It was Gerard Henderson on the ABC’sInsiders at the weekend who made me reconsider Gough Whitlam and his contribution to Australian life. Gerard, the conservative columnist who you might disagree with but who always makes you think, referred to an article in last Friday’s Australian, “Whitlam’s grandchildren”, where Trevor Cook, having studied the maiden speeches of all the new Labor MPs, found they are the beneficiaries and bearers of the Whitlam legacy. What really motivates them is the agenda Gough Whitlam largely created for the national parliament: health, education, community-building and social justice. In the 2007 ALP MPs’ first speeches, there is occasional, and mostly desultory, acknowledgment of the importance of good economic management, but little evidence of any desire for a further instalment of the economic reforms championed by Bob Hawke and Paul Keating.
Gerard sounded as if he was a bit disturbed at that development and my inclination was to agree with him until later in the day when I started reading about the problems Barack Obama is having getting a decent health insurance system through the US Congress. That reminded me of just what a transformation Medicare made to Australian society. That surely was an achievement enough to guarantee Gough’s place as one of the great reformers in Australian history and if new and younger Labor MPs believe there is a role for an activist government in improving the life of its citizens then perhaps we should be thankful rather than concerned.