Abbott must learn from Whitlam

Bookmark and Share Ideas & Liberty | John Roskam
Australian Financial Review 24th October, 2014

For a failed prime minister, Gough Whitlam was remarkably successful.

In 2012, a year before the election of the Coalition government, the cover of the August edition of the Institute of Public Affairs' Review magazine featured a photo of the then-opposition leader, Tony Abbott and the headline "Be Like Gough - 75 Radical Ideas to transform Australia".

Some overseas friends of the IPA asked why a free-market think tank would suggest to anyone they emulate Australia's most left-wing prime minister.

They said what the IPA did was the equivalent of telling a British Tory leader to be like Harold Wilson or an American Republican to be like Jimmy Carter.

When it was explained that measured by the positive feedback that had been received, that edition of the IPA Review was far and away the most popular of the past ten years, those overseas friends were astonished.

For the left, the point of Gough Whitlam is what he did. For a free-market think tank the point of Gough Whitlam is not what he did - it was how he did it.

He was prime minister for less than three years and he lost more elections than he won (including leading his party to two almost-annihilations in 1975 and 1977) and yet as the IPA Review declared "No prime minister changed Australia more than Gough Whitlam".

The story of what Whitlam did has been well recited this week. Forty years ago he started what Tony Abbott is now attempting to end - the age of entitlement.

In the year before Whitlam came to office, spending by the federal government on social security and welfare comprised 3.75 per cent of the economy.

In the year Whitlam was sacked that figure was 6.25 per cent. In the 1974 budget, federal government spending increased by 21 per cent in real terms. Inflation was 17 per cent a year.

As Russell Matthews and Bhajan Grewal identified in their comprehensive analysis Fiscal Federalism in Australia, by 1974-75, because of inflation, for every 1 per cent increase in personal incomes the tax collected by the government increased by 2 per cent. Anyone who wasn't lucky enough to be a public servant in those years can attest to what this did to the country's work ethic.

Meanwhile, young people at university were told by the government their education was free. It's a worry many of those students believed, and still believe it.

Julia Gillard wrote a few days ago about how her life was changed because of free university education.


The reason a free-market think-tank urged Tony Abbott to "be like Gough" was because Whitlam had vision and ambition.

It might have been vision and ambition for the wrong things - but it was vision and ambition nonetheless.

In 1974, when Whitlam couldn't get his legislation through the Senate, he called a double dissolution election - winning it (narrowly). Whitlam moved quickly.

The IPA Review article talked about what happens after politicians have been in power for a year - "The support of voters drains. Oppositions organise. Scandals accumulate. The clear air for major reform becomes smoggy. Worse, governments acclimatise to being in government ... By the second year, even (a) very promising minister can get lazy ... MPs start thinking of the next election."

Also, it's not too long after a new government settles in that "polished and politically savvy public servants" start to assert their own agendas.

Vision and ambition aren't the sole preserve of the left.

Thatcher, Reagan and Howard all had vision and ambition. In fact it was more difficult for those three to achieve what they did than it was for Whitlam because they didn't have the support of their respective countries' cultural and political elites. Whitlam swam with the tide. Thatcher, Reagan, and Howard did not.

For the Abbott government to wind back the size and influence of the state in this country and to reduce the amount of money the government takes out of people's pockets requires just as much vision and ambition as Whitlam had - if not more - given how big government has become. That's why Tony Abbott should "be like Gough".