telling that Whitlam attempted to get powers over incomes through the failed 1973 referendum, rather than directly negotiating with the unions that were engaged in a wages push when inflation started to pick up in 1973-4.
By the Terrigal conference of 1975, Labor was on a program to cut spending that was reaffirmed in the Hayden Budget later that year. But in doing so, Labor had only managed to reproduce what the conservatives could do, and argued for, and so undermined its own case for government. It was something that was hidden behind the 1975 election, which Whitlam posed as being about Constitutional outrage but was really about the economy. The importance of the union relationship was a key lesson learnt by the next Labor government as the unions banded together under Hawke’s Accord to impose real wage cuts on its members in one last hurrah.
It’s become traditional now for Labor supporters to start to defend the Whitlam government’s economic record as not being bad as everyone claimed, a budget surplus every year (which no government has produced since), international factors etc. etc. and that responsible last Hayden Budget. It is true, conservatives do seem to have a special focus on the Whitlam government that seems all out of proportion to its actual record, and reforms that have generally had bipartisan support.
But to understand the role the Whitlam government plays for conservatives, and indeed the political class as a whole, it is perhaps worthwhile to look at the third side of the Whitlam program, the domestic, and the one issue that goes to the very heart of the political nature of the Australian state, the indigenous question.
As with the dropping of the White Australia Policy, it was international considerations that drove reform of the treatment of indigenous people. It was certainly the primary driver of the need for the Federal government to take over the powers to make laws specifically for indigenous peoples that had explicitly been excluded from the so-called “race powers” since Federation. It was the inclusion of indigenous people under these race powers that was the primary purpose of the 1967 referendum.
The 1967 referendum remains widely misunderstood as about equality, and rather disingenuously promoted by supporters of the Recognition campaign today, when in reality it was about the opposite, an extension of racially based laws by the federal government to apply to indigenous people that would allow Australia to comply with international obligations.
The basis of that settlement could be called a compromise, in that it didn’t give indigenous communities full equality, but removed the formal restrictions and replaced them with an informal one based on cultural differences.
Like all compromises it is contradictory. At one level it was supposed to be about removing discrimination, emphasised by Whitlam bringing in the Racial Discrimination Act in 1975. But on the other hand the settlement relied on the application of racially based laws under the race powers. It is why every time those race powers are exercised, such as they were in the 2007 intervention, the RDA has to be suspended. The RDA is a farce while we still have the race powers.
Unfortunately given that race powers are the basis of the political settlement around land rights, those who support land rights must keep the race powers. Hence all the slipping and sliding we have around the sometimes rather disingenuous recognition campaign, which poses as merely bland symbolism but in fact is not.
The second most important contradiction of the indigenous settlement is the one it presents over the very existence of the nation state. “Land rights” was imposed as a two state solution, of sorts, with the legal and constitutional logic working out over the years through the Wik and Mabo judgements and all the symbols that accompany it of the two flags, the welcome to country etc. etc.
In reality, of course, the two states solution is phoney and the result has been to effectively make indigenous communities wards of the one, Australian, state. But for conservatives, it epitomises the problem with the compromise of the political settlement, and if there is one thing that defines Australian conservatives is their attempt to attack and wind back that compromise.
It is this that has made Whitlam the bête noire of conservatives as the architect of this compromise, even if their own side played a part in bringing it about, born as it was out of necessity. It is why such a hoo-hah is made of his economic record even if it’s just a not really about that but the more politically sensitive issues behind the settlement that they are too weak to confront directly.
As for the left, they are largely trapped in that political settlement just as the defenders of the status quo in indigenous affairs end up defending what is hardly a desirable result. There have been New Thinkers, of course, on the Labor side, but this New Thinking usually comes when they are out of power and so not hindered by the institutions that would oppose any change to a political settlement they rely on.
Yet it is unravelling anyway. We saw that with the NT intervention when acceptance of cultural difference allowed the broad unquestioning of outrageous claims of widespread sexual abuse by indigenous communities of their children that was never proven. And we see it now where the prism of multiculturalism makes both sides of politics incapable of coming to terms with home grown terrorism that Australia has exported to Iraq, except to understand it as a foreign threat.
While it unravels, it is clear, as detectable in the plaintive tone in the obituaries over the last couple of days, that there is no one in the political class these days with Whitlam’s breath and scope of intellect to forge a new settlement, leaving the current lot to scramble around as best they can. It’s perhaps for the best that Gough’s not around to see the hash they’ll make of it.
Posted by The Piping Shrike on Wednesday, 22 October 2014.Filed under Political figures, The Australian state