Centenary Of ALP Caucus 1901-2001: Whitlam Speech

This is the text of a speech given by Whitlam to a Federation Anniversary Dinner in Melbourne celebrating the centenary of the Federal ALP Caucus.

The event was part of the centenary celebrations of Federation. The first Commonwealth Parliament met in Melbourne on May 9, 1901.

Whitlam was 84 years old at the time he made this speech.

Text of Gough Whitlam’s speech to the ALP’s Federation Anniversary Dinner, May 8, 2001.

For once, Shakespeare got it wrong. His Henry V said: “Old men forget.” My problem is the multitude of vivid memories brought about by the grandeur of the occasion, the association with my birthplace, the presence of so many colleagues and your warm and enthusiastic welcome. Maintain your zeal and your enthusiasm through the coming campaign and until polling day.

The Caucus I joined in 1953 had as many Boer War veterans as men who had seen active service in World War 11, three from each. The Ministry appointed on 5 December 1972 was composed entirely of ex-servicemen: Lance Barnard and me.

In February 1967 the Caucus elected me to be its Leader, and Lance to succeed me as Deputy Leader. It was a challenging year. I addressed the Victorian Conference on 9 June. The Corio by-election had just been announced. Inexplicably, Conference gave a mixed reception to my call to arms; to abandon the philosophy that found constant defeats to be a proof of the purity of our principles. As I said: “Only the impotent are pure.”

In those pre-IVF days, even the most chauvinist male unionist on the Federal Executive at its most intrusive would have realised the absurdity of men presuming to make laws on the fertility of women. In July in Adelaide the Federal Conference began the process of making the Federal Conference, Executive and Caucus more representative of Labor voters.

Tonight we celebrate more than a century’s commitment to change and reform through Parliament. My most constant objective has been to make Australian Parliaments more representative of all voters. The nadir of the Party’s electoral fortunes was reached in March 1968, when the Dunstan Government was defeated despite winning 52% of the votes.

Only one of Australia’s 13 Houses of Parliament was left with a Labor majority, the Tasmanian House of Assembly. Tasmania alone had equal enrolments in all electoral divisions in the State and Federal lower houses. In the winter of our discontent, Lance Barnard and I, the Leader and Deputy Leader in the Senate, Lionel Murphy and Sam Cohen, Premier Eric Reece and the Leaders of the five State Oppositions met in Hobart. We resolved to achieve equal franchise – one vote-one value – in the House of Representatives and in all the State Houses of Parliament.

At the joint sitting of both Federal Houses in August 1974, the House of Representatives was made the first legislative body in Australia to be elected on the principles of one vote, one value and regular redistribution. Now the Hobart strategy has succeeded everywhere except in the Houses of the Western Australian Parliament. There at last we have a Labor Government determined to complete the journey which began in Hobart 33 years ago.

The Party should pursue the greatest single constitutional and electoral reform for the advancement of parliamentary democracy in Australia: fixed four year terms for every House of Parliament in Australia. I stress three points: the multiplicity of elections, their cost and the permanent electioneering damage, the repute and standing of Parliaments and politicians; they cause the buck-passing of responsibility for finances and functions between the State and Federal Parliaments; they are the most serious source of potential corruption for the political parties in Australia.

I sought to safeguard the legitimate prerogatives of the elected Prime Minister. That was at the heart of the issues of November 1975. Recent books by John Menadue and Paul Kelly prove that the Queen and her staff were completely honourable and candid at the time and that her viceroy and his staff were not. Manipulation of democracy by arbitrary timing of elections should no longer be one of a Prime Minister’s prerogatives. Since 1949 there have been 24 Federal elections. Before 1949 there had been 18. John Howard contrived a premature election in 1998 and contemplated one in 2000. Before the end of the year he will have fairly staked a claim to be the worst Prime Minister in the 21st century.

The Howard government has squandered three decades of international cooperation and respect for international arrangements. It is pitiable for Australia to follow the United States in spurning international organisations and arrangements on disarmament and environment because it cannot control them. The ratification and implementation of international conventions now represent the indispensable response to globalisation. International cooperation through international institutions is the essential condition for the survival of national institutions, not least the unions. Governments, employers and workers equally participate in the work of the ILO. The Whitlam Government ratified nine ILO conventions; the Fraser Government one; Hawke and Keating five; Howard none. Eight conventions on occupational health and safety are awaiting ratification. Far more time and production are lost through industrial accidents than through industrial action.

I give another instance. My three Liberal predecessors disdained the 1966 UN Racial Discrimination Convention. My Government enacted it in June 1975. The High Court implemented it in the Koowarta and Mabo cases. No other Government has had so many of its acts and actions challenged in the High Court. No other Government has had all the challenges to its acts and actions dismissed by the High Court.

Tonight the surviving Labor Prime Ministers honour our great predecessors who held office in our lifetimes, John Curtin and Ben Chifley, both great internationalists. The toughest battle of Chifley’s career was to persuade Caucus to accept the Bretton Woods Agreement which foreshadowed freer world trade, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. One Caucus firebrand claimed that the Agreement would “pervert and paganise our Christian ideals”.

Chifley told Parliament:

If we have any love for mankind and a desire to free future generations from the terrible happenings of the last 30 years, we must put our faith in these international organisations.

This is the voice of Australian Labor at its noble best. The Australian people at their best have always responded. I confidently and eagerly anticipate that their response to relevant and forward-looking policies will be the election of a Beazley Labor government in the first year of the second century of the Federal Parliamentary Labor Party.

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  1. […] suggesting that Labor should not take its political defeats as evidence of its moral superiority, Whitlam quipped: ‘Only the impotent are pure’. A sweeter statement of political realism was never […]