The Satchel Review - Saturday 25 August, 2012

It really is hard to remember, in my lifetime anyway, when Australian politics was so divisive; an indicator, perhaps, of a healthy democracy, of some nationwide existential angst, or of my youthful (that's a stretch!) political ignorance*. 

Arguably, the fifty-something shades of grey that characterise the political scene today are a necessary democratic conduit – the point being the 'working out', not necessarily the 'finality' at arrival at sure-fire policy that will make all and sundry people blissfully happy is the aim of the system.

To see the Government and Opposition finally come to an agreement on Asylum Seekers, as they did on the National Disability and Insurance Scheme, is to be applauded, even if these are the first stages of very large and complex policy problems.

There must surely be some middle ground, as far as the goodness of society at large is concerned, where political foes meet and agree to agree to shake hands on things of pressing importance, and not simply to take the disagreeable route and refuse to follow suit. Finally, some sound decisions.

Nevertheless, until very recently, the political landscape has been full of so much huff and puff, slanging and silliness, that the whole parliamentary house has been at risk of falling down into a sorry state of disrepute. One does sense a turn around; a return to some semblance of civility. But this is a case of "long time, no see". Why could this be?

When did it start, the discord? One might point to the removal of Kevin Rudd from his rightful and elected leadership of the Labor Party back in June 2010. Things started to get truly nasty then. After Kevin-07's swift rise to lead the country after 11-plus years of Liberal leadership, Australians were primed for a change and voted accordingly. Howard dragged the proverbial ball and chain to the polls with his deputy and tresurer reluctantly following, and was given a shellacking.

"There are big differences between us but we share a common pride in this great nation of ours,'' Rudd said then of his Prime Ministerial predecessor, who had offered his congratulations with dignity. We would be "writing a new page in our nation's history" on the back of this victory, he suggested, the voting public's trust invested in the erudite Queenslander to deliver on promises great and wonderful. 

And he did! There was the ratifying of the Kyoto Protocol (climate change being in his eyes, "the greatest moral challenge of our time"), the apology to the stolen generations, the fiscal stimulus response to the GFC that saved the country from tumbling into recession, a Paid Parental Leave scheme and the (nebulous) National Broadband Network deal with Telstra.

Then the grey clouds rolled in, the smog of disappointment choking the credibility and the opinion polls spiralling downward into the abyss.

Facing down failures in the areas of climate change (see: Cophenhagen, ETS), mining tax and administrative messes (insulation schemes, childcare centres) amidst the Global Financial Crisis, Rudd was rolled by his Labor colleagues in June 2010, just as mercilessly as Kim Beazley had been shown the door some four years before. The personal attacks followed, taking his leadership abilities and personality quirks to task, as if being executed by your own party were not punishment enough.

The Opposition took the chance to slander Labor's abhorrent politics as far as backroom party antics were concerned. Distancing the party from Rudd's lesser works in order to procure more favourable treatment in the ubiquitous news polls, the Labor powers-that-be worked towards solidifying Gillard's leadership in a subsequent election. Rudd's dismissal, wrote Fairfax political editor Michelle Grattan, marked "a historic shift in Australian politics".

But we had been there before. On November 11, 1975, Gough Whitlam stood on the steps of parliament and declared, after being overthrown by the Governor General, Sir John Kerr, "Well may we say 'God Save the Queen' – because nothing will save the Governor-General." Australia then was facing the "greatest political crisis and constitutional crisis" in our history.

As the story goes, and there are many layers in this tale of political intrigue, as leader of the ALP (the first in 23 years) between 1972 and '75, Whitlam had presided over a small majority in the House of Representatives and Opposition control of the Senate (read: as precarious a parliamentary position as Labor's now is).

Despite its legislative progress after coming to power on the slogan "It's time" – including free university education, funding for non-government schools, the setting up of the Law Reform Commission, the Social Welfare Commission, the Aboriginal Land Rights Commission, an Agency for Women's Affairs and the National Parks and Wildlife Service, the end of conscription, passing of the Family Law Act 1975 and the national 'Medibank' health scheme – the Whitlam government was plagued by accusations of economic mismanagement amid a time of global economic turmoil.

Ultimately, it was the blocking of the Supply Bill, in this case the Federal Budget, by the Senate that led to the Whitlam government's downfall (aka "The Dismissal"). The Opposition opposed key policy, including the overseeing of mining. Without money to fund its running, the Government would cease to function in its role of running the country. Whitlam orchestrated some political maneuvering in light of the double-dissolution election, which was held in May 1974 and returned him to Government.

Twice elected but things were coming unstuck: the 'Overseas Loans Affair' saw the Government seek US$4 billion to fund its plans for a natural gas pipeline, an electric interstate railway system and uranium enrichment plant, through a Pakistani broker. The media and public asked questions, casting aspersions on the Government's business dealings. It put Whitlam in a precarious position. Liberal/Country Opposition leader Malcolm Fraser sought another election. His request was refused.

Whitlam moved toward calling a half-Senate election in order to pass his Bills. Governor General Kerr pulled rank and the rug from underneath Whitlam's leadership, and for that he paid dearly. He resigned from the position in 1977. So hated was he, so vilified by Whitlam and the enraged Labor movement who saw his actions as the ultimate deception, that he spent the most part of the remainder of his years abroad.

"The remaining years of Sir John Kerr's life were miserable ones," said historian Phillip Knightley in Australia – Biography of a Nation. "He was subject to relentless harrassment whenever he appeared in public." The public was only served notice of his death after he was buried.

In his assessment, The Australian's Paul Kelly wrote in his 1995 book November 1975 that Kerr, "should have unflinchingly and courageously met his responsibility to the Crown and to the Constitution. He should have spoken frankly with his Prime Minister from the start. He should have warned wherever and whenever appropriate. He should have realised that, whatever his fears, there was no justification for any other behavior."

Graham Freudenberg, author of A Certain Grandeur: Gough Whitlam's Life in Politics (2009) was more sympathetic: "The beneficiaries of the Dismissal scarcely bothered to defend Kerr and in the end abandoned him. In the personal sense, Sir John Kerr himself became the real victim of the Dismissal, and history has accorded a brutal if poignant truth to Whitlam's declaration on the steps of Parliament House on 11 November 1975: "Well may we say 'God Save the Queen' – because nothing will save the Governor-General."

While revelations about the Dismissal continue to come to light, Whitlam later came to join forces with his former Opposition adversary Fraser, going so far as to embrace a joint backing of contemporary causes such as the push to make Australia a republic and the value of multiculturalism.

In his Whitlam Oration, delivered in June 2012, Fraser lamented that bi-partisanship in the national interest was no longer a feature of Australian politics. It was a "fruitful rivalry" he said of his relationship with Whitlam. The politics was separated from the person (alas, the same could not be said of Sir John Kerr and his position, though he had taken the role after it was offered by Whitlam).

As Gillard and Abbott come to agreement on certain matters of national importance, including most recently school funding, in the lead up to next year's election, it will be interesting to observe how they come to distinguish their points of difference. Let's hope it does not degenerate to exaggerations, distortions and petty accusations, as has characterised so much of the past two years' discourse.

"No government can be long secure without a formidable opposition," once said former British Prime Minister and novelist Benjamin Disraeli. One always plays a better game of tennis against a stronger opponent: it lifts your game. There must be a winner and loser, but in the meantime it would be nice to lift the game, so to speak, and to think the age of rancour were approaching an end, or at least an agreeable reprieve.

Between the salacious Slipper affair and the AWU debacle, GWAS is beginning to think there's a certain wisdom in staying out of the divisive headlines or at the very least staying well clear of the vicious and the vitriolic. A stately yet sorry thing, this politics game can be, can it not? It is not for the easily wounded or bruised, that much is sure, and is too often divisive rather than productive.

No wonder the Queen chooses to stay out of such matters, as she did during the Whitlam years, issuing a letter via her Private Secretary in the aftermath of Whitlam's dismissal stating that, "it would not be proper for her to intervene in person in matters which are so clearly placed within the jurisdiction of the Governor-General by the Constitution Act."

Surely matters of national significance, such as education and industrial relations reform, the welfare of asylum seekers and the environment, can be navigated with a gentleman's (or woman's) handshake, agreeing respectfully to disagree on some things and to humbly meet in the middle on others? Or else one might find oneself out on a limb, or walking the plank, like the Rudds, Whitlams and Newmans.

After all, as my local newspaper columnist Lee George, recently wrote, "there's nothing bland or boring about having a little grey in one's life".

- Kevin Rudd's successes and failures, AFR
- 1975 Australian Constitutional Crisis, Wikipedia

*'He who knows best knows how little he knows.' - Thomas Jefferson

Girl With a Satchel