23 November 2014
There might well be members or supporters of the Australian Labor Party thinking that bad things come in threes, as an old saying goes. It might seem that way this year, with the deaths of three Labor icons – former New South Wales Premier Neville Wran in April, former Prime Minister Gough Whitlam last month, and former Queensland Premier Wayne Goss earlier this month.
Much has been written and said of the legacies of these three men’s governments, so I don’t intend to add more there, but there are some things that you probably didn’t know about them.
As Prime Minister from December 1972 to November 1975, Whitlam is probably the most likely of this iconic Labor trio to be best remembered. He led Labor to its first Federal election win since the 1940s, and was seen as something of a Labor messiah. But he’s also remembered for his sacking in 1975 by Governor-General Sir John Kerr, amid a constitutional crisis over the stalling of budget bills necessary for government to function. Of course, Whitlam lacked a majority in the Senate, though not in the House of Reps where governments are formed, and the non-Labor Senators voted against passing the budget bills, thus bringing about the crisis. There was enormous public outrage over the actions of the Governor-General, considered by many as the country’s head of state, but after his sacking of Whitlam and dissolving of Parliament for a fresh election, voters ultimately sent Whitlam and Labor packing with a massive defeat.
Labor looked upon Whitlam as a martyr after this defeat, and he remained Labor leader for a few more years. But another landslide election loss, in 1977, ended Whitlam’s leadership, which had begun in 1967, and his departure from Parliament.
Goss was similarly seen as a Labor messiah in Queensland, and his December 1989 election win, exactly seventeen years after Whitlam’s breakthrough win, was Labor’s first Queensland election win since the 1950s. But despite being immensely popular, Goss suffered from a swing against Labor at an election in 1995, leaving him with a one-seat majority. Early the following year, Labor lost one of its seats in a by-election, leaving Goss and Coalition Opposition Leader Rob Borbidge with an identical number of seats in Parliament, while the balance of power lay with a single Independent MP, Liz Cunningham of Gladstone. Despite representing a Labor-leaning seat, Cunningham gave her support to Borbidge and tipped Goss out of office. A health problem forced Goss out of politics two years later.
Whitlam and Goss had several similarities in their fortunes. They both led Labor to victory after decades out of office, and were put out of office as a result of the actions of one individual, namely the Governor-General in case of Whitlam and an Independent MP in the case of Goss. Also, their breakthrough wins were clear on election night.
Their fortunes contrast to some degree with Wran, who in May 1976 led Labor to its first NSW election win since the early 1960s. This election was so close in the end that more than a week passed before Premier Sir Eric Willis conceded defeat and Wran claimed victory. Despite the close result, Wran grew in strength in the job, and led Labor to several landslide election wins, before calling it quits in June 1986.
There’s something else notable about Wran’s win. It came barely six months after the disaster surrounding Whitlam, when Labor’s morale was low. I remember someone describing Wran’s win as a tonic, and the idea of Labor winning office in the country’s most populous state not so long after Whitlam’s routing was really welcome for Labor.
Also, despite winning office in 1972, Whitlam actually had a bigger swing his way at the election before his win, which was in 1969. At that time, Labor was at a low ebb, with non-Labor governments in every state across the country, bearing in mind that the ACT and the Northern Territory didn’t have self-government in those days. Had Whitlam won in 1969, he’d have been surrounded by non-Labor state governments. This would’ve been the reverse of what John Howard faced during his time as Prime Minister, when from 2002 until his 2007 election defeat, he led a national Coalition government surrounded by Labor governments in all states and territories.
These interesting facts probably were unknown about this Labor trio of Wran and Whitlam and Goss. They won’t be forgotten until possibly generations from now.