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Opening Whitlam’s cabinet

The recent release of the Whitlam government’s cabinet papers from 1972 and 1973 have revealed much new information about one of Australia’s most reformist governments. Readers can examine the inner workings of the government as if sitting at the cabinet table with the major players of the day. These papers are important because cabinet is at the centre of executive government, comprising  the most senior members of the ministry. The cabinet papers include submissions to cabinet, decisions and departmental files kept by bureaucrats. They expose the inner workings of the cabinet process and illuminate executive political power in action.

The newest papers, from 1973, have revealed a government keen to implement its mandate, dealing with a wide range of issues such as foreign policy, defence, the economy, health, Aboriginal affairs, education and social services. Speaking at the embargoed media briefing in December 2003, Whitlam argued that these papers would serve to demolish the many myths about the Whitlam years. Namely, that they did too much too soon, had little regard for the economic consequences, paid little attention to the proper practices of government, that they ignored public service advice, and that they were driven by centralism. Perhaps.

But what these papers do show is a strong-willed prime minister firmly in command of his government. The 1973 papers illustrate the work of a cabinet driven by a grand Whitlam-Labor vision to achieve social reform, confident and prepared for the task. The depth and breadth of the work is apparent. That year was the government’s high point. But more importantly, it is the government’s earliest days, documented in the 1972 cabinet papers, that reveal much about the tragic fate of that first Labor government in 23 years.

As the 1972 election approached, the contrast between Prime Minister William McMahon and Opposition Leader Gough Whitlam could not have been more apparent. McMahon was the fifth prime minister in five years, being elevated to office at the fag end of the Liberal’s long reign. Since the disappearance of Harold Holt the government had been fraught with disunity. By November 1972, McMahon’s approval had fallen to 33 per cent, while Whitlam’s had risen to 46 per cent.

The government was clearly rattled by a resurgent Labor Party with Whitlam as leader, confident after its strong showing at the 1969 election when it won 18 seats. In contrast to Whitlam, McMahon lacked a commanding political performance in the parliament and in the media. Whitlam won the December 1972 election. Yet what was remarkable was not that Labor won, but rather that Labor almost lost. Labor attracted an overall 2.5 per cent swing and won eight additional seats. Labor lost seats in Victoria, South Australia and Western Australia. However, many argue it was an election that McMahon never looked like winning.

On Tuesday 5 December 1972, following Whitlam’s election victory on 2 December, the first Whitlam ministry was sworn in. It comprised Whitlam and his deputy, Lance Barnard. Between them, they held all the portfolios of the national government. ‘Whitlam came in like a lion,’ wrote Bolton. ‘The two-man ministry,’ he argued ‘… suited Whitlam’s proconsular style as well as his penchant for unorthodox constitutional devices.’ The first Whitlam government lasted until 19 December, when the Labor caucus elected a full ministry and cabinet. In 14 days, the Whitlam-Barnard duumvirate made around 40 decisions through media releases and the Federal Executive Council. The speed and haste with which these decisions were made caused grave concern and consternation within the senior levels of the bureaucracy.

The decisions made, and others foreshadowed, included: the complete withdrawal of forces from Vietnam, the release of draft resisters, the removal of excise tax on wine, a ban on racially selected sporting teams, independence for Papua New Guinea, major grants for the arts and Aboriginal people, grants for Western Australia, Tasmania and South Australia, rice aid to Indonesia, the purchase of new F-111 planes, the appointment of Elizabeth Evatt to the Conciliation and Arbitration Commission, a judicial inquiry into Aboriginal land rights, the appointment of John Armstrong as High Commissioner to London, the opening of unpublished government reports, special assistance for Aboriginal education, new nursing home benefits, a reference to Australian suppliers in government purchasing, a commitment to the decentralisation of university locations and more Commonwealth funding of universities, a grant to clean up the Tamar River, new government representation at the International Labour Organisation (ILO), removal of the ban on the advertising of contraceptives, removal of sales tax on the contraceptive pill, new membership of the Commonwealth Grants Commission, the convening of an interim committee of the Australian Schools Commission, a new airline curfew for Sydney airport, new benefits for permanent members of the armed forces, the appointment of ‘Nugget’ Coombs as an adviser to government, the commencement of talks on diplomatic recognition of China, reopening of the equal pay case, restoration of Wilfred Burchett’s passport, instruction to TAA to lower fares, announced scrapping of the honours list, the closure of the Rhodesian Information Centre in Sydney, and the recalling of Australia’s ambassadors to the United Nations, Washington and Taiwan.

Whitlam and Barnard also met with Governor-General Paul Hasluck as part of the Federal Executive Council and approved 18 recommendations at meetings between 5 and 19 December 1972. These included: amendments to various government regulations, the making of ordinances, making various government appointments including permanent heads of departments, the signing of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the abolition, merger and establishment of government departments. One journalist termed it ‘rapid-decision government’.

The concern within the bureaucracy over Whitlam’s style of government was such that a ‘confidential’ note in the department’s files from secretary John Bunting to his assistant secretary was distinctly uneasy. Moreover, so disturbed was Bunting at the speed and method of the decisions being taken, he decided to mark it of relevance to ‘future historians’. Bunting wrote:

For record purposes, including for future historians, I would like you to have it properly recorded in our running papers that the McMahon Government went to election on 2 December; that the first Whitlam Ministry was formed on 5 December; that it consisted of two Ministers only—saying their names and portfolios; that it was designed to be an interim Ministry; that it held no Cabinet meetings but that it nevertheless made and promulgated certain decisions.’

Casting doubt over the methods of decision-making and the pace with which such decisions were being made, Bunting suggested to his deputy, ‘It would be useful to get from the press or the prime minister’s office the daily statement of decisions or actions.’ As a senior public servant who had worked with prime ministers since Robert Menzies, and who was well schooled in the proper methods of public administration, the the first Whitlam ministry appeared deeply unorthodox to Bunting. It indeed appears as if the public service, and in particular the Cabinet Secretariat, which had hitherto been responsible for administering the cabinet, keeping proper records of its discussions and implementing its decisions, had suddenly found itself on the outer. The public service was being kept in the dark by its new master. Moreover, the decisions that Whitlam made in those first 14 days were far from insignificant—rather these were among the more groundbreaking decisions of any government since Federation. It is concerning that no cabinet meetings were held to make such decisions, nor was there any proper record kept of such decisions or the processes surrounding them. Indeed, the cabinet papers include what Bunting had asked his deputy for—merely a list of media releases issued by Whitlam and Barnard. Yet Whitlam saw no grounds for concern, at the time arguing in a televised ‘Report to the Nation’ that every decision was in response to ‘our unmistakable mandate’.

While ‘rapid-decision government’ was the method adopted by the first Whitlam ministry, the second was comparatively considered. The first meeting of the full cabinet on 20 December made just five decisions: it adopted standard procedures and practices for cabinet, noted the ‘requirements and conventions’ of public duty and private interest of ministers in government decision making, appointed several permanent heads, and established a procedure for award variations in government employment.

The first full cabinet meeting also decided to support the claim by public servants before the Public Service Arbitrator for an extra week’s annual leave. This was the first and only decision by the Whitlam government in 1972 that was based on a submission, and where the public service was comprehensively consulted. Newspaper reports at the time noted that the Public Service Board had previously opposed the application for extra leave. Despite these objections, on 18 December, Whitlam indicated to the Chair of the Public Service Board, through his adviser Peter Wilenski, that he wanted a ‘comprehensive analysis’ prepared on the proposal in the form of a submission, which could go to cabinet the next day. Noting time constraints, Cooley indicated that they would do their best, and a submission was prepared. The Cabinet Secretariat indicates in a ‘Note for File’ that if a submission could not be prepared by the following day, and be ready for cabinet, Whitlam had resolved to ‘make his own decision …’. The departmental file makes it clear that although the public service carried out the wishes of government, the demands and style of administration were not what they were used to.

Whitlam soon turned his attention to the structure of the bureaucracy, causing further disquiet among senior mandarins. Brian Johns, writing at the time, labelled the changes as ‘… the most drastic remodelling of the public service in the post-war years …’ New departments were created and several were abolished but, according to Johns, senior public servants baulked at several of Whitlam’s changes. The Department of External Territories was to be merged into the Department of Foreign Affairs, but it remained in place after bureaucratic resistance. Similarly, the government had planned to split the Trade and Industry Department, with Foreign Affairs assuming responsibility for trade matters. Johns wrote that ‘… while the top public servants are malleable on policy, they are determined defenders of their institutional homelands. Departments can be renamed, even regrouped, but our mandarins, predictably, resist to the end the abolition of their power bases.’

In its first 14 days, the Whitlam government clearly and unequivocally moved decisively on many of the issues that the McMahon cabinet had found difficulty with. In subsequent years, Whitlam and his ministers would make additional far-reaching decisions in many areas. Whitlam offered a visionary agenda, which dramatically altered Australian political life. However, within six months the Australian people had begun to grow weary of the radical reform agenda and the frenzied style of government. Before the constitutional deadlock began, the public’s support for the government had declined rapidly. By July 1973, Labor was trailing the Coalition in the Morgan Gallup Poll. Despite winning a second term in 1974, with a small swing against the government, Labor was largely behind in the polls for much of the period. In almost every poll from July 1973 until November 1975, Labor was behind the Liberal-Country Party opposition under Billy Snedden and later Malcolm Fraser.

Apart from policy, in many ways the Whitlam government’s later problems stemmed from the administrative practices it adopted in those first 14 days. Whitlam was suspicious of the public service after 23 years of conservative government. Further, he believed that there was a lack of interest in, and expertise for, some newer areas of policy he championed. Whitlam appeared unwilling to listen to advice or to include the public service in the processes and decisions of his government. Whitlam suffered from a failure to consult, to debate, to listen and an absolute belief that he was right. While the records show that McMahon suffered from a lack of decisiveness in cabinet, Whitlam’s decisions suffered because he was too decisive and disinclined to debate.

The incredible number of decisions made by the first Whitlam ministry took place without any cabinet discussion or debate, nor any input from the public service. Nevertheless, political historians Lloyd and Reid (Out of the Wilderness: The return of Labor, Casell, 1974) argue that ‘… it would not have been possible to symbolise the regeneration of an infirm political party in a more impressive way.’ Indeed most of the major policy directions of the whole Whitlam period were foreshadowed in those first two weeks. However, equally important is the ‘style and character’ of the government. Lloyd and Reid write:
If many of the virtues of the second Whitlam government were present in the first ministry, so also do many of its flaws show up in the prototype. Most importantly, a pattern of decision-making appropriate to two men in a hurry and with little time for rational assessment was carried over into the working of the full ministry. Preoccupation with the number of decisions, piling one on the other without proper attention to coordination or coherent strategy, was one of the major flaws of the two Whitlam governments.
Whitlam’s key adviser, Peter Wilenski, acknowledged that the ‘… inherent problems in Labor’s programs were compounded by their mode of implementation.’ Despite making several spending commitments in its first few days, there is no evidence in the papers that any advice was sought on the state of the economy or the impact on the government’s budgetary position.

While the method of government throughout 1973 was more conventional, the speed of government remained the same. The papers show a bureaucracy under incredible pressure and a ministry seemingly burdened with more paperwork than ever before. In 1973, the cabinet considered 823 formal submissions, made 692 decisions not based on submissions and passed 221 acts of legislation—more than any government ever before. The initiatives were often so ambitious that there were disagreements over their implementation and concern in the public service over how they would be funded. Yet Whitlam sailed through. While noting the large amount of business, he maintained his reforming zeal, all under the authority of fulfilling the ‘mandate’.

The implementation of his ‘mandate’ was central to the government’s fortunes. Whitlam’s speech-writer Graham Freudenberg argues that this was ‘… fundamental to any understanding of what the Labor government did, why it behaved in the way it did, why it succeeded, why it failed and, ultimately, why it fell.’ Indeed, the beginnings of the Whitlam government’s eventual destruction were evident in those first 14 days.  

Troy Bramston is co-editor of The Hawke Government: A Critical Retrospective (Pluto Press, 2003), works for a Labor Senator and is completing a Masters in politics at UNSW.



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