Lessons from Whitlam's legacy

Whitlam’s greatest legacy was laying the foundations of the Hawke-Keating government.

The Whitlam years in government carry lessons not only for the Australian democracy, but also for many corporations.

When Gough Whitlam came to power in 1972, the Coalition had been in office for some 23 years. It was exhausted; it was time to change the government.

But in those long years of opposition, the ALP had lost the knowledge of what it takes to run a government. It was not enough to have the charisma of a Gough Whitlam.  The early Whitlam cabinets had people in senior positions who could not do the job. They would have been weeded out had the ALP won office in earlier elections.

When a CEO stays in power too long, the next appointment is often high risk because the natural successors have retired.

And so Whitlam had people like Jim Cairns and Rex Connor in powerful positions and their mistakes helped bring the government down.   

In the case of Cairns, I think it likely that Gough knew the extreme left wing minister was dangerous. But because of Cairns’ support among left wingers in the Parliament, to get rid of Cairns Whitlam had to promote him to a level where his incompetence would be obvious to all -- the post of Treasurer.

But by the time Malcolm Fraser moved to block supply and the governor-general dismissed the Whitlam government, the final Whitlam cabinet was excellent. It was well able to run the country.

Among the key members were Bill Hayden, Paul Keating, Lionel Bowen and Kim Beazley. The Whitlam years also attracted people of high calibre to the ALP. 

When the Hawke Keating government came to power, it started with a top team, and provided some of the best governance Australia has seen. I would argue Whitlam’s great legacy for the nation was the Hawke-Keating government.

Similarly, when Paul Keating lost power in 1996 there were enough Coalition members who understood what being in government entailed to enable John Howard not to fall into Whitlam’s 1975 trap. 

Howard had learned from Whitlam so to be sure he had people with experience in government, Howard appointed former NSW premier John Fahey as finance minister. In that way, Whitlam's precedent helped create yet another experienced and capable government. 

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