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  • Rex Widerstrom

Will we see their like again? And do we want to?

Gough Whitlam and Norman Kirk

It’s almost obligatory, as one ages, to start the occasional sentence with “In my day…” and to recollect figures from the past as being somehow greater and more influential than their contemporaries.

It’s often portrayed alongside resistance to change as mere wistfulness for days past; as memory amplified over time and thus distorted.

But is it always? Today we learn that former Australian PM Gough Whitlam has died. Amongst the photos posted on social media was one of Whitlam and Norman Kirk, at left. It was the death of Kirk in 1974 which first interested me in politics. Even as a child I could tell there was a palpable feeling of grief among most people. For days it seemed the country almost stopped; certainly the newspapers were full of reportage for days on end and I still have, somewhere, bulging scrapbooks I collected.

Whitlam, in contrast, lived on another 40 years. Although Prime Minister for only three, it was enough to refer to “Gough” and every Australian, and most New Zealanders, would know who it was you meant.

Songs were written about both men – “From Little Things, Big Things Grow” about Whitlam’s acknowledgement of Aboriginal land rights, and “Big Norm” about Kirk’s commanding presence on the NZ political landscape. The former is still played regularly and forms the basis of a long running series of superannuation advertisements, while the latter has become a question at pub trivia nights. And only Whitlam lent his name to band, which appropriately enough had a song called “Gough”, albeit not one of its most popular numbers.

Has any Prime Minister since, of either country, inspired songwriters, other than to pen briefly popular satirical works, or frankly awful campaign jingles someone had to be paid to produce? If so I can’t think of any. Certainly the passing of various successors to both men didn’t produce the real grief I saw in NZ in ’74 and am seeing today in Australia, from people who only briefly, or never, met the man.

It’s easy to say those were different times; and they were. We got our news from one or two newspapers, local radio and a TV channel, so it was easy for national leaders to dominate the news agenda and to some extent crowd out less powerful voices. We were, broadly speaking, more respectful of politicians and prepared to listen to them. And many of the policy initiatives they brought in – for Whitlam, an astounding record over such a short time including withdrawal from Vietnam, equal pay for women, free university, health care and rights for indigenous Australians – could only be done once, thus depriving their successors of being able to take credit for the deep and lasting impact those changes would make.

But, at the risk of slipping into exactly the kind of nostalgic distortion I talked about earlier, I’d posit that they were also different leaders to those that have followed.

To a great extent it was because they had what George HW Bush famously described as “the vision thing”. They saw beyond the three or four year term of Parliament to envisage a nation shaped in a way that they truly felt was better for all their fellow countrymen, and somehow people understood and mostly accepted that, even when they opposed the prescription.

They had the rhetoric – and the speechwriters, though Kirk was said to be notoriously hard to wrangle – to express that vision. They had the political skills to gain widespread support for their aims (something Bob Hawke, too, had). And they had the courage to defend those ideas to those they could not convert.

Those that have come since have had some of those abilities, but to varying degrees. In Australia, Hawke and Keating had vision, and rhetoric, and an ability to win widespread support, but never quite convinced a sceptical public that it wasn’t mostly about Bob and Paul. In New Zealand David Lange’s vision became clouded by that of others, and while he certainly had the rhetoric and won much goodwill, when it would have counted he didn’t have the courage.

Since then, things have only got worse. The verbal gymnastics our leaders use to explain that spying isn’t really spying, or that a carbon tax isn’t in fact a tax, or that up is down and black is white, have become so ingrained now that a politician who stood up and said “Here is what I believe…” and listed things that hadn’t been focused group, message massaged and polled to utter blandness would be treated at best as some sort of naïve chump… Mr Smith goes to Canberra, or Wellington. And at worst as an object of ridicule (of course it’s easy to ridicule unfiltered opinion when the only contemporary examples of it are from the likes of Jacquie Lambie).

Americans sometimes posit the thought game “Would Abe Lincoln get elected today”. A far from handsome man and by all accounts not a great stump performer, the theory is that Lincoln would probably lose the first televised debate and drop out of the primary. Non-Americans who debate the question invariably use it as an excuse to sneer at the big money, media-driven populism that is US politics.

But would Gough Whitlam or Norman Kirk get elected today? Kirk understood media – “Big” Norm allowed stylists to tame his unruly hair and buy him better fitting suits – and Gough certainly knew how to control an interview, so it wouldn’t be that which stood in their way. If anything, it would be our cynicism, ingrained in us by decades of being ‘handled’ by politicians as a substitute for taking us into their confidence and engaging in real dialogue.

In typical straightforward fashion the Brisbane Courier Mail didn’t pretend that anyone born after the Whitlam years would understand this, so they didn’t write an obituary littered with “colossus” and “statesman”… their headline said “Attention young people: This is why Gough Whitlam matters”.

He mattered most, in the end, because he reminded us what politics can be if it’s lifted out of the mire, and those who seek to lead us don’t resile from “the vision thing”.

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