Gough Whitlam and NSW Labor

Gough Whitlam was a product of NSW Labor, every bit as much as Ben Chifley or Neville Wran, Paul Keating or Bob Carr. The history, character and structures of NSW Labor influenced his whole career.

- By Graham Freudenberg

For two decades before he became leader of the Federal Parliamentary Labor Party, he learnt and applied political skills and knowledge acquired as a NSW branch member, delegate, candidate and MP. For all his brilliance and originality, he rose to the top because he won and held the support of the Labor branches at a time when the branches were the heart of the Party, and because he laid claim to be the authentic voice of the NSW branch membership. In his struggles for party and policy reform, as Rodney Cavalier points out, ‘The NSW Right backed Whitlam. They made him their favourite son though, in truth, Whitlam was not one of them.’ ‘I might have been Lord Mayor of Sydney, or Premier of New South Wales or even President of the Sutherland Shire’, Whitlam was to reflect. ‘Alas, the fates were against me.’ He was referring to his nomination for the Fitzroy Ward in the aborted election for Sydney City Council in 1947, and his failures to win the seat of Sutherland in the State election of June 1950 and the Cronulla ward in Sutherland Shire in November 1950.

The fates smiled at last in 1952. Soon after the 1951 double dissolution, Bert Lazzarini announced that he would not stand again for Werriwa; he had held this great sprawling electorate since 1922, except for 1931-1935 when he lost it for Lang Labor. This gave Whitlam a full year to campaign for preselection, which he did with characteristic zest and attention to detail, developing skills which he applied to crucial by-elections when he became Party leader. He won the pre-selection in June 1952 and, after Lazzarini died suddenly, the Werriwa seat in November.

Whitlam arrived in Canberra at a time when NSW Labor was strong and buoyant. State and Federal prospects were bright. The memories and lessons of the splits of the 1930s were still very much alive, not least in Werriwa. So were the unifying influences of the McKell revival and NSW Labor’s contribution to the strength of the Curtin and Chifley Governments. Joe Cahill had succeeded the failing McGirr as Premier of New South Wales just as Whitlam won his pre-selection. Evatt still basked in the glow of his great personal victory over Menzies in defeating the Communist party dissolution Referendum in 1951.

The Menzies Government floundered in the wake of the economic consequences of the Korean War. In Victoria, John Cain formed Victoria’s first majority Labor government a week after Whitlam won the by-election. Thus Whitlam entered the Federal Caucus with every confidence of a Labor victory in 1954, as a member from its dominant State. Nobody could contemplate that it would take another 20 years for victory to come. The way he came in was just as significant for Whitlam’s confidence and self-assurance. He came through the branches. He made the deliberate choice to take his young family to Cronulla and later Cabramatta – to Sutherland and then Werriwa; but, as a career move, it would have come to nothing without the strong support he won and retained from the Werriwa branches. He never took them for granted; and even as Labor Leader he was assiduous in attendance and detailed attention to the affairs of his FEC.

The staff negligence which led to Evatt’s failure to renew his ticket at the height of the Split crisis would have been unthinkable for Whitlam. He was not altogether accurate in complaining that ‘the closest my staff ever gets to my electorate is when they fly over it on the way to Canberra’, but the jibe served to remind them where their mealticket – and his own – ultimately came from. If Werriwa had not existed, Whitlam would have had to invent it – and, in a sense, he did. Werriwa as the microcosm of the new urban Australia was an act of political imagination on Whitlam’s part. His catalogue of disadvantage – that Werriwa had the most migrants, the highest birth rates, the worst housing shortage, the most distant hospitals, the neediest public health, the fewest schools, the most inadequate public transport, the poorest public amenities, the least sewerage – formed the framework of the Whitlam Program, to be fleshed out under the formula: ‘schools, hospitals, cities’.

 The fact that, because of its preponderance of migrants and children, Werriwa had the worst disproportion between population and voters drove his longest running campaign – for equal electorates and one vote, one value. Equality became Whitlam’s watchword because Werriwa encapsulated Australia’s most glaring inequalities. Most of Werriwa’s problems lay in areas then deemed to be State responsibilities. The trend of his thinking was clear from the start. In his maiden speech in March 1953, he said: ‘Education is absorbing an increasingly large part of the Budget of each of the States. I have no doubt that the Commonwealth will gradually be obliged to take over that function from the States.’ Whitlam made his maiden speech just after Cahill had won a resounding victory in New South Wales, with over 55 percent, a win comparable with McKell’s in 1941 and 1944, and the Wranslides of 1978 and 1981. Cahill’s victory in 1953 was absolutely crucial in containing the Great Split, and in shaping the character of NSW Labor for the rest of the century. The will to preserve the NSW Government prevailed. Cut down to its essentials, the Split was contained in New South Wales because there was the will to prevent it; and the main source of that will was a determination to save the NSW Labor Government. In Victoria, not only was this will absent but there were significant figures actually working for a split as the necessary prelude to an ideological takeover.

Some writers have made much of the curious notion that, unlike the Victorians who formed the DLP, the NSW Right made a decision to ‘stay in and fight’ (presumably against Evatt, the Federal Executive, the Left and even occasionally the communists). But why on earth should NSW Catholics leave a party where they already enjoyed an ascendancy in Cabinet, Caucus and the NSW Executive? Why break from a party with its historic cordial relations with the Catholic hierarchy? This was after all the party which owed much more to Cardinal Moran than to Karl Marx. Santamaria’s fantasies about converting the ALP into a Christian Democratic Party never had traction or attraction in NSW. These differences are sufficient in themselves to explain why the Split devastated Victoria and was contained in New South Wales. But the overriding factor was the basic commitment to saving the NSW Labor Government, confirmed so strongly in the 1953 elections.

Although the Federal intervention of 1956 left the NSW Right in control of the State Executive – and the Trades and Labor Council – the Split greatly increased the authority of the Federal Executive which asserted its role as the guardian of the Platform and interpreter of policy between Conferences, with a rigid dogmatism reflecting the approach of its dominant figure, Joe Chamberlain, the Western Australian Secretary who doubled as Federal Secretary. The most spectacular assertion of Federal authority over policy was the Special Conference on the North West Cape Base proposal in March 1963. It was graphically – indeed photographically – portrayed as the work of the ‘36 faceless men’. It should be noted, however, that the Special Conference took place only because the Parliamentary Party failed to decide the issue for itself, as it could and should have done. And in fact the Conference formula – conditional acceptance of the US base – was more or less what Calwell and Whitlam wanted.

The most blatant diktat from the Federal Executive came later that year, and it was directed against the Heffron Labor Government of New South Wales. The issue was so-called ‘State Aid’, specifically government funding for Catholic schools. It must be hard today for anyone under 60 to comprehend the divisiveness of ‘State Aid’ in these years. In October 1963, the Federal Executive instructed the Heffron Government to re-cast the State Budget on the grounds that its provision for grants to science laboratories in non-government schools contravened the Federal Platform. Menzies immediately picked up the proscribed proposal, and triumphed at the November Federal election. The intervention had set the seal of defeat on the NSW Labor Government – by the narrowest of margins on 1 May 1965, two days after Menzies had announced in Parliament Australia’s combat commitment to Vietnam, on a night when Calwell and Whitlam were in Sydney for the last campaign rally. In February 1966, soon after Menzies’ retirement, Chamberlain procured from the Federal Executive a resolution instructing the Constitutional and Legal Committee, on which Whitlam represented the Parliamentary Party, to draw up a High Court challenge to the legality of the many forms of State Aid already existing in the States. Some of the measures applied to the ACT and the Northern Territory and the Parliamentary Party had voted for them. As Chamberlain and Calwell probably expected, Whitlam refused to cooperate or serve on such a committee. They did not, however, anticipate the violence of his reaction.

Whitlam wrote a letter to Caucus members:

The decisions of the Federal Executive placed the Parliamentary Party in an impossible position. We were directed to oppose matters in Parliament which we had earlier supported and Conference had already endorsed. The long term future as well as the immediate electoral prospects of the ALP are now at stake. Continuance of present trends will reduce the greatest political party this country has known into a sectional rump. No party, however proud its traditions and great its performance, is immune from destruction. No party can afford to be controlled by people who want to use it for their own prejudices and vengeance. The issue is not between the right and the left. It is between those who want a broadly based socialist and radical party and petty men who want to use it as their personal plaything… This extremist group breaches the party’s policy; it humiliates the party’s parliamentarians; it ignores the party’s rank and file. It is neither representative nor responsible. It will and must be repudiated.

Whitlam often used the device of open letters like this to keep the argument ‘inside the organs of the party’ but he went well beyond those bounds in a television interview with Peter Westerway (later Bill Colbourne’s successor as NSW general secretary in the first years of John Ducker’s presidency): ‘I can only say that we have just got rid of the stigma of the 36 faceless men to have it replaced by the 12 witless men’. But whatever the chosen forum, the real target audience was always the party rank and file – the branch membership.

Whitlam’s reliance on support from the branches was shown by the contingency plan he devised, somewhat hypothetically, in the event of Chamberlain’s motion for his expulsion succeeding: rather than break the solidarity pledge by sitting, much less standing, as an independent, he would resign from Parliament; Werriwa branches would then select Margaret Whitlam who would keep the seat warm until (it was assumed) wiser counsels prevailed and he was re-admitted. Nobody seems to have told Margaret about this interesting scenario. In the event, Whitlam was saved by the vote from Queensland, where Whitlam’s stocks were labor voice feature and his deputy Senator Sam Cohen, would cancel out the votes of Whitlam and his deputy, Lance Barnard. Nevertheless, the presence of the parliamentary leadership was to transform the Federal Conference, as the highly successful Melbourne Conference in July 1969 was to show. There was, however, a price to pay.

The proposal for a Special Commission on direct representation of electorates and unions was shelved. As Clyde Cameron put it, ‘the Party can only take so much reform’. The trade-off at Adelaide suited Whitlam’s purposes well enough. He now gave priority to reshaping the Platform. With the parliamentary leadership ascendant, the 1969 and 1971 Federal Conferences re-wrote two-thirds of it. Whitlam might almost have adapted Churchill on the verdict of history and have said:

‘I have every confidence in the Platform, particularly as I wrote most of it myself’.

It is important to note that all these policies – the Whitlam Program for ‘schools, hospitals, cities’ as the shorthand had it – were being developed when Labor had lost office in most of the States.

For instance, in 1969 Labor ran only the Brisbane City Council, a position exactly reversed in 2007-08. This simplified matters. The Federal case could be advanced without undue sensitivity about State claims, and State inadequacies laid at the door of incompetent Liberal and Country Party governments. In South Australia, where Labor prospered, Whitlam and Dunstan enjoyed a long and productive complementarity. The NSW Premier to whom Whitlam owed most turned out to be Sir George Reid (1895-1899). When New South Wales had failed to produce enough ‘Yes’ votes in the 1898 referendum on Federation, Reid secured the insertion of Section 96 into the draft Constitution, providing for ‘Federal grants to the States on terms and conditions as the Parliament sees fit’. Section 96 became the keystone of the Whitlam Program. Labor’s lack of success in the States had a marked psychological effect, especially in New South Wales. NSW Labor, for the first time since the Curtin-Chifley days, began to think nationally. A government in Canberra became its first goal.

In the trilogy of Conference speeches on the Queen’s Birthday weekend of 1967, Whitlam called on NSW Labor to take the lead in party reform and revival. Thus began the alliance with the emerging strongman of the NSW Right, John Ducker. Ducker saw that Whitlam’s success could provide an alternative to the self-protective isolationism which characterised NSW Labor in the aftermath of the Split and the Left’s domination of the Federal organisation. In particular, he was prepared to abandon what Whitlam called the ‘knock-forknock agreement’ between the NSW and Victorian regimes: that NSW would be left alone as long as it opposed Federal intervention in Victoria. Ducker’s strategic acceptance of intervention in NSW was the key to intervention and reconstruction in Victoria in 1970. Clyde Cameron would never have accepted the role of prosecutor against the Victorian Central Executive if Ducker had not accepted simultaneous intervention in NSW. Both men acted under the influence of Whitlam’s great success in the 1969 Federal election and the promise it held for victory in 1972. Both those elections demonstrated that Whitlam’s strength lay in New South Wales. In 1969, six of 16 gains came from NSW, with three from Victoria. In 1972, the net gain was eight, with six more gains in NSW, four in Victoria, offsetting unexpected losses in Victoria, South Australia and Tasmania. The actual result partly disguised the very great gains achieved in Melbourne where a few score more votes would have given three more seats. Reconstruction had borne its fruit – and even more clearly in 1974, when two more gains in Melbourne and the solid vote in western Sydney staved off the four losses in regional Australia.

The Whitlam Government increased its strength in the Senate by three to 29. By the barest margin, it failed to win a sixth place in New South Wales and a fifth in Queensland. The failure in New South Wales was entirely due to the huge number of informal votes – more than 10 percent – because of the large number of candidates on the ballot paper. Even so, Labor overall secured 296,000 more votes than the coalition and 6,000 more than the coalition and the DLP combined. So close and yet so far. The 1974 win – now almost forgotten between the glamour of 1972 and the cataclysm of 1975 – was a remarkable result. Its historic importance is that the joint sitting which followed in July passed into law Medibank (now Medicare) and the legislation for equal electorates – one vote, one value – the foundation for all Labor victories, State and Federal, ever since. Perhaps the Whitlam Government’s greatest service to NSW Labor was to facilitate Neville Wran’s entry into the NSW Legislative Assembly. Whitlam gives this account in The Whitlam Government (p. 651):

My government and the NSW ALP Executive came to realise that it was necessary to transfer Neville Wran QC to the Legislative Assembly from the Legislative Council where he had become a member in March 1970, deputy leader of the ALP in 1971 and leader in 1972. There was a catch in the fact that at that time vacancies occurring in the Council on any particular day were still filled by proportional voting by the members of the Council and the Assembly.

The Liberal and Country Parties had a majority in both Houses and would therefore fill any single vacancy in the Council and thus increase their majority in the Council and overall. If, however, two vacancies occurred on the same day, the conservative parties would fill one only and the ALP the other. The opportunity arose to have two simultaneous vacancies in the Council when the Askin Government announced an early election. The State Parliament was to be dissolved on 19 October 1973. Nominations for the Assembly were to close on 28 October. My Government invited The Hon. Bernard Blomfield Riley QC, a former President of the NSW Bar Council, to become an additional judge of the Federal Court of Bankruptcy… He accepted our invitation and agreed to resign on 19 October. Thereupon Wran resigned from the Council on the same day and nominated for an Assembly electorate whose member agreed to call it a day. Before the year was out, Wran had become the new State leader. Whitlam calls this episode, masterminded by John Ducker and Lionel Murphy as Federal Attorney-General, ‘the sole instance of judicial manipulation by my government’.

Almost entirely on the basis of his support from Ducker and the NSW Branch, Whitlam remained leader after the 1975 cataclysm. It might have been better all round if he had not stayed for the disastrous 1977 election with its implied personal rejection in a way 1975 never was. Wran, however, made it clear that he was not wanted in the State campaign. Wran’s narrow win on 1 May 1976 galvanised the Labor Party throughout Australia. For much of the period, Wran was, as he put it, ‘the captain of the only Labor ship afloat’. From the defeat of the South Australian Labor Government in 1979 to the return of the Cain Labor Government in Victoria in 1982, New South Wales was the Labor bastion on the mainland, and Wran himself the most effective leader of the opposition against Malcolm Fraser. The fact that Wran deliberately distanced himself from Whitlam has obscured the continuity between the Whitlam and the Wran reform programs. The big-ticket items in the Wran program in his first two terms – the modernisation of the public transport system, the $4 billion capital works program, the Education Commission, the rationalisation of hospitals and health services (in practice, their relocation to the areas of population growth in Western Sydney) – were developed firmly with the conceptual framework of Whitlamesque reform.

Wran distanced himself from the Whitlam approach in two fundamental respects: the pace of implementing his program, and managing his Cabinet. The frenetic pace with which the Whitlam Government set out to implement every line of the 1972 Policy Speech gave rise to the conventional reproach: ‘Too much too soon’. By contrast, Wran maintained: ‘The thing about the Australian people is that they don’t tear off your arm or your leg if you break a promise you can’t keep’. Again, contrasted with Whitlam, Wran exerted himself constantly to maintain Cabinet unity, both in appearance and reality.

For all his strength and success, Wran was never as much a one-man band as Whitlam. In his first Cabinet in May 1976, 13 of the 18 ministers had voted against him in his leadership contest against Pat Hills in December 1973. He had been identified with neither faction of the Right or Left, but in Jack Ferguson he had what Whitlam never had in government, a deputy from the Left who combined principled leadership of the faction with unswerving personal loyalty. Theirs was a partnership which was also a mateship. It faltered only once (over the right of elected Legislative Councillors to be admitted to Caucus). Wran’s tight discipline over Cabinet stood in stark contrast to the Whitlam Cabinet. As he said: ‘Naturally we have our arguments and our differences. But when we’ve had a really big one, as we’re walking out I say to them: Now let’s wash the blood off the wall and grin when we go out and stick together.’

They might have expressed it less colourfully, but the other three most successful Labor Premiers of the 20th century – McKell, Cahill and Carr – governed in this spirit. It was in fact the doctrine of solidarity that used to typify NSW Labor at its most confident best. Yet, of all the lessons Whitlam learnt from his long and productive relationship with NSW Labor, this was one he was never able to apply to his Cabinet of Labor giants.

Compare and contrast (as Whitlam would say) Neville Wran’s statement I have just quoted with his own:

‘I don’t mind being surrounded by prima donnas, as long as I am prima donna assoluta’.

But the lesson he never forgot was that the strength of the Party was drawn in large measure from the rank and file in a committed branch membership, working in close relationship with the parliamentarians they had chosen. It was to them that he appealed again and again, over the heads of the machine, and it was NSW Labor he had in mind when he excoriated the controllers of the old Victorian Central Executive in June 1967:

‘There is nothing more disloyal to the traditions of Labor than the new heresy that power is not important or that the attainment of political power is not fundamental to our purposes. The men who formed the Labor Party in the 1890s knew all about power. They were not ashamed to seek it and they were not embarrassed when they won it. They recognised the limitations of industrial action. In that recognition lay the very genesis and genius of this party. ‘…I did not seek and do not want the leadership of Australia’s largest pressure group. I propose to follow the traditions of those of our leaders who have seen the role of our Party as striving to achieve, and achieving the national government of Australia… The means must lie within the Party itself. We have not been defeated because of our policies or our candidates. We have been defeated because the people thought that our organisation did not apply our policies and because they thought our organisation itself did not trust our parliamentarians.’