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"Relevant and electable": Gough Whitlam and the remaking of the Australian Labor Party

Election campaigns Australian Labor Party Political campaigns Political leadership Australia

The ground-breaking initiatives of the Whitlam Government were years in the making – born in the extensive policy development and organisational reform undertaken during Gough Whitlam’s period as Opposition Leader as well as his longer engagement with the party, the parliament, and the people. 

This paper was launched at the Whitlam Institute Symposium, Breaking Ground: Lessons in Preparing for and Winning Government, on 21 October 2022.

On 2 December 1972, Gough Whitlam led the Labor Party into government for the first time in 23 years with the most expansive agenda for change in modern Australian political history. In this paper, Emeritus Professor Jenny Hocking dives into how Whitlam took advantage of the energy of the time and used it to successfully revive the Labor Party.

Over two hundred policy promises were presented at the 1972 election - from education to Indigenous rights, universal health care to electoral reform, equal pay, and no-fault divorce. It was a platform that reflected years of policy development and internal party struggle through the 1960s, in what was then, a deeply divided Labor party. It also marked a dramatic shift from the post-war political certainties of Menzies. The twenty years from Whitlam’s election as the member for Werriwa in late 1952, his election as deputy leader in 1960 and leader in 1967, through to his near expulsion in 1966, and his shock resignation in 1968, are key to understanding both the policy breadth of his government and Whitlam’s own political framework. This was a protracted process of reform that began with the Labor party itself, which had been torn apart by the 1955 ‘Split’. Its policies remained trapped in the ideological battles of the past, its structures ossified and impervious to change.

This paper explores this trajectory of extensive policy renewal and party reform as the essential political antecedent to Labor’s electoral revival. Whitlam’s view, shared with the growing number of ‘modernisers’ in the party is encapsulated in his favoured term ‘contemporary relevance’. These years are a story of arduous, fractious, and yet ultimately successful, drive effectively to remake the Labor party – to adopt new policies addressing contemporary electoral concerns with a broader membership base, to make it relevant and electable.

Related Information

Australia before Whitlam: a slice of the sixties https://apo.org.au/node/320147

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