A more personal reflection of the Whitlam days and other similar irrelevancies
Here is a personal note by an old leftie looking back on Whitlam's 3 big years from Remembrance Day 11th of the 11th 2014
Looking back: Anzac Day marches in a small country town
For the first few years of my life, watching Anzac Day marches each year in the small country town of my birth, I was convinced they ended every public statement of honour and respect for the Diggers with the declaration:
“We will remember them (unless we forget)!”
It seemed like they were trying to have a bob each way, and they were less than convincing in their annual moment of seriousness, which you never saw from these old diggers at other times throughout the year.
After the march I would watch the old blokes playing their two-up and getting blotto and going off their heads about the war and becoming less and less lucid as the hours passed, but I seemed to be watching the whole thing from a separate place, like a fly on the wall, and wondering if I would ever see a moment when these old buggers would actually ‘forget’ and finally be able to get on with their lives.
RSL's special story of WWI
In my early secondary school days I won the State’s RSL Anzac Day essay competition (with the help of my big sister, I have to say) telling the RSL their own story about the First World War, just like they liked it to be told.
Having watched those small town Anzac Day marches all my life, where I knew all the players by name, and saw the rich landowners as the officers and the poor working class blokes as the footsoldiers still being ordered to come to attention, 20-30 years later, I knew their romantic musings (based on John 15:13 which the had been modified to the absurd “greater love hath no man than he lay down his life for his country”).
Unanswered questions about the Great War
But my research such as it was in those days for the essay never gave me the answers to fundamental questions about the First World War, important to a young boy, about “why were we there at all?”, and “what was at stake?” Noone else seemed to care. They just wallowed in the glory of war and the honour of death. But for me it was, for some reason, a serious issue.
Were the Germans the bad ones as they obviously were in the Second World War? were they trying to take over France & Britain & Russia, as they were in the Second World War? or were they trying to kill their neighbours to get some sort of revenge?
The outbreak of WWI
Why did the war start? Well, it seemed to start with the assassination of the heir-to-the-throne-of-Austria, in Serbia, by a Yugoslavian nationalist of little importance. Austria & Hungary decided to invade Serbia. Why? I couldn’t find out. The war that followed and grew to enormous proportions within a few weeks seemed to be just happening because there were two groups of ‘friends’, with pre-determined alliances, that were quickly invoked, bringing all these other countries into the war, with disastrous consequences for thousands of Australians who seemed happy to go to war. They were going for “King & Country” and seemed happy to die!
The ‘friends’ thing explained the use of John 15:13, anyway. As a kid who had been active in the Church of England throughout my formative years, who had done a bit of reading and who had just given up on Christianity and on God forever, I understood the “laying down your life for your friends” bit, but I still couldn’t see how “greater love hath no man” had anything to do with the country, especially if it was a bit of paper saying if I declare war on a country outside our bloc, you will back me up, won’t you, whatever the reason?
Was anyone correct in WWI?
The Austrians seemed to be the only ones who had some reason to be aggreived but it seemed a bit arbitrary to invade Serbia just because the assassination happened in that country. The other involvement of a huge number of countries was strategic and military, but there didn’t seem to be any “love” involved anywhere. And what did any of this have to do with Australia? Why were the Turks, who were leaders of the Ottomans who had been dragged in to support Germany who had been dragged in to support Austria, happy to kill Australians who were dragged in to support Britain who had been dragged in to support France who had been invaded because they declared their support for Russia who had been dragged in to support Serbia? And vice versa. I just couldn’t see it.
Going to war for the love of God? What?!!!
My sister who was an active Roman Catholic didn’t know the answer to my questions about “love” but she suggested that it was best not to ask them. She said the Catholics saw the Pope as God’s representative on earth and they did his bidding because of a higher “order” which made his orders “infallible” and you follow them for the “love of God”, and since ‘my’ Church said the same about the Queen who was head of ‘my’ Church, it was best to assume that in 1914, if the King of the Empire calls us into battle, we have to assume that he knows what he is doing, he is on the right side, and so we were right to go to war for the honour of the Empire. As I had just recently committed myself to a life with no god, her position seemed pretty much nonsense to me!
Looking back with hindsight, I would have to say that:
The Anzac Day essay conversation between siblings was pretty obtuse and didn’t really need to be resolved intellectually, as a lot of it was about how you can properly interpret history, and I might already have been an atheist but I was still too young and immature and just hadn’t read enough history to understand what that was all about. So a lot of what she was saying went over my head. So I just rubbed out all the questions, wrote down in a poetic voice borrowed from my Mum how wonderful “death for your country” was, and won the competition!
Call to arms in Australia in the 60s
But it was not long before the issue of “dying for your country” started to raise it’s ugly head again, this time in a way that could have a huge impact on my life.
Menzies & the introduction of conscription
In 1964 the Liberal government under Menzies introduced conscription and committed itself to supporting its ‘friend’ the United States in the Vietnam War.
In 1965 the new Australian Prime Minister Harold Holt sent in a battalion to support the serious escalation by its ‘friend’ the US who had just sent in 200,000 troops. In 1966 this support by Australia was itself escalated and “going to war” started to look like a serious possibility for a boy after he reaches the age of 18 whose birthday could soon be drawn out of a hat.
Get a job at first opportunity or think of a career; not easy in the poor working class
I was in the last mob to do the Intermediate Certificate in 1966 (they replaced it with the School Certificate the following year) and at the end of that year my father found me a job on a farm so I could start to earn some money for a poor family.
But the optimism of the 60s had me with my head in the clouds and I dreamed of going to university and preparing for a new life, and I didn’t want to take up that job.
I remember the big arguments around the open fire about what was possible, and making a difference, and the domino theory, and the rights of countries like Vietnam to self-determination. My mother was a poor working class woman but from a landed family well-educated and was the town’s poet and writer of plays to be performed in the RSL Club at Christmas time and was basically a progressive and supported my dreams; my father was a conservative unionist AWU, reading The Worker and the Melbourne Truth.
I remember the arguments about political consciousness during the election of 1966 where my mother told my father that to vote for Liberal member of parliament David Fairbairn because Fairbairn had last year written him a positive character reference to help keep him out of prison was inappropriate and he needed to “grow up!” and his ‘quid pro quo’ could be putting his son’s life at risk.
He was not happy but he could see her point and in the end he compromised and supported me for another year 1967 allowing me to get my School Certificate and I left the school and the town and the poor family to go to a bigger city to do two years’ HSC under my own steam in an attempt to get a scholarship to go to uni.
1968: a turning point
1968 and 1969 were huge years for me. Me and my buddies in the high school weren’t politically active but it was difficult to not be aware of major events happening across the world that were speaking directly to us. The student strike in Paris in 1968 told us that change was possible and the students could play a big part in that change! And the Tet Offensive that same year told us that, although the official line said that the “US is doing great”, and we “have God on our side”, the reality was quite a different story and it seemed possible that the US army might be in for a rough ride! The Little Red Schoolbook came out in 1969 and it swept through the school like a wave. I was acutely aware that, if I had left school when the old man had wanted it, although I couldn’t yet vote, and wouldn’t be able to vote for another three years, I could already be conscripted and heading off to Vietnam to get killed for something I didn’t believe in!
Whitlam's position on Independence
I first became aware of Whitlam when he went off to Papua New Guinea Christmas 1969. He was in my head because I had finished my HSC and was working in Canberra for the Ex-Diggers’ Super Board and had little else to do at night but read the papers and watch a bit of TV. Whitlam’s talk of the need for independence for this third world country (from a colonial first world country who was itself a colonial outpost of the Commonwealth and an ally of the Cold War giant the US) when he came to power (which he assured everyone was going to happen in the “next election” 1972), sounded like a breath of fresh air! It fitted in with what I had been on about in the last couple of years in the school playground, with the other trouble makers, the need for self-determination in Vietnam. Whitlam was saying that Australia could not itself be free until these colonies of Australia were free!
The Anti-War movement
The uni - the focus of discontent
When I got to Sydney Uni 1970 it seemed like everything I had been thinking about was there on the front lawn of the university, waiting to be experienced. There were large gatherings of students using their sound systems on the front lawn, to talk about the Vietnam conflict, and to take on a major supporter of the war, a professor in the Philosophy Dept David Armstrong. Armstrong had been recruited by Prime Minister Gorton to give the Liberals' poor position on the war some moral legitimacy. There were other discussions as well, such as Aboriginal Land Rights, right to work for ‘Aborigines’, feminism, and equal pay for women. Living in Hugo Street in Redfern often meant I found myself involved in marches for Aboriginal rights and unplanned skirmishes and interesting discussions on a range of issues across the board.
The killing of students at the Kent Uni
I pictured myself in the violent disputes in Paris 1968 and it wasn’t long before this became a reality,
(like the honour of “dying for your country” of the First World War had, for me, quickly turned into a new law forcing working class kids who couldn’t go to university to register for national service to be sent off to die for an unjust cause whether they liked it or not),
when 4 students were gunned down at Kent State University for doing just what we had been doing in the last couple of months on the campus!
It was getting serious and I needed to decide which side I was on.
I decided it was best to die for human rights and freedom than die for what was a stupid lie to benefit some old men who had their minds back in the 14-18 “War to end all wars”. Yeah, right!
I would march for freedom and if they wanted to kill me for that, then so be it!
The Anti-War marches were often started with a meeting on the front lawn of Sydney Uni with fiery speeches and sometimes by the time they were ready to march ten thousand had gathered and set off downtown to make some trouble.
A Vietnam moratorium demonstration on the front lawn in 1971, photo G3_224_0252, University of Sydney Archives
PNG & Independence
Gorton's strength & his visit to the highlands
During the year Gorton went up to PNG to try and put a stop to the trouble Whitlam had caused by going up there and talking of independence from Australia. He got an angry reception as I recall it in Bougainville who were into Whitlam’s plans in a big way.
But up in Mt Hagen the anger was directed at Whitlam. Gorton received formal pleadings from the highlanders, dressed in their traditional dress with their feathers and spears and shells, who were afraid of what might happen to them if Australia left them to their own devices. I remember news footage in the cinemas of him being greeted with their angry dances & spears and him loving it! The images of him taking on the angry crowd at the airport personally with no fear for his personal safety and loving the traditional spear threatening highlanders stayed with me, and when I compare it to the gutlessness of today’s leading MPs (with a few exceptions) it still brings a smile.
By accident: I go to the highlands
At the end of 1970 I tried to volunteer at one of the clubs on the campus to spend my summer break in New Guinea on a water development project but I was late in applying and was told to apply again next year. I had been doing a bit of work in a factory so had some money saved so I decided to do it anyway. I hitchhiked to Cairns and went across to Port Moresby. I stayed at the university there to learn a bit of pidgin in the language lab and I had no idea about why I was there or what I wanted to do. But almost immediately I became friends with a couple of students who were staying there in the same dormitory doing their post-exam catch-ups that got them through. One of these was soon to become the king of the Giga tribe in Mt Hagen and he gave me a letter of introduction so I could go up there and stay in his village and wait for him to arrive. It was a wonderful experience that changed my life!
Whitlam's strength: his public address in the highlands
While I was up there, my ‘Australian’ friend working in a shop in Mt Hagen and daughter of the plantation owner who was a local parliamentarian told me of Whitlam’s impending arrival at the local council to speak to the highlanders about his coming plans for independence. She suggested I bring along bratas blong yu, my fellow yangpelas, men I was staying with in the village, in the haus blong yangpela long dispela hap, to see what he had to say. We got together a big contingent of villagers and went along.
He was inspiring! The villagers were interested in this bigpela man and got me to ask questions. Whitlam, as was his way, wasn’t having any of it, and asked me to shut up and let the villagers speak. He had a bit of pidgin himself and had councillors & interpreters for the local language and was able to converse across a crowded room in a relaxed, personal and intimate way with my village friends. They came away from that meeting with a completely changed idea of what was going to happen!
Fuck the draft! Here I am! Come & get me!
Famous orators in the anti-war movement in Australia
Back in Australia, to solidify my commitment against the war, I joined the draft resisters union. This union had set themselves up to secretly move the public speakers (who had refused to register, as an open defiance to the government’s right to conscript) from one meeting to another. These speakers were saying, “Fuck the draft! Here I am, come and get me!” but they didn’t want to be arrested because they were the voices of freedom. ASIO was around on the campus and often when these speakers came out to address the crowds there were attempts to take them in by plain clothed federal police, so the union needed members who were willing to surround the speakers and get them to a safe place at the end of their address. It seemed like a fine thing to do.
Dob yourself in
When I joined the union they said ordinary members had to be prepared to go to prison. Legally I had exemption because I was a full-time student under a government scholarship. But they said that there was a higher moral point to be made, and I had to write to my MP tell him that I had refused to register for national service and tell him my address, so if the Liberal government wanted to take me in, they would know where to find me.
Personnally I saw the rules of conscription to be rules written by the rich ruling class for the benefit of their own sons, because the only boys who could claim exemption were university students (of which there were virtually no working class kids in the 60s) or "conciencious objectors" (the religious lunatics who could claim they were working for the Lord on earth). The working class kids just had to do what they were told.
By that time, and especially because of the Kent University killings, I was happy to write my letter to my MP, although quite frightened of the realities of two years imprisonment.
Getting ready for imprisonment
By that time in 1971 my local MP David Fairbairn had become minister for defence and so my letter was a finger up the nose of the establishment and they felt obliged to send the federal police round to pick me up in Stanmore where I was living with other students and take me downtown to interrogate me and prepare me for a court hearing to make an example how draft resisters would be dealt with. I had gone through my second session with the AFP when Whitlam was elected early 1972.
What has all this got to do with Vale Whitlam?
Gough Whitlam Photograph: Whitlam Institute
The recent passing of Whitlam brought back all of these memories and more. A lot has been written in the form of the “Vale Gough”. He was an emormous man and he had an impact way above the station of the normal leader of the government in Australia, since 1901. I think I wanted to write this stuff down because I was unhappy with the ALP faithful being too cautious about acknowledging Gough's achievements in those three years in case it hurts the ALP brand, today. They can't say he was right to abolish education fees because they would have to admit that Hawke was wrong to reintroduce them. And they would have to admit that they handed a number of abolitions of Whitlam's fine improvements to Abbott on a plate. They talk of Gough's mistakes but they should be looking at their own, admitting those mistakes and working to set them right.
The other reason is, I wanted the state funeral, the celebration of the life of Whitlam, to happen on Remembrance Day 11th of the 11th 2014. There was only a few days in it but the difference in the timing is enormous, because of the symbolism involved; another reference to the gutlessness of modern political life. The thing we can all agree on is that 'gutless' could never be used as a descriptor in any account of the life of Whitlam. But everybody was afraid of what the old diggers would say if you had the gall to suggest it be held on that day. But for me, and for Dave Donovan @davrosz it seemed absolutely appropriate, because democracy was on that day brought to its knees. http://www.independentaustralia.net
Noone said a word in 1975 when he was sacked on Remembrance Day! I have never ever heard one reference to that link. It's like it happened in an alternate universe. But many people who were old enough can still tell you today where they were when they heard about this sacking on 11.11.1975. So it seems appropriate that Remembrance Day 2014 should be devoted to that moment in 1975! But the old diggers will always come up with some quasi-religious commitment to these 'special' moments, that can never be questioned! As you can see, since the early 60s that has not been my view of the world.
NOTE THE FOLLOWING LIST IS WORK IN PROGRESS
Whitlam changed the character of Australia.
- He got rid of the draft and immediately let the poor buggers out of prison. My case was dropped, never to be heard of again! I was so assured by his confidence and openness and spirit of change that I never even contacted the AFP to confirm the end of the proceedings. Just got on with my life! The historians will tell you that the process of withdrawal from Vietnam had begun in 1970 under Gorton and his successor McMahon had announced additional troop withdrawals. http://www.smh.com.au/federal-politics/political-news/what-did-gough-whitlam-actually-do-rather-a-lot-20141021-11977w.html#ixzz3Iee8BFJc but as I said they were still talking of throwing me in prison for two years because of the need for conscription and I was very relieved to see a Whitlam landslide in 1972!
- The involvement of Australia was ended and the boys brought home.
- Conscription was not to be used again, and so the army needed more money and he gave them proper leadership and modernity!
- The ‘domino theory’ was recognised as complete racist garbage similar to the ideas of the evils of the “Yellow Peril” of Australia of the 1800’s that Labor retained for a hundred years in their ‘White Australia’ policy. Whitlam got rid of that forever and recognised the importance of Asia and recognised China as a sovereign nation state.
- For PNG, self-government began on December 1, 1973. From that time, the functions of government were progressively transferred from the Australian Government to the Papua New Guinea administration, led by Chief Minister and later Prime Minister Michael Somare.
- Full independence came on September 16, 1975. In introducing legislation to the Australian parliament to grant PNG's independence, Whitlam commented “By an extraordinary twist of history, Australia, herself once a colony, became one of the world's last colonial powers. By this legislation, we not only divest ourselves of the last significant colony in the world, but we divest ourselves of our own colonial heritage. It should never be forgotten that in making our own former colony independent, we as Australians enhance our own independence. Australia was never truly free until Papua New Guinea became truly free”.
- Tertiary fees at universities and colleges were abolished. It was a bit late to make any real difference to me, but other working class kids would never ever again have to suffer the way I had because of the wage rates of their parents (I thought).
- Federal funding for schools removed the discriminatory character of state funding and he gave federal funding to non-government schools. Both me and my brother (in the State school) and my sisters (in the catholic school) would have benefitted greatly from these initiatives.
- Universities were now to be funded under the Commonwealth, which removed the huge disparities.
- Whitlam abolished discriminatory treatment of Indigenous people, taking over to the Commonwealth the right to override state laws that restricted property rights of Aboriginal people, allowed unequal legal representation of Aboriginal people, and allowed unfair working conditions and wages to be imposed on them.
- Whitlam amended the Migration Act to abolish a provision that required indigenous people to apply for special permission to leave Australia.
- Whitlam put together the Racial Discrimination Act ensuring that Aboriginal people (and others) could not be discriminated against with regard to their access to employment, their pay and working conditions, their equal treatment before the law, their access to housing and accommodation or their access to goods and services.
- Whitlam introduced formal Land Rights for Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander peoples, set up funding, loans and formal commissions.
- He introduced Aboriginal Legal services.
- Whitlam introduced Medibank, a truly universal healthcare system that gave both rich and poor access to hospitals and doctors. Prior to that Australia was much more like the US where you got treatment if you could afford it and afford proper insurance but if you couldn’t that was your problem.
- Whitlam introduced the Australian Assistance Plan that concentrated on grassroots community-based social services. I worked for the AAP for a couple of years after the Dismissal, until it was shut down by the Fraser government. This gave me the opportunity to see the possibilities of these ideas and I took part in some real initiatives such as the setting up of the Marrickville Women’s Refuge and Reverse Garbage.
- Whitlam funded new hospital facilities in rapidly expanding suburban areas of Australia’s cities and Community Health Program including community nurses, women’s refuges, rehabilitation teams, and services for geriatric patients, alcohol and drug rehabilitation and mental health services.
- One of Whitlam’s first Arbitration Commission to reopen its hearing on the ACTU’s application for equal pay for women in federal awards.
- The Whitlam-Barnard government then removed the sales tax on oral contraceptives and placed them on the pharmaceutical benefits list.
- Whitlam appointed Elizabeth Reid April 1973 as first adviser to an Australian prime minister on welfare of women and children http://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2014/oct/22/-sp-gough-whitlam-...
CATE BLANCHETT http://www.pinterest.com/pin/418553359093429205/
NOEL PEARSON http://www.pinterest.com/pin/418553359093429200/
JOHN PILGER http://www.pinterest.com/pin/418553359093306652/