Gough Whitlam was Australia’s answer to Fidel Castro. As Prime Minister for a year or two in the 1970s, just a decade after Castro seized power in Cuba, he embarked upon an orgy of public spending which went a fair way to doing the near-impossible – ruining the Australian economy – with the same sort of rapidity as Castro in Cuba.
The similarities between the two men are more striking than their differences. Both were physically tall, both rabid egotists, both utterly indifferent to the economic ruin that they caused, both perfectly content to run to unsavoury corners of the world for financial help (Castro to Khrushchev in the USSR, Whitlam to Gaddafi in Libya) and both capable of inspiring undying if irrational devotion among zealots to their cause. But there is of course one big difference: Castro remained in power for half a century, during which time Cuba descended from the wealthiest of Caribbean nations to poorest, whereas Whitlam was removed from power before the damage he could do became irreversible.
His fans say that he (Whitlam that is) did some lovely things, like making university education as free as a lark. Except of course that it was not free – all he did was to shift the burden of paying from the relatively rich university graduates to the relatively poor general population. Still, it was a bit of a lark to the generation that was gifted a free university education.
Any old idiot can dream up a list of things which would be nice, if wealth were limitless. The art of politics is to do things that need doing in a way which is consistent with nurturing the wealth that is required to pay for them.
Gough Whitlam was, it seems to me, an old idiot.