Good Reading : March 2008
20 goodreading ı MARCH 2008 categorical successor Billy McMahon was ever accused of. By the late sixties the complex of attitudes, policies and reflexes that had seen Australia commit virtually its entire rmy (including con- cripts) to a fundamentally misconceived war in a faraway land was on the nose. Paul Ham’s Vietnam: he Australian War is an excellent military history which does due justice to the social and political dimensions of the war. Ham is very much on the side of the Diggers and is palpably angry about the mistreatment meted out to individual soldiers on their return from active service by peace activists. About 600 Australians and over 50,000 Americans died. At the same time youth culture, with its own music, means of intoxica- tion, literature and value system (which didn’t last), was born. Whitlam’s election in 1972 was the material evidence that something had changed. Medibank, free tertiary educa- tion and a cultural renaissance followed –asdida25percenttariffcutanda series of astonishing ministerial scandals. But tariffs were still high, and centralised wage fixing prevailed.What is hard to grasp now is how little interest people and politicians had in economics back in 1972. After twenty years of prosperity Whitlam thought the problems of economics had been solved. A lot has been written about the Whitlam government, a fair bit of it by persons involved in it. Graham Freudenberg’s A Certain Grandeur, while obviously partisan, is still regarded as an invaluable source. For a conservative but balanced perspective, Robert Manne’s article ‘The Whitlam Revolution’ in The Australian Century is worth reading. Alan Reid’s The Whitlam Venture is a journalistic, near contemporary account. The pity is that the constitutional coup of 1975 has obscured the real merits of the Whitlam government.The great lie is that Whitlam, by himself, stuffed the economy − as if the Yom Kippur war and a doubling of the oil price were irrelevant. In fact the 1973/4 budget was in surplus at the time the effects of the oil shock and a wages boom combined to produce a blowout in inflation and unemployment in the second half of 1974. Perhaps Jim Cairns was not an inspired choice for treasurer, and the 1974/5 budget did damage business confidence and fuelled inflation further because it was highly expansionary. But Hayden’s budget for 1975 became the first Fraser budget and no one complained. If you must revisit the Dismissal, both Whitlam’s The Truth of the Matter and Kerr’s Matters for Judgement are self- serving.There is no doubt Kerr breached convention and behaved, on a personal level, like a scoundrel. And there is also no doubt Whitlam’s government had a limited shelf life: the electorate, unused to even five per cent unemployment and any inflation at all, was waiting with the proverbial baseball bat in the parking lot. Paul Kelly’s November 1975 is a more balanced account. It is difficult now to remember how profoundly disliked Fraser was by about half the electorate. Fraser was in fact a genuine inheritor of Menzies. In keeping with that tradition he ran the odd scare campaign; got stuck into the unions when he could (but without changing the institutional arrangements that permitted centralised wage fixing); and basically maintained most of the existing settings. He did abolish Medibank but probably regretted it. He took a highly principled approach to issues such as apartheid,Vietnamese refugees and Aboriginal land rights. So neo- conservatives see the Fraser years as a lost opportunity. But Fraser was simply doing what the Liberals have always done best: minding the shop.Radical change was introduced by the Labor Hawke/Keating govern- ment. Paul Kelly’s The End of Certainty is an excellent overview of the eighties and their dramatic changes. Tonnes of paper have been devoted to arguing the merits and fate of what one could loosely call the economic rationalist agenda.The best critique of the pure version of this agenda I have read is Brian Toohey’s Tumbling Dice, a book that deserved a wider audience than it got.Toohey does a good job of showing how equilibrium market theory is empirically bogus. He also documents how the high watermark of treasury influence was probably in 1989.The recession of the early nineties brought government intervention back into the good books. Not that the rhetoric reflects that. Works bemoaning our fate in a globalised economy are now principally of interest to show how difficult it really is to get crystal ball gazing right. Humphrey Macqueen’s Gone Tomorrow: Australia in the 80s is full of good, well-researched arguments and is almost entirely wide of the mark in its predictions. Craig MacGregor’s Class in Australia, written in 1997 when the seismic shifts in tertiary education participation should already have been apparent, reads like a report from another universe. John Pilger’s A Secret Country, published in 1989, is not as grim as you might expect but is predictably self-righteous and right on. The fall of Keating in 1996 inspired another round of literary anguish. Bob Ellis’s Goodbye Jerusalem is a typical example. Like Gough, Keating had been a gener- ous patron of the arts. Mr Ellis enjoys a good lunch (as does the writer) and has dined with the best.The equally self- reverential Don Watson’s Recollections of a Bleeding Heart has a photo of the author hugging himself on the back flyleaf. Which brings us to the nineties and John Winston Howard. Now we really are within the historical equivalent of ‘dead ground’. You can’t see, let alone shoot, someone on dead ground. Howard won three elections and for the most part continued the economic agenda of the Hawke/ Keating government. But he lost his fourth election and his seat in parliament after an attempt to destroy the award system. Howard is reputed to be interested in history. Maybe he agrees with Mark Twain: history doesn’t repeat itself; but sometimes it rhymes. It is difficult now to remember how profoundly disliked Fraser was by about half the electorate. Fraser was in fact a genuine inheritor of Menzies.