23 October 2014
Earlier this week we marked the passing of the former Australian Prime Minister Gough Whitlam. The patrician, suavely elegant, physically imposing, polished orator, and silver haired Whitlam was very much a product of his time – the man credited with lifting Australia out of the torpor of the Menzies era of the 1950s and 1960s, and into the (then) modern era of the 1970s. In so doing, he shaped the face of modern Australia to the extent that today, nearly 40 years after his brief three years in office, Australia’s fundamentals are still very much the Whitlam legacy.
The contrast between the haughty grandeur of Mr Whitlam and the four contenders presently seeking the leadership of the New Zealand Labour Party in the now almost annual round of primary elections could not be more profound. However, it is a different time, and a different place, after all.
But there is an important lesson from the Whitlam ascendancy that the current gang of four should think about. Whitlam became leader of the Australian Labor Party at a time when the party had lost eight straight elections. It was dominated by its National Executive – the 12 faceless men as Whitlam famously called them – whose focus was preserving the legacy of the past, rather than facing the challenges and opportunities of the future. The problem as they (and the Caucus they selected and controlled) saw it was that while the ALP’s policies were fine and immutably principled, the Australian public seemed unwilling to accept in the comparative prosperity of the 1960s, the wisdom and virtue of returning to the more controlled society of the 1940s Labor heyday.
It had become a vicious circle. The more Labor lost, the more it turned inwards upon itself, and reaffirmed the need to return to first principles to regain power. And the more Menzies just kept winning.
Whitlam’s real success came early in his leadership of the party when he took on the entrenched interests directly, with a stinging attack on their failings that culminated in the immortal line “only the impotent are pure.”
A similar challenge faces the New Zealand Labour Party as it searches for its fifth leader in six years. A common refrain in the Labour Party is that the reason for their last two catastrophic defeats is that people do not understand their policies, and they need to be better communicated. On the contrary, people understand their policies all too well, and just do not like them. They may well meet all the needs of the interest groups that make up the modern Labour Party, but they clearly do not resonate with the near half million voters who have deserted Labour in recent years.
None of the current leadership contenders is a Gough Whitlam. But they can learn from him. “Only the impotent are pure” is a powerful starting point. The long term winner and possible next Labour Prime Minister will be the candidate bold enough to take on the party’s entrenched interests, and make them secondary to the interest of suburban, middle New Zealand.
Shane Jones was the last such candidate – and look what happened to him.