POST WAR AUSTRALIA - 1974 ELECTIONS
that other lot win, I’m not going back’, one of my fellow Australian
travellers decided as we perched on top of the Pyramid of the Moon,
looking down the Avenue of the Dead, outside Mexico City on 22 May 1974.
other lot were the Liberal and Country Parties. What my friend feared
was that, in a poll held four days earlier, the Coalition had defeated
the first Labor government in twenty-three years, though the outcome
would remain unclear for the worst part of that week.
ALP was returned, but with a slight drop in its support and with a
majority in the House of five, down from nine. Among the casualties was
Immigration Minister Al Grassby who had been defeated by issues that
festered until One Nation.
of the Senate eluded both sides, which was fair enough since a scheme to
deliver a majority to Labor had been the trigger for a double
dissolution instead of only the half Senate poll that was due.
Queensland DLP Senator Vince Gair was unhappy that his party had removed
him as leader. Gough Whitlam took pity on this Labor rat and appointed
him Ambassador to Eire. Gair’s resignation meant that Queensland would
have to elect six Senators, and not five, making it easier for Labor to
gain an extra seat there.
so it seemed until that ‘Bible-bashing bastard’ Bjelke-Petersen
issued the writs for the half-Senate election before the spherical
Senator Gair could roll himself out of a Coalition beer-and-prawn night
along the corridor to the Senate President’s suite to tender his
resignation. Labor lost both credibility and the chance to pick up that
extra place. The Coalition seized on ‘bribery and corruption’ to
block supply. Whitlam crashed through by securing a double dissolution.
Gair’s party lost all its Senate places and, after twenty years,
disappeared as a political force.
only person who did not accept that he had lost anything was opposition
leader Bill Snedden who declared ‘we were not defeated’, prompting
the wits to remark that he just come second. No mockers appeared on the
Labor side where May 18 was another famous victory, not as memorable as
2 December 1972 yet confirmation that the Whitlam government possessed
‘a certain grandeur’.
so it also seemed. Before another fifteen months had passed, more
calamities than enough had befallen the party, the government and the
people to prompt commentators to wonder whether Labor might have done
better to have run second.
if?’ is not idle when speculation illuminates the significance of what
did happen. Federal politics has its crop of occasions about which to
propose ‘what if?’. What if the ALP candidate for Moreton in 1961
had been called Donnell instead of O’Donnell and so had garnered the
donkey votes to topple Menzies? How would the Ming Dynasty appear today?
And would prime minister Calwell have sent regulars into Vietnam?
closest parallel to May 1974 was the landslide to Labor in the 1929 snap
poll. What if the non-Labor government had run its full term to 1931?
The Tories would have carried the opprobrium from the Great Depression,
bringing Labor to office in 1931 as the cure, not scourging it in the
wilderness as a scapegoat.
we ask ‘what if Whitlam had lost in ’74?’, we know for certain
that several things would not have happened.
At the level of personalities, we can be
pretty sure that Snedden would not have appointed John Kerr
Governor-General, and positive that Lionel Murphy would not have gone
onto the High Court. Jim Cairns might not have employed Juni Morosi and
R. J. Hawke would have sought another route to the Lodge. And, of
course, Ambassador Gair would have had his credentials withdrawn and
thus not been able to make so many impressions on the bottoms of
colleens, as complained of in a confidential report to Foreign Affairs.
Another clear casualty of a Coalition
victory would have been passage at the Joint Sitting of both Houses in
July of the Bills that Whitlam had used to secure a double dissolution.
Medibank would have been still-born.
all, Labor would not have presided over the end of full employment. The
Loans Affair would not have clear-felled the cabinet before culminating
in the ‘reprehensible circumstances’ that Malcolm Fraser went
looking for to justify blocking Supply again in October 1975.
the scenario further, it is reasonable to assume that the electorate
would then have blamed the Coalition government for the death of the
lucky country during 1975 and swung back to the ALP at elections late in
1976 or early 1977.
interregnum should have let Whitlam hone the managerial skills of his
shadow ministers, in particular, cutting the cabinet back from
twenty-seven to a dozen. Caucus would meanwhile have absorbed the idea
of a fiscal crisis of the state, learned to tailor reform to an era of
economic restraint and no longer expected that the income growth to
supply tax revenues for big-spending programs. Instead,
leaders had to learn from their 1974-75 debacle, returning to office in
1983 determined to target welfare expenditures and to lower taxes.
return as prime minister in 1977 would have left him with the reputation
of just another technocrat guiding capitalism, not as the betrayed hero.
In 1979, the party might have shamed him out of recognising
Indonesia’s incorporation of East Timor.
Kerr’s Coup, when would a Republican movement have got going?
effects on the Liberal-Country Party of not coming second would have
been as petty and profound as those in Labor’s ranks.
with the authority of the prime ministership, Snedden was never going to
best Whitlam in the parliament or Malcolm Fraser in the cabinet and
party rooms. The leadership contests that had bedevilled the Liberals
since before Holt was lost at sea would have erupted as Snedden tried to
steer a derailing economy, with Fraser and Andrew Peacock scheming
against him and each other. Without a Whitlam administration to beat up,
Bjelke-Petersen might never have fancied himself as prime minister.
Liberals would also have had to cope with Country Party demands over the
value of the currency. In those days, the government set the exchange
rate within the parameters of the balance of payments. The last years of
the Coalition had been torn by brawls over revaluation. Too high a
dollar made farm exports less competitive. When I bought travellers
cheques for Mexico in April 1974, the Australian dollar was at its all
time high against the US dollar. Two of ours would buy three of theirs,
the inverse of today’s rates. A Coalition cabinet might have split at
once over the pace and extent of devaluation.
significantly, the Coalition government would not have been burdened
with what John Howard identified as ‘the extent to which the
pre-election trauma of 1975 imposed a sense of unease, illegitimacy and
hesitancy on a government election with a record majority’. Whether
the Coalition would have used its clear conscience to deregulate the
banks, float the dollar, end central wage-fixing, privatise Telecom and
slash protection between 1974 and 1977 is unlikely.
Coalition and our country have paid a price for blaming the economic
collapse on Whitlam, socialism, scandals and incompetence. No matter how
ignorant or ill-conceived were Labor’s economic policies, they merely
compounded the problems; they could not cause them. Billy McMahon’s
retaining the prime ministership in 1972 would not have rescued the
world’s monetary regime or averted the oil price shock.
as long as the Dow Jones glides towards infinity and the Japanese keep
hiding their losses, John Howard will not wish that he had come second.