“Whitlam: The Power and the Passion” on ABC last night

Mungo MacCallum: “There was certainly a belief that it was time for a change and…no rational person could really vote to keep Billy McMahon on as Prime Minister. And when you contrasted the ‘It’s Time’ T‐shirts that the Labor people were wearing with the best the Liberals could come up with, which was one saying ‘Oh,Not Yet’…”


Sir William McMahon – alas, yes! Linked to a rather amusing account of the man.

I had forgotten just how hopeless Billy had become by 1972. Yes I know people say that of Julia Gillard now, but at least in terms of presentation skills Billy wins the hopelessness contest by a country mile. I do remember cringing – and up to that point I had generally been a Liberal voter! Of course there was a lot more to Whitlam’s winning that year, Vietnam far from the least factor. Aside from which Whitlam was the first Labor figure in my time – well, obviously excluding Curtin and Chifley who were on the very edges of my memory – who looked like a possible Prime Minister. Cocky Calwell never did. And there really was such a ferment of ideas, most of them good and very many of them proving to be long-lasting.

Andrew Denton: “It was like a technicolour person had walked out of a black and white movie…The Labor Government seemed to be a mixture of hippies and SP bookies. On the hippy side you had Al Grassby obviously, and Moss Cass and JimCairns; and on the SP bookie side you had people like Rex Connor, people you weren’t too sure about.”

I enjoyed last night’s episode and look forward to next Sunday’s account of the subsequent collapse. It is a dramatic story, no doubt about it. And it was a an exciting time to be young, or young-ish in my case. I was 32 when Gough crashed and burned, and I still remember Rex Connor appearing dramatically at the Wollongong High speech night in, I think, October 1975, rather late — having been held up by events.

Troy Brampston does rightly nail a few errors in the documentary, but none of them all that significant aside from the not uncommon trope of exaggerating the benighted state of the country in the late 60s and early 70s when, in fact, quite a few of the changes people attribute to Whitlam had already begun. (One thinks of the 1967 referendum on Aboriginal citizenship just for  starters.)  Hence the headline Hyperbole for true believers, which  is somewhat harsher than Brampston’s overall assessment:

Putting aside these flaws for now, it is a rollercoaster ride as viewers relive the razzle and dazzle of Whitlam’s ascendancy and early days of governing followed by the inevitable crash, as dreams collide with inexperience, economic turmoil and political ruthlessness given vice-regal sanction…

The documentary effectively captures Whitlam as a change agent who not only embodied the mood for change in the electorate but also had a plan for where he wanted to take the country in the tumultuous 1960s and 70s.

Howard praises Whitlam’s skills as opposition leader. “I thought he did a tremendous job as the opposition leader and the way in which he welded the party together and repaired a lot of the rifts and campaigned and developed what he called his ‘program’,” Howard says.

After Labor was elected in 1972, Whitlam had himself and his deputy, Lance Barnard, sworn in holding all ministries between them. Whitlam told Hayden, “It was the best government (I) ever had, except it was twice as large as it needed to be.”

The economy would prove to be Whitlam’s achilles heel. “You will do great things,” Hawke recalls telling Whitlam, “(but) this government will live or die on your economic performance.”

The documentary spans Whitlam’s life. All the core elements are included, from his experience living in the outer suburbs of Sydney to his rise through the Labor Party and term as prime minister…

There are wonderful stories. Howard remembers telling one of his legal partners he was going to work on Billy McMahon’s 1972 campaign. “I don’t mind you doing it,” the partner said, “but you do realise, John, It’s Time.”

Phillip Adams recalls Treasurer Jim Cairns and Junie Morosi rolling around naked on the lawns of Kirribilli House. It is one of several strange scenes dramatised by actors who bear little resemblance to the people they are portraying. Nobody can portray Whitlam on the screen; he is already larger than life….

The documentary is a reminder of a Labor Party that once “dreamed the big dreams”, as Paul Keating used to say, and an inspirational prime minister with the conviction and courage to pursue them, however fatal his blind spots inevitably were.

Also of interest: Whitlam’s China masterstroke.

Incidentally, when I was a kid at Sydney Boys High the two Whitlam sons were in years below me, and Margaret Whitlam was on the P&C Ladies’ Auxiliary.


That is about six months after I had left. See Margaret Whitlam, Parent and Citizen 1960 by Jillian Dellit.