I wrote this almost 2 years ago on the 40th anniversary of the election of the Whitlam Labor government. It seems still relevant today as we look back on Gough Whitlam’s life.
Forty years ago the Labor Party won government for the first time in 23 years in Australia. Gough Whitlam, one of the most right wing members of the Party, came to power as Prime Minister on the back of massive social movements and a strike wave in the late 60s and early 70s, both of which shifted society to the left.
To give you some example of the militancy, strike levels in the late 60s and into the 70s reached up to 1200 working days lost per thousand worker. Today the figure is less than ten.
In 1969 rolling general strikes across the country, organised by left unions, forced the bosses to release jailed union leader Clarrie O’Shea after 5 days inside and turned the penal powers into a dead letter.
It was this workers’ and societal militancy which forced the right-wing Whitlam to introduce some socially progressive reforms.
Even then, Whitlam’s narrow electoral victory was essentially on a program of modernising Australian capitalism and providing some cost effective social benefits for workers around education and health for example that were also major benefits for capital.
Whitlam’s victory also reflected the obvious fact of the forthcoming defeat of US imperialism in Vietnam and the massive social campaigns against that war. Contrary to popular belief, it was the Liberal Government in 1971 which effectively ended Australia’s military participation in the war.
The Whitlam Government introduced free university education and a universal health care scheme of sorts. It sewered working class suburbs in places like Western Sydney. It recognised China. It re-opened the equal pay case when it came to power. It ended conscription and pardoned the draft resisters. It officially ended Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam war.
There was a real left in the Whitlam government. Deputy Prime Minister (for a time) Jim Cairns was one of the leaders of the anti-Vietnam movement. This left had a commitment to social spending and redistribution from the wealthy to the less well off.
The failure of the ALP left to fundamentally alter society in favour of workers is a salient lesson to all would be Jim Cairns of today. The ALP is a capitalist workers’ party and that reality, and the reality of capitalist democracy, limit its actions in government.
The Conservatives obstructed some measures such as universal health care. Whitlam went early to the polls in 1974, retained power and passed legislation to set up Medibank at a joint sitting of Parliament.
Workers went on strike throughout 1974 to win real wage increases.
However, managing capitalism means making sure that capital is profitable. The global economic crisis – the fall in profit rates around the globe as a consequence of the way capitalism is organised – was beginning around the time Whitlam came to power. The surplus out of which social spending could come was drying up.
The Australian economy worsened, unemployment went up and inflation skyrocketed. The bosses wanted a government in power that attacked workers. Whitlam tried, bringing in Bill Hayden to deliver a horror budget, a budget the usurping Fraser government kept.
Whitlam’s attacks on workers were not enough for the bourgeoisie and their Liberal Party engineered a parliamentary coup that forced Whitlam out and saw Malcolm Fraser easily win the 1975 election.
Whitlam’s government bought some social democratic reforms to Australia – about 25 years after the process had begun in European and other countries after the second world war. However that Government lived by the sword of capitalism; it died by its sword as economic crisis engulfed Australia.
It was a lesson later Labor governments have taken to heart – managing capitalism means first and foremost making sure the bosses get their profits at the expense of workers.
The Hawke Labor government was the first neoliberal government in Australia and co-opted the trade union bureaucracy into a process of shifting wealth to capital from labour to address declining profit rates.
The alternative to a neoliberal ALP is not a return to a Whitlamite ‘nirvana’. First, it wasn’t a nirvana. Workers were still exploited, making all the wealth the bosses expropriated.
Second there can be no return to the halcyon days of the late 60s and early 70s because the system has aged, profit rates now are much lower than then and the long recession can only be overcome by massive economic crisis or revolution.
The first alternative is a return to the militancy of the late 60s and early 70s. Then the task is to build a fighting alternative, a revolutionary socialist organisation committed to a society based on democracy and satisfying human need.