The music did not die for everyone when prime Minister Gough Whitlam was dismissed by Governor-General John Kerr. On the verge of high school and anticipating what Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson would do to the West Indians in the coming summer, I was quietly pleased that the wrecker had got his due. Ignorant of Labor's nifty reforms (in higher education, health, the arts, human rights), I saw Whitlam as the guy responsible for strikes, stagflation and a sense that the world was falling apart. Little did I know then that the Tories who would succeed Whitlam would be even less effective. But my untutored reaction held true: 25 years on, the legacy of Australia's biggest political and constitutional crisis is mostly good.
The vibe from the Summer of Love and Paris '68 seeped slowly into Oz. By 1972, the country was ripe for social change. Whitlam captured the mood, his "It's Time" slogan tapping the baby boomers' idealism and desire for experimentation. Whitlam told voters the Dec. 2 poll would be a choice between "the habits and fears of the past and the demands and opportunities of the future." His victory, if not emphatic, was a euphoric one. Whitlam was able to attract the votes of women, migrants, suburban fringe dwellers and students with promises of a strong central government promoting equality of opportunity.
Within days, Australia was a better, more interesting place. For two famous weeks, Whitlam and his deputy Lance Barnard formed a two-man government, making swift decisions: they abolished conscription, recognized Communist China, froze mining leases on Aboriginal reserves in the Northern Territory and removed the sales tax on the contraceptive pill. For the next three years, Labor's style was "crash through or crash." But its whirlwind of reforms, symbolic acts, big spending and mythmaking was accompanied by scandals, dodgy-looking deals, and industrial strife. When the Senate blocked supply, Kerr sacked Whitlam; at fresh elections the following month, voters put the boot in.
Whitlam and his team of amateurs were fiscally feeble and monetarily madcap. While the 1973 oil crisis has become a convenient explanation for their woes, it alone cannot be blamed for the structural damage the economy suffered at the hands of Labor. Wages and prices exploded; inflation hit double digits; a deep recession followed and unemployment reached levels not seen since the 1930s. The bust hurt job creation and confidence. More insidiously, the Whitlam years crushed the notion that reformist governments could be trusted with the economy; that leftish governments could help democratic capitalism. It was years before the economy got back on track-under another Labor government, stewarded by Bob Hawke and Paul Keating.
Ironically, the dismissal revitalized Labor, and even strengthened the national character. A generation of union and party hacks were swept away in the 1975 and 1977 elections; under Bill Hayden's leadership, an able group of politicians learned the ropes in Canberra and took to heart the lessons of Whitlam's failures. By 1983, when Hawke won office, Labor's ranks were swelling with ruthless, talented operators: hard heads with soft hearts. "Labor channeled its rage effectively," said political historian Paul Kelly on the 20th anniversary of the dismissal. "It decided to control the political system which had claimed Whitlam as a victim rather than embrace a victim mentality itself." The mantra of Labor's young Turks was that electoral success was based on sound economic management.
Those who might harbor a hint of regret for Whitlam, now 84, should think again: the dismissal made that aloof and pompous man into a folk hero. His popular standing is far greater than his record warrants. Far from casting an audacious leader into oblivion, Kerr gave Whitlam a rewarding career doing what he enjoys most: promoting the Whitlam brand. Since 1975 he has been perfecting a camp shtick that goes down well at book launches, political rallies and first nights-all the while polishing his image as one of history's most dignified losers.
The gift of the dismissal is what it showed about Australia's temper and faith. Journalist Kelly has argued that the nation's response to the dismissal proved its commitment to democracy. "Yes, there was noise, protest and rage," he said in a 1995 lecture, "but there was no blood on the streets, no sign of the army, not even a national strike. How many nations could say as much in a similar circumstance?" Australia passed that test brilliantly, but the constitutional defects that brought down Whitlam remain. If there's another dismissal, the fallout could be much worse; even the luckiest country can push its luck too far.