13 November 2012
Most readers of The Scan – and indeed the parents of some readers – are too young to remember the balmy evening of 13 November 1972 when Gough Whitlam declared at the Blacktown Civic Centre, before 1500 supporters and a television audience of millions, that “It’s time”:
Men and Women of Australia!
The decision we will make for our country on 2 December is a choice between the past and the future, between the habits and fears of the past, and the demands and opportunities of the future.
There are moments in history when the whole fate and future of nations can be decided by a single decision. For Australia, this is such a time.
It’s time for a new team, a new program, a new drive for equality of opportunities: it’s time to create new opportunities for Australians, time for a new vision of what we can achieve in this generation for our nation and the region in which we live. It’s time for a new government – a Labor Government.
Whitlam outlined a comprehensive program of reform, touching every area of Australian life and society – income support, national and regional development, healthcare, education, whatt was then called Aboriginal affairs and on and on….
It was a time. It was the fag end of the Age of Aquarius. Peace (and the pungent aroma of maryjane) was in the air. And people had been in the in the streets, protesting Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War: in May 1970, over 100,000 people took part in the the Vietnam Moratorium March in Melbourne. It was, like, really, really cool, man: 50,000 people coming down Bourke street from the Spencer St station end and another 50,000 people from the Parliament House end.
I happened to be able to watch this from the vantage point of the City Square because I had planned ahead and decided I would skip the march bit and go straight to City Square and stake out a good position for the speeches. But I’d already had my own moment of drama.
I went to meet the first great love of my life for lunch, decked out in my mid- calf length brown Italian motorcycle overcoat (acquired from Nino Carboni for $10 when he was in straitened financial circumstances), black scarf with an array of Moratorium badges, juvenile scraggy beard, long hair in ponytail and earring (done the old fashioned way with cube of ice, a cork and red hot sewing needle). But Pam happened to work in the building that housed the Melbourne Stock Exchange. I was soon surrounded by a legion of police and security people who suspected me of being the advance guard of an “occupation” group. Fortunately, Pam arrived in the nick of time and extricated me, as my own pleas that I was a man (or at least a teenager) of peace were falling on deaf ears and I appeared headed for a period of detention and questioning.
They were times not of hope but of optimism: we thought not that we could change the world in a positive way: a la Obama 2008, we believed that we would and the first step would be the election of the Whitlam Labor government.
Whitlam’s Labor went on to to beat a discredited Coalition led by the risible (from a Labor supporter’s view) and the despicable (from many Liberals’ point of view) Billy MacMahon at the elections on 3 December.
Just less than three years later, it all ended in trauma. The Whitlam government was a smouldering wreck, flamed out by its inexperience (not a member of the Whitlam government had ever served in a government and it showed), its general incoherence (everything in the manifesto was a priority, so nothing was a priority), bad luck ( the oil crisis), the clash of grand egos (Gough, Clyde Cameron, Rex Connor, Jim Cairns, John Kerr, Malcolm Fraser), extraordinary personal indulgence (Jim & Junie) and just plain madness (cf Khemlani).
Kerr’s act of vice-regal bastardry notwithstanding, by November 1975, the Whitlam government had run its course. It was out of time.
But for all its manifest faults – and its rejection by the voting public – the Whitlam government transformed Australia in fundamental ways and left a lasting legacy for all Australians, from universal health care to consumer protection to land rights to a more independent foreign policy to ensuring the sewering of Australia’s major cities (just 40 years ago, large parts of urban Australia were unsewered). It even introduced colour TV (that was probably in the offing anyway). The It’s Time campaign song itself stands the test of time – and check out the celebrities of that time in the video clip – Bert Newton’s muttonchops, Little Patti, a young Jackie Weaver and Jack Thomson.
So let’s salute the Great Man, while he’s still with us.