In July 1973, Whitlam’s Labor government had been in office for seven months.
Whitlam’s Address to the ALP National Conference provides an insight into his thinking, particularly his belief that the government had been elected with a clear mandate to implement the policies developed in Opposition at the three previous party conferences in 1967, 1969 and 1971.
Prime Minister Gough Whitlam’s Address to the ALP National Conference.
We would have less than ordinary human failings if on this occasion we were not tempted to indulge in all the emotions from nostalgia to euphoria. And our best friends have never suggested that the Australian Labor Party was short on ordinary human failings. There is, nonetheless, a sort of symmetry which would move anybody with a sense of our Party’s history in the fact that we came back to Surfers Paradise for this first National Conference with our first National Government for nearly a quarter of a century. We met here seven years ago for the Special Conference of 1966 – that annus horribilis in the history of Australia and of the Australian Labor Party. We were at the nadir of our fortunes. Yet that Special Conference, held at a time when we were well on our way to the greatest debacle in our Party’s history, strangely enough contained the seeds of our resurgence and ultimate triumph in a way that none of us could have then discerned. We started on the road back then and here.
Most of you recall the circumstances. We were in one of our periodic turmoils about “State Aid”, so-called. We had reached a certain decision: the point came when Clyde Cameron, who disagreed with that decision, but who saw what the Labor Party had to do if it were not to destroy itself, put it bluntly to the delegates that they had to make up their minds exactly what the decision meant and what its logical consequences were. He told us, in effect, that it was no good having decided in the Conference Room one thing and each of us going outside and saying another. I regard that – I must say with considerable hindsight – as a turning point in our Party’s fortunes; and for this reason: thereafter the national conferences of 1967 in Adelaide, of 1969 in Melbourne, of 1971 in Launceston began to spell out and continued to spell out precisely the policies a Labor Government would pursue. The Conferences did this in a way that enabled our Government – the Labor Government – to do those things which the Labor Conferences had told the people we would in fact do. I might recall, as an aside while I am mentioning Clyde Cameron’s role in the restoration of our fortunes, the reference I made to him at the 1969 Conference in Melbourne: I said then that he had to make up his mind whether he wanted to be just the footnote in some book by Alan Reid or be the greatest Minister for Labour in Australia’s history. He did; and he is.
The real point I want to make is this: what distinguishes our Labor Government from almost any other Government in the history of Australia is the fundamental relations between its actions in office and the program drawn up by the Party in Opposition, principally at its Conferences. The whole effort in ‘67, in ‘69, in ‘71, was to spell out at these Conferences exactly what we would do and exactly what we meant to do. The result has been that this was the first Australian Government since 1910 – Labor or anti-Labor – to be elected on a clear, firm and precise program. Labor did have a program in 1910; it never thereafter won or lost elections on its program. We sometimes won on our record. We once won in 1929 by default. But we never won as we did in 1972 on a clear and all-embracing program. I think it is important for us and for the nation to realise really what did happen in 1972 and to realise the real reasons why we won. It is a gross distortion of history to see the result of 2 December simply in terms of the 1972 campaign. The campaign itself was brilliant. Our officers, our agents, all the people who in one way or another helped us in that campaign are to be congratulated. They are all entitled to our deepest gratitude. But it trivialises our achievement, it trivialises your work and in so many cases, your sacrifices, and it trivialises the nature and purpose of this Labor Government if all that achievement, all that work, all those sacrifices are seen solely in the context of the 1972 campaign. Even more, I think it trivialises Australia and the Australian people.
The campaign of November 1972 was just a culmination of years and years of devoted and detailed work at all levels of the Party – the tip of the iceberg that sank the McMahon Government. We sell ourselves short and we give undue comfort to our opponents if we think that our revolution of the 2nd December – and it was a revolution – depended only upon a better advertising campaign and a better slogan. True, we did have a brilliant slogan. It was time and the Australians knew it. But if my colleagues and I had come to Government just on the basis of a slogan, we would have sat around for the last seven months wondering exactly what it was time to do. Of course we have not. We knew exactly what it was time for – time to implement Labor policies, the Labor policies which were worked out when this Conference met in 1967 and 1969 and 1971. Because of the work of these Conferences I was able, honestly and sincerely, to say to the people of Australia on the 13th November last:
“The Australian Labor Party offers the Australian people the most carefully developed and consistent program ever placed before them.”
I was able to say
“We of the Labor Party have used these crucial last years in Opposition to prepare ourselves for the great business of moving our nation ahead, to uniting our people in a common co-operative endeavour and to making the democratic system work once more. The determination of a few and the dedication of thousands have reconstructed and welded the Australian Labor Party into the most representative political party Australia has yet known.”
This was what our work – our work together, at Conferences like this was all about. That is what we were able to tell the Australian people. That is why the Australian people voted for us and gave us their trust. And that is the basis on which this Government, this Labor Government, has been able to function in its first seven months – on the basis of your work, your determination, your dedication. We knew exactly what we wanted to do; the people knew exactly what we were going to do. We were going to implement the program upon which we were elected.
It is a novelty. What a commentary on our predecessors, on the degree to which they debauched the political life of this country, that there should be uneasiness when an elected government actually sets about doing, as fully as possible, as promptly as possible, all those things which it was elected to do.
I might say now with seven months of experience of Government behind me, that if I had to present the policy speech again, I would not alter a significant word of it. When I realise the resources available to government, I stand, like Lord Clive, amazed at my own moderation. For too long, Australia has been inhibited by the Liberal Party definition of what was possible. For too long Australia has been inhibited by Liberal Party opportunism, selfishness, hatred, greed and fear. Their definitions of what was possible for the Australian Government and for Australia herself became the orthodoxy. To stray from those definitions became heresy and as a result, for years and years, this country and her people missed opportunity after opportunity, to do better at home and to be more respected, more significant, more purposeful abroad. I did not fully realise, until I became Prime Minister, how much a joke this country had become abroad. We were a joke – and it didn’t begin with McMahon. It was all so unnecessary; yet perhaps inevitable, considering what Liberalism, the Liberal Party had become and as far as I can see, still is. In one sense, I think we may find this one of our political and electoral difficulties; the public memory of the Liberal Party, of the last Liberal Government is mainly that of their ludicrousness – as a very senior public servant once said to me “a giggle a minute”. People don’t hate or fear jokes and they may not very long remember or resent what a joke the Liberal Government really was.
Few Australians deeply realise the great damage done to this country by that Government. It is only the minority groups, the unemployed, the Aborigines, the poor, the aged, some sections of the migrant community who really grasp the deadly seriousness behind all that risibility, behind all those giggles. That was a Government which conscripted thousands, which was responsible for the death of 500 Australians in Vietnam; which presided over the greatest decline in the real value of all social services in Australian history; which at the behest of its Country Party satellite, raped the Aboriginal population of their last remaining vestiges of dignity; which under its present Leader, threw 150,000 men and women out of work; which welcomed and used every stirring of intolerance and bigotry and hatred and division in this community for its own selfish ends. The Liberal Party was not rejected simply because it was a joke – and it was – but because it was a wretched and in many ways a genuinely wicked government. As for the present Opposition, I can only point out that without exception the same men are there, the same policies are there, the same attitudes are there, the same approaches are there.
At last, Australia now has a Government respected abroad and able to provide leadership at home. In its first Session, the 29th Parliament has already established itself as one of the great reform parliaments in Australia’s history. The Cabinet is unquestionably one of the most energetic and talented we have ever had. Reforming zeal, energy and talent, however, are not enough in themselves if we are fully to justify the trust placed in us by the people at the elections.
Basically what we have to do and what we are trying to do is to harness the talents of the Australian people in a new drive to create a more equal, a more open, a more tolerant society. This is the real meaning behind the new machinery we are creating – the Schools Commission, the Pre-Schools Commission, the Cities Commission, the Hospitals Commission, the Social Welfare Commission, the reconstructed Grants Commission. These are not designed to be just accretions to the bureaucracy. They are an essential part of our endeavour to have better informed decisions, better informed public debate and to involve the people in the decision-making processes.
Clearly in our thrust towards a more equal society we shall come into conflict with entrenched interests, determined to hang on to the privileges granted to them at the public expense over the past generation. We should not underestimate their determination and their powers of misrepresentation. Equally they should not underestimate our determination to implement our mandate. In matters such as the Universal Health Scheme; the needs concept in education; aboriginal land rights and an end to discriminatory laws against Aborigines; in retarding the rise in land prices; in providing welfare housing; in involving the National Government in the planning of the community services for which it provides the finance; in protecting the environment, in all these matters on which our program was faithfully and fully presented to the Australian people; our mandate is unmistakable. We are determined to carry it out.
While assessing the strength of the forces and interests arrayed against the Labor Government, I think I should issue a word of warning to all members and to all sections of the Party and the movement. It is all too easy to be carried away by the euphoria of our return from our long wilderness. None of us should forget the alternative. I don’t expect the trade union movement or any individual trade union to modify its just demands in order not to embarrass the existing Government which happens to be a Labor Government. We are determined to carry out the policy put forward in the Policy Speech, including less Government interference in industrial matters. We shall not accept the Tory newspaper line that every industrial dispute has a Government solution. What the newspapers apparently expect is that there should be capitalisation of industrial profits and socialisation of industrial disputes. I don’t intend to control unions any more than I intend to control business. Nevertheless, unions, especially significant affiliated unions, should in any action they take weigh the possible consequences of those actions. I am not asking them to go soft on their demands; I do ask them to consider the alternative – in terms of repression, of application of the penal clauses, in terms of another government’s ability to create an atmosphere of hatred and fear against the whole trade union movement.
And to branches of the Party I say only this: now that we are in, now that we have achieved so much of what you’ve worked for so long, you ought to have some mutual generosity and self-discipline in working out your own factional affairs. Don’t let any of us take the attitude that now we have got our Government in Canberra it does not matter what we do at the branch level in settling our factional disputes. It does matter. The greatness, yet at the same time, the weakness of the Australian Labor Party is its indivisibility. The people of Australia see us as one entity. They make their judgements so often on our worst and our weakest parts. They may be wrong, yet we ourselves encourage this view. We say and indeed we believe, that we are the one truly national Party, the one Party that can represent the whole community at all levels. So each level of the Party has to accept its ultimate national responsibility. This is a heavy burden for all of us to live with. Yet it is in the nature of the Party. So all I ask is that the Party will, at all levels, in all its dealings and in all its actions, consider its higher national responsibility and the higher national purpose of this national party – the Australian Labor Party.
In a Party like ours, in a movement like ours, there will always be a basic tension between two viewpoints – whether possession of power is more important than promotion of our principles. The whole struggle of my political life in this Party has been to show that there is no inherent contradiction, no incompatibility between the two. We have always been the Party of principle; we are now the Party of power. I see no reason why, for years and years to come, we should not continue to be both. For without our principles we have no worthwhile power, but without power we have no real chance to implement our principles. My life, my career, as you know, has been about the effort to reconcile the two. The whole purpose of our Labor Government must now be to prove – to our own people and to our region – that a democratically elected government can be both principled and powerful. I do not believe for a moment that it has to be true that power corrupts. We have a common task – the government and the Party – to see that it never becomes true.
Delegates, in these days, we are beginning the business of writing the Labor policy for the next elections. These elections may be at any time between now and 1975. All one can say at this stage is that they cannot be later than the end of 1975. What I hope you will do, expect you to do, and know you will do at this Conference, is to set in train the policy changes to equip us for the next elections whenever they may be, as you did in ‘67 and ‘69 and ‘71. It is not only a question of winning elections, important as that is. At the next elections, I want to be able to go to the people, not only with a great record, but with a new program – a new program to further our determination to create in our time a more equal, a more tolerant, a more independent Australian society. This Government has started its straight and steady march towards those goals. We represent forces that cannot be turned back from that path. At this Conference I confidently expect you – our chief auxiliaries – to assist us upon that march, along that path, to those great goals of a new drive for equality of opportunity in this country, for a new vision of what we can achieve in this generation, for our region and our nation.