Apart from major items of news, for example, the ongoing story of the ebola outbreak in Western Africa and the never-ending saga of the British government’s battle with UKIP and the situation in respect of the European Union, there were several important stories that crossed the news desks during the week that was. Of specific interest to me was the news of the death of the former Australian Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam (born 11.07.1916 – died 21.10.2014).
I was living in London during the three turbulent years (1972-1975) that Gough Whitlam sought to lead a reformist Australian Labour government. For many Australians, especially the younger to whose idealism he appealed, Whitlam was a heroic figure. After a generation of uninterrupted conservative rule, it was felt that Australia was in need of a government that purposefully tried to implement a decidedly reformist political agenda (for example, healthcare, national parks, Aboriginal rights).
He and the Labour government came to power with a campaign that was spearheaded with the slogan “it’s time”. He treated the Australian electorate’s mandate to govern with an almost sacred intent. Unfortunately for him and his government, the 1970’s mix of dearer oil prices and the wage-cost spirals that undermined the big social ambitions of nations worldwide, dogged the Whitlam years.
A series of administrative scandals in 1975, including the somewhat infamous “loan’s affair” – involving attempts to borrow an immense sum of money from an international source – resulted in the threat of a right-wing Australian Senate (Upper House in the national parliament) to block the supply of government finances. The consequence was that Whitlam’s government was sensationally dismissed by the Australian Governor General (AGG), Sir John Kerr. At the subsequent election, the Australian Labour Party was routed and Gough Whitlam passed into Australian political history.
The fact that Whitlam’s demise was the result of a constitutional coup against a majority government, as well as the fact that it was carried out by an AGG who was the official representative (the notional employee) of the British monarch and, by implication, the British government and its unwritten constitution, was a major contributing factor in me becoming the republican I am today – irrespective of which country I live in.
It could be said, however, that Gough Whitlam was confounded and ensnared by the technicalities of the political situation of his age. It has been considered that “he did not fully realise the importance of the rule book and the letter of the Australian Constitution.” There was something of the maverick in him, if not in his entire administration. As a consequence, Gough Whitlam “will be more remembered for dreaming big dreams than instituting big programmes”.
In describing Gough Whitlam as a “commanding presence” and a “towering figure”, one eulogy commented: “The vicissitudes of his adventurous government will always be seen as a stirring era in Australian history, a period when his vision, verve and brilliance in the public arena won the veneration of hordes of admirers.” Superbly stated and, no doubt, there are many who experienced those heady days in Australian politics – who stood and admired and then were stirred to take one further step.
On the day of Gough Whitlam’s death, Helen Razer, writing in the Australian Daily Review, said:
“Even as a living reformer and even as a man with an ego proportionate to his height, Whitlam was a servant of history much more than a servant of self. We cannot mourn his end as though it is an end of history. It’s time to say that Whitlam’s moment of Utopian thinking is not done. It’s time.”
Speaking of Australians, this year’s Man Booker literary prize has been won by Richard Flanagan. Flanagan is from Sydney and joins a distinguished list of Australian novelists, including Peter Carey and Thomas Keneally, to have won this coveted award.
Flanagan’s novel is called The Narrow Road to the Deep North. It is broadly based on the experiences of his father as a PoW working on the so-called “death railway” – the line that ran from Burma to Thailand – during WW2. The unspeakable horrors of this Japanese construction project are well known to many Australians – through experience, literature and legend.
Reviews of the book suggest that the novel is not simply one of unremitting horror, suffering and inescapable death for, as one reviewer put it: “Acts of terrifying violence and appalling humiliation are suddenly illumed by slivers of hope – expressed by the naked, skeletal prisoners in acts of unexpected generosity (the sharing of a rice ball or a joke) – and a central love story.”
The story of the novel is not without love and hope. Flanagan says that “he had to find a story from hope, and love is the greatest expression of hope. Love is the discovery of eternity in a moment that dies immediately.” He quotes the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche in saying: “Hope is the cruellest of torments because it prolongs human suffering, but it is also the engine of us. Without it we die.”
The love element is provided by a tale that Flanagan heard about a Latvian man who scoured the earth in search of his wife at the end of the war. Moving to Tasmania, the Latvian later caught sight of the woman in Sydney, a child holding each of her hands. This was a moment of decision. Gripping stuff!
Richard Flanagan is not, however, without the kind of social and political consciousness that reminds one of Gough Whitlam. Following some remarks of Tony Abbott, the current Australian Prime Minister, about coal being “good for humanity”, Flanagan is recorded as saying that he was “ashamed of being Australian”. So too, in one of last week’s BBC Newsnight programmes, he spoke of his dismay at the repeal of the peace deal struck between logging companies and activists in Tasmania. It would seem that his opposition is to policies, not to people.
In the past Flanagan has spoken eloquently about “the bankruptcy of political rhetoric in Australia” – the false myths; the conformity of political culture; the cynicism of political groupthink; and, with echoes of Richard Wagner, the twilight of the political gods. Again, “We are living in a new period where the old forms don’t hold – a new form hasn’t yet been invented.”
A quote from Charlotte Higgins’ review of Flanagan’s novel seems to encapsulate the ideas behind both the prize winning book and Richard Flanagan’s philosophy of life: “I get more optimistic as I get older. If you choose to take your compass from power, in the end you find only despair. But if you look around the world you can see and touch – the everyday world that is too easily dismissed as everyday – you see largeness, generosity, hope, change for the better. It’s always small but it’s real.”
And, in an analogy that could only come from a typical, down-to-earth Australian, Flanagan said: “We need politics like we need a good sewerage system – it should be run properly and efficiently. But over the last century we have made a fetish of politics and we believe too much in it; we invest too much of ourselves in it and we don’t recognise the wonder in ourselves.”
In a week that announced the death of Gough Whitlam, such words seem apposite.
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