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History–just the way it’s got to be

Dan Edwards: Paul Clark, Whitlam: the Power and the Passion

The best historical documentaries blast history out of the past and make us re-experience it as a living present, pregnant with possibility, rife with contradictions. Less critical documentaries simply reduce history to a smug justification for the way things are today. Paul Clarke’s two-part Whitlam: the Power and Passion, recently screened on the ABC, falls squarely in the latter category, telling us more about our impoverished contemporary political sphere than it does about the 1970s.

Take the depiction of the period from which Whitlam emerged. One of the distinctive features of the Australian Labor Party under Whitlam was the broad church of ideas the party encapsulated, but you wouldn’t know this from viewing Clarke’s film. The senior leadership of the late 1960s and early 70s included everyone from deeply religious, conservative figures like Kim Beazley Senior to stalwarts of the New Left like Dr Jim Cairns. The fact that Labor encompassed such wide-ranging ideas made it a powerful force for social change. Whitlam’s ability to hold such a grouping together was certainly indicative of the charismatic sway he held over the party and his inclusive approach, but there’s a lot more to the story. In Clarke’s hands, the rich cultural, social and intellectual context of the period was reduced to a colourful backdrop for Whitlam’s personal journey, summed up with a few pop culture clichés such as images of the Beatles and whispered tales of sexual debauchery in the outer suburbs. Ironically, for a film about a politician, there was very little about politics—unless you define politics as a personality contest rather than an arena of ideas.

Although Clarke managed to sidestep any serious consideration of the broader context within which Whitlam worked, even his ‘great man’ approach to history was grossly undermined by unnecessary re-enactments scattered throughout the film. While adding nothing to our understanding of events, these interludes made Whitlam look like precisely the kind of boring, grey politician he wasn’t. Of his learning, elegance and wit there wasn’t the slightest trace.

Whitlam’s attributes were more in evidence in the archival clips of the man himself, speaking at rallies and on television. Watching these brief glimpses of Whitlam in action, it was striking just how far our political discourse has fallen. While present-day leaders treat the electorate like distracted five year olds incapable of digesting anything more than repetitive soundbites, Whitlam actually listened to questions from journalists and attempted to provide considered, intelligent answers. Many did not agree with what he said, but he undeniably said something. Clarke’s rapid-fire approach left little room to explore this startling—from a contemporary perspective—aspect of the Whitlam era. Each time we saw archival footage of Whitlam addressing a question, Clarke cut away within a few seconds, exhibiting the same lack of faith in his audience’s ability to concentrate as our current generation of politicians.

The unrelenting focus on Whitlam also reduced other key figures of the period to bit players, often sketched with little more than condescending platitudes. This was most striking in the portrayal of Jim Cairns, a man who came within one vote of leading the ALP in 1968. There is no doubt Cairns was a complicated, flawed man who ultimately disappointed even many of his closest followers. At the time, however, he was a major figure in Australian public life, who opposed the Vietnam War from its earliest days and who argued his case painstakingly in various books and pamphlets. He was a central figure in the Moratorium Movement, a role completely effaced in Clarke’s documentary. Most importantly, Cairns exhibited a level of compassion in all he did that puts current politicians to shame. In Clarke’s film, Cairns was reduced to the inconsequential, libertarian buffoon he’s been characterised as ever since his fall from grace, neatly forestalling any consideration of his actual ideas or popularity at the time.

The marginalisation of Cairns is indicative of Clarke’s treatment of the entire ALP left, most obvious in his choice of interviewees. The politicians we heard from were nearly all right wingers who have been instrumental in dismantling Whitlam’s legacy. Bob Hawke, the leader who transformed the ALP into a centrist party with neo-liberal economics as its guiding philosophy, was one of the key Labor voices, yet he wasn’t even a part of the Whitlam Government. Liberals like arch-conservative John Howard, who had very little to do with the events of the Whitlam era, were given free rein to rehash the standard narrative of Whitlam’s “disastrous” government. Other interviewees, such as Andrew Denton, were simply irrelevant. In contrast, one of Whitlam’s most able and prominent ministers, Tom Uren, made one passing appearance and was never heard from again. Is it a coincidence that Uren was also of the ALP left, whose defence of the Whitlam project would no doubt be anathema to those who now control both major parties?

The interviewees may have been the result of Paul Clarke’s choices, but it’s hard not to see the perspectives offered in the film as reflecting the ABC’s nervousness regarding political ‘bias.’ After all, the prevailing orthodoxy is that Whitlam’s government was a disaster and the man’s views out-dated, so why give airtime to anyone offering an alternative perspective? The result was a documentary that reassures us all that Whitlam may have been a flamboyant, fascinating figure, but his government was a crazy experiment that we thankfully laid to rest—albeit using slightly unorthodox means. Now we can all look back with the same nostalgic amusement with which we regard pictures of our parents wearing flared jeans.

To truly understand the past, we need to examine the unrealised hopes and ideals of a period, as well as question what actually transpired. Nowhere did Clarke’s film ask why, if the Whitlam period was the unmitigated disaster his detractors paint it as, have so many of his key policies—like universal medical care, higher education for those outside the moneyed elite and reconciliation with Indigenous Australians—enjoyed such longevity? More difficult questions were not even hinted at. Why was Jim Cairns’ affair with Junie Morosi built into such a scandal, while Bob Hawke’s philandering has always been regarded as evidence of his salt-of-the earth blokeyness? Why has no Australian government since Whitlam’s ever questioned the assumption that Australian foreign policy must always be aligned with the interests of the United States—and did Whitlam’s challenge to this assumption contribute to his downfall? It seems unlikely we’ll ever see questions like these seriously considered on the ABC, let alone any other mainstream Australian media outlet.

Instead, we got pat, pop culture clichés that make the entire Whitlam period sound like a phase in someone’s misspent youth, and accounts of the era from figures who regard the entire Whitlam project as a mistake. By implication, Clarke’s documentary asserted that our contemporary politics —with its neo-liberal orthodoxies and spin-doctored bites—is just the way it has to be. In taking this approach, Clarke may have shown us little of the passion, but he certainly showed us where the power now lies—and has done since November 1975.

Whitlam: the Power and the Passion, writer-director Paul Clarke, producers Mark Hamlyn and Penny Robins, ABC Television, 2013.

RealTime issue #116 Aug-Sept 2013 pg. 20

© Dan Edwards; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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