Anniversary labours in vain
Minister for Home Affairs and Territories King O'Malley lays the third stone of the commencement column in Canberra on March 12, 1913.
IT WAS a Labor prime minister, Andrew Fisher and a (preposterous) Labor minister for home affairs King O'Malley who presided over the naming of Canberra. Now the Commonwealth Bank is no longer a people's bank, and that prohibition in Canberra has been abandoned, O'Malley's enduring legacy will probably be the spelling of labour, as in Labor Party, without a U. Like ''Dug'' Everingham, Whitlam's minister for health, O'Malley was a spelling reform crank.
When I witnessed the fall of the Whitlam government in 1975, I wondered if I would ever again see a federal Labor government. In December 1972, Gough Whitlam had barely scraped in, against a Liberal-Country Party coalition begging to be put out of its misery. Eighteen months later, he only just survived a further election. After John Kerr sacked Whitlam in November 1975, his decision was resoundingly endorsed by the electorate a month later.
My childhood and adolescence had been spent under Coalition rule. By 1972, more than 60 per cent of Australians knew no other form of government, either having been born, or having migrated to Australia, after 1949.
Admirers of Whitlam, and remaining admirers of his government, can point to many facts countering the allegation that the chaos of three years of his government practically brought civilised and economic government to a halt. The so-called Whitlam profligacy saw government spending, wages and inflation increase dramatically but international conditions, including the oil shocks, were the primary cause of the economic deterioration. Whitlam's budget deficits, as a proportion of gross domestic product were fairly modest, and peak unemployment under Whitlam was lower than today's.
But there is little point in insisting that popular judgments on the Whitlam government's competence were unfair. They were perceptions that have endured. Ever after, Labor has been accused of being instinctively reckless with money. Even those who picked up Whitlam's mantle have gone out of their way to insist that they were not Whitlamite in their approach.
Labor's loss in 1977 was widely expected. Its good performance, under Bill Hayden, in 1980 (a result which, like Whitlam's success in 1969 laid the foundations for victory next time) caused widespread surprise and some upsurge in hope. Yet despite the drover's dog statement of a bitter Hayden (deposed on the eve of the 1983 election), many Labor supporters hardly dared be optimistic until all of the figures were in, and Malcolm Fraser had shed a tear. Bob Hawke, the new leader, won - less than eight years since a Whitlam debacle to which he (as ACTU leader) had handsomely contributed. Within only a few years a confident (if non-Whitlamesque) government was transforming the economy and Australian society, and it was conservatives who were wondering if they would ever again regain power.
The first third of my life saw one party in continuous charge. The second two thirds - encompassing my professional life here - have had Labor about half the time and the coalition for the other - 21 years each. Voters have been generally conservative in throwing out governing parties but ready to contemplate doing so after two terms. After four terms, it seems, the only thing that can save a government is manifest unsuitability of the opposition alternative.
The present Labor government cannot, I think, survive the coming election. Although I think that Labor is in for long-term decline if it does not radically reform to become a member-based party, I expect that it will be back in power, probably for three terms, by 2022.
I have seen every change of government in my lifetime at reasonably close hand, and observed, at reasonably close hand, nine prime ministers in action. In general, the more effective they were, as leaders, as administrators and as people who understood the electorate, the longer they survived. But three of those who served only relatively short periods, Whitlam, Keating and Rudd, may be more for the history books than the three who enjoyed more political success - Fraser, Hawke and Howard.
This is not only the month of the 100th anniversary of the naming of Canberra, but the 30th of the election of the Hawke government. More than half of the population has no memory of the day, and for some it is, like the day of the sacking of the Whitlam government, a matter of ancient history. Indeed more than half the present population has no recollection of the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989 - probably the most significant event of the past 68 years. A significant proportion cannot recall a time when there was no such thing as the personal computer, the mobile telephone and Google. It is sometimes said that 50 per cent of adult Americans cannot place the American Revolutionary War, the American Civil War and World War II in correct chronological order (I sometimes suspect that a quarter would not be able to put World War I and II in order of occurrence) and it will not be long, no doubt, before the average Australian schoolchild cannot recall whether William Morris Hughes was leader of the Tories before or after Robert Gordon Menzies, or whether John Winston Howard preceded or succeeded them. (For trivia competition purposes, incidentally, Hughes preceded Menzies as prime minister by 24 years, but he succeeded Menzies as leader of the United Australia Party in 1941, when he was 78.)
I have been reproved, and quite rightly too, by John McKeough for an abominable slip last week when I said that the back lane behind the Mort Street Canberra Times was, these days, called Genge Street. That lane is, these days, called Murulla Lane. I don't think it had a name at all when The Canberra Times lived there, but, in any event, the also relatively recently named Genge Street is a horse of a different colour. It is parallel to Murrani Lane and is an extension of Lonsdale Street. In old Griffin Centre days, what became Genge Street was separated from what became Murrani Lane by a stand of trees and a deep drain.
''The rain was nice and tidy, but it had been part of the creek that had run down parallel to the western side of Lonsdale Street.
Mr McKeough has much more authority on the subject than me, having arrived here before I was born. He is a BL (one who lived here Before Lake), which, as we all know, was constructed sometime between the building of the Institute of Anatomy and the death, on Mount Ainslie, of Socks.