Gough’s war: making a politician, changing a nation

The Whitlam government had a reformist vision whose origins lay in the future prime minister’s own wartime experience. AWM

The Gallipoli centenary provides a unique opportunity to reflect on the many wartime legacies – human, political, economic, military – that forged independent nations from former colonies and dominions. The Conversation, in partnership with Griffith Review, is publishing a series of essays exploring the enduring legacies of 20th-century wars.


In July 1944, stationed with RAAF Squadron 13 in Gove, Flight Lieutenant Navigator Gough Whitlam wrote “a letter of passion” to his wife, Margaret:

Darling … You must conjecture what State administration would have been like in war and compare it with what Commonwealth has been. Similarly you may conjecture what Commonwealth administration may be like in the five postwar years if this Referendum is carried and compare it with what the States’ administration was like in the two previous peacetime periods of stress after the last war and during the depression … You can hardly fail to see that the Commonwealth is better fitted to deal with such nation-wide problems. And so to bed. Love, G.

Whitlam’s “passion” for the animating question of Commonwealth–state relations was a thinly disguised, self-deprecating acknowledgement of the depth of his own “aching to return home” – of the dread loneliness of years of war service, which he had increasingly filled with politics.

Margaret and Gough had been married for barely six weeks when he left Sydney to begin his training with the RAAF. For the next three-and-a-half years as an air force navigator, Gough operated across Northern Australia and the South Pacific – from Coffs Harbour, Cooktown and Gove, to Milne Bay, Biak, Hollandia (Jayapura), Merauke, Leyte, Morotai and Palau. Whitlam had applied to join the RAAF in December 1941 – the day after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor.

Four years later, as the war in the Pacific ended, Whitlam navigated the only Empire aircraft assigned to the RAAF Pacific echelon at General MacArthur’s headquarters at Leyte and Manila.

The contrast between American power and dynamism in the region, its keen engagement with the Australian services, and the tired unchallenged British expectations of deference and support could not have been starker. And it did not go unnoticed.

Early formative experiences

Whitlam was no stranger to international politics’ changing dimensions. His unusual childhood was spent in the earliest years of the new national capital, Canberra, where his father, Fred Whitlam, was Crown Solicitor and one of Australia’s most significant public servants.

Even as a child, Gough had been immersed in the dynamics of internationalism, current affairs and political debates. It was always in the structured context of parliamentary democracy, which Fred Whitlam considered:

… the best political system for the ordering of a humane organised community life.

Fred Whitlam had an undoubted influence on the political path of his son. NAA

Their reading matter was the Round Table, the Observer, the Children’s Encyclopedia and the Times Literary Supplement. Their guests were a broad mix of politicians, lawyers and senior public servants. Gough emerged with an astonishing breadth of knowledge and familiarity with international politics and governance. It was the perfect civic grounding for a future prime minister.

Despite the notable distinction between the gentle tolerance and determined political neutrality of Fred Whitlam and the biting wit and fiery political oratory of his son, Fred was an undoubted yet underplayed influence on Gough – in particular on his internationalism and confident view of Australia’s place in the world.

In the postwar formation of the United Nations, Fred Whitlam played a major role as a member of Labor External Affairs Minister’s HV Evatt’s delegation to the Paris Peace Conference in 1946. He was Australia’s key legal advisor in the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the greatest legacy of Evatt’s presidency of the United Nations General Assembly.

The first indications of Gough Whitlam’s abiding concerns for social equality, electoral equity, postcolonial national independence, enhanced federal powers and Aboriginal rights – the pillars of what would become his government’s reform agenda – also emerged at this time. This was seen most clearly in his unstinting support for the Curtin Labor government’s 1944 Commonwealth Referendum on Post-war Reconstruction and Democratic Rights – the “14 powers” referendum.

Stationed in Gove, Whitlam had first come into contact with Aboriginal Australians and was shocked by the conditions in the missions and the towns. He was dismayed by the discrimination that he witnessed not only in the community but also in the services. It was the beginning of his determined policy of recognition of Aboriginal land rights, acknowledgement of wrong and a commitment to end residual discriminatory policies. In his own modest assessment:

That gave me an insight which nobody in the parliament had so well.

In Cooktown, Whitlam led what he termed “my first political campaign”. He agitated among his own squadron in support of the 1944 referendum to extend the Commonwealth wartime powers for a further five years, to enable it to undertake the extensive national reconstruction effort needed once the war had ended. Evatt called it “planning for peace”.

The 1944 referendum

The referendum powers to be transferred to the Commonwealth included national health, employment and unemployment, “reinstatement and advancement” of service personnel and their dependents, uniform company legislation, trusts and monopolies, profiteering and prices, overseas exchange and investment, air transport, uniform railway gauges and family allowances.

The 14th of the Commonwealth powers sought was for “the people of the aboriginal race”. The inclusion of the race power in the 1944 referendum was both a reflection of a “new wartime idealism about the position of Aboriginal people”, and an acknowledgement of the growing international dimension to national considerations of Indigenous affairs. Paul Hasluck, then a senior member of the Department of External Affairs, tried to impress upon successive Australian governments that:

… in the postwar settlements, the treatment of native races is likely to be made the subject of international discussion.

This international dimension to postwar national developments is the critical framework for understanding Whitlam’s own political trajectory. The extensive reform agenda he later spearheaded through the ALP platform, and the blueprint for “the Program” once in government, provided the domestic articulation of these same postwar international principles of justice and rights first seen in the 1944 referendum.

Gough Whitlam campaigned in favour of the referendum while in the RAAF. Whitlam Institute

Whitlam was already a strong supporter of the Curtin government and of John Curtin’s determination that the expansive reach of Commonwealth powers in wartime should not be seen as just a “passing phase”. Curtin’s refusal to concede the undoubted difficulty of reform or to accept “the paradox that the Labor Party was free to enact its policies in times of war alone”, was particularly compelling.

This drove Whitlam’s proselytising for the referendum and his belief – as his war service had already shown him – that only the national government had the capacity to undertake the massive, nationwide postwar reconstruction effort that would be essential once the war ended.

From Canberra, Fred Whitlam (who had drafted the terms of the referendum) sent Gough the paperwork – in typical disinterested public service style enclosing both the “Yes” and “No” cases – together with Evatt’s 188-page 1942 “booklet” Post-war Reconstruction: A Case for Greater Commonwealth Powers, and United Australia Party (UAP) leader Robert Menzies’ second reading speech in forensic opposition.

The referendum’s international context

The referendum’s apparently pedestrian proposals to continue the expanded federal powers of wartime were in reality a powerful mechanism for change. Often forgotten yet fundamental to any understanding of it, the earliest iteration of the necessary Commonwealth postwar powers considered at the Constitutional Convention in 1942 had also included four key “democratic freedoms”.

These freedoms were considered, in the context of world war and the rise of fascism, as central to the postwar spread of liberal democratic citizenship and to future world peace:

… freedom of speech and expression, freedom of religion, freedom from want and freedom from fear.

In this original specification of core political and democratic rights, postwar reconstruction would enable a radical reconfiguration of pre-war certainties, “to lay the foundations for a new social order” through its recognition of fundamental civil and political rights, and of social justice.

It was a dramatic conception, an expression more of hope than possibility, which drew clearly on the urgent political poetry of the Atlantic Charter – a visionary wartime commitment by Roosevelt and Churchill in August 1941 to a world without war, free of deprivations, tolerant and non-discriminatory.

This would be a world that would, with harmony and security at home, never again see the insidious rise of fascism. At its heart, the Atlantic Charter – a pact of mutual aspiration rather than a binding treaty – pointed to a new world order of self-determination and nation-building, of territorial respect, economic security, human rights, international governance and, above all, of peace:

All of the nations of the world, for realistic as well as spiritual reasons, must come to the abandonment of the use of force.

Franklin Roosevelt first articulated the global agenda-defining ‘four freedoms’. Library of Congress

Roosevelt had first articulated the four freedoms in a January 1941 address as “a definite basis for a kind of world attainable in our time and generation”: freedom of speech, of worship, from want and from fear. The inclusion of the freedoms from want and from fear represented both an early notion of economic security as a human right in this post-conflict democratic paradigm, and an internationalism within which the national elaboration of rights and freedoms should be understood.

Like the Atlantic Charter and the initial terms of the Post-war Reconstruction referendum to follow, Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms” brought the specifics of national reform into an international framework for a democratic future. It was a forerunner of the postwar international organisations to come.

Evatt’s elevation of the Atlantic Charter and these “four great freedoms” can be seen in his concluding remarks of his first ministerial speech in the House of Representatives on November 26, 1941:

… international peace can be maintained only through international justice, and … the four great freedoms – freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from fear, and freedom from want – are meaningless unless they be enjoyed, not in one or two or three countries, but, as President Roosevelt insists, “everywhere in the world”.

To Curtin, the four freedoms and the “common principles of national policies outlined in the Atlantic Charter” were at the very heart of a new and better world order. He described them to the 1943 Labor Party national conference as:

… comparable in their significance to the Magna Carta, the Bill of Rights and the Declaration of Independence.

The referendum’s defeat

In its conception, the 1944 referendum was decades ahead of its time. Remarkably, Curtin initially appeared to have secured the necessary cross-party support for its success. After all, in 1942, the states had agreed to the voluntary transfer of much of these same powers.

What defeated the 1944 referendum in the end was time. The end of the war quickly brought an end to any appetite for what was readily depicted as a continuation of onerous wartime regulation and control. Meanwhile, the capricious politics of federalism saw the support of the states evaporate.

Hasluck recalled that the referendum had provided one of the few rallying points for the rapidly disintegrating UAP and Country Party unity, feeding conservative concerns over:

… the possible use of wartime powers and arrangements to inaugurate lasting socialist or unificationist programmes.

The campaign became further mired in petty squabbles with the states, both Labor and conservative, over the detail of the 14 powers and the implications of the four rights and freedoms. When the revised referendum bill was finally put to the House of Representatives after two years of escalating division, the “four freedoms” had been its greatest casualty. None appeared in the version introduced on February 10, 1944.

John Curtin’s 1944 referendum failed to pass. NAA

Curtin and Evatt insisted that the provisions would be put as one. They argued that they made little sense in isolation. They refused to be drawn into endless arguments about specific clauses, state rights and confected fears of federal control – driven by dire press claims that the referendum would “impose a dictatorship in Australia” and that freedom “would vanish entirely”.

In its final form, the “democratic rights” referred to in the referendum’s formal title – Constitution Alteration (Post-war Reconstruction and Democratic Rights) Act – bore little resemblance to the powerful and purposive “four great freedoms” originally proposed.

Instead, the referendum question would now include provisions “to safeguard freedom of speech and expression and freedom of religion” – the latter by extending the provision of Section 116 guaranteeing freedom of religion to include the states – and to increase regulatory oversight of delegated government decisions.

This only served to further confuse an already confused debate over the nature of and powers needed for postwar reconstruction. As Ian Milner described it:

Referendum campaign politics twisted beyond recognition the actual basic issues involved.

Whitlam had campaigned fervently for the 1944 referendum, convincing even long-term RAAF pilot Lex Goudie – a paid-up member of the UAP – to support it. But despite majority support from within the services, the referendum did not succeed. It was carried in just two states and failed even to reach the necessary nationwide majority.

The greater degree of service support showed the willingness of those already familiar with and personally reliant on the adequate reach of Commonwealth power in wartime to accept its extension in peacetime, particularly given the specified power for the “reinstatement and advancement” of service members.

The service vote also evinced an anomaly in the broader voting system. The Commonwealth Electoral War-Time Act enabled all service personnel to vote in the referendum even if they were not on the electoral roll. This led to the unusual outcome of an apparently greater than 100% turnout in the referendum vote in some divisions.

The 1944 referendum’s failure had an immeasurable impact on Whitlam. It was not only personally disappointing, but in his now-committed Labor view it was politically devastating. Nearly 60 years later, Whitlam reflected that:

The campaign had an immediate and lasting effect on my attitudes and career.

Whitlam understood the almost insurmountable difficulties faced by reforming Labor governments with the Constitution deemed to minimise the reach of federal powers except during wartime. He saw the failure of the 1944 referendum as a singular lost opportunity for future Labor governments.

The “14 powers” propounded by Curtin and Evatt foreshadowed the expanded federal responsibilities in health, welfare, regional and urban development, trade and industry regulation and Aboriginal rights later introduced by the Whitlam government, as well as the protection of basic rights and freedoms that are its hallmark.

Much of what was set out in that referendum, and in the arguments for the expansion of Commonwealth powers first rehearsed there, can be seen in a direct policy line from the extensive renovation of the Labor Party platform of the 1960s driven by Whitlam and the “modernisers” to the reform agenda of the Whitlam government itself.

This was unfinished Labor business – expanding the reach of Commonwealth powers, ensuring the rights of Aboriginal Australians, recognising international responsibilities and agreements, an independent foreign policy stance and a fundamental notion of equality of opportunity as the gateway to social and economic progress – that he would pursue in the Labor Party, in opposition and in government.

Whitlam’s appointment of Curtin’s Director-General of Post-war Reconstruction, Dr H.C. “Nugget” Coombs, as his personal adviser in the days before the 1972 election was an equally powerful reclamation.

How it shaped Whitlam’s reform agenda

Perhaps most significantly, the nature of the referendum and its defeat did not consign Whitlam to the pessimism and constitutional impotence that would soon engulf the Labor Party during the bitter infighting of the postwar decades.

Instead, it gave way to Whitlam’s energetic search for alternative means to accrue federal powers within the confines of the constitution – to enable a reform agenda despite the apparent strictures of Section 92 (that trade, commerce and intercourse among the states shall be “absolutely free”) long seen as an historic constitutional barrier to fundamental Labor reform.

In this, Whitlam would follow – with greater success – Evatt’s defiant attempt through the 1944 referendum to remove any such constitutional barriers to “building a better world”:

If there are constitutional limitations on such bold and imaginative action, then the Constitution has become the instrument of reaction. Let us not fear to change it.

Ultimately, Whitlam would realise this shift in federal–state powers without constitutional change, through his expansive application of the interstices of Section 96 enabling the use of “tied grants” of federal funds to the states:

I went from the despair of Section 92 to the confidence of Section 96 – 92 was the barrier, 96 the avenue.

Both the reach of the Whitlam government’s comprehensive reforms – “the Program” – and the means through which to achieve it had their origins in his own wartime experiences, and in particular in the lessons of the Curtin government’s 1944 referendum. Out of failure had come opportunity.

Gough Whitlam’s novelty in government was less about policy reform and more about trying to realise Curtin’s vision. NAA

Although rightly seen as a moderniser in terms of Labor reformism and policies, Whitlam’s approach to policy and method also evidences a continuity to this earlier Labor tradition. As an unashamed protector of the Curtin legacy, Whitlam’s novelty in government was less about policy reform and more about finding a means to achieve, within the existing constraints of the constitution, Curtin’s stalled vision for postwar reconstruction, democratic rights, social justice and peace.

Whitlam’s RAAF missions across the Pacific had reinforced the simple reality of this profound geopolitical shift in Australia’s international and security relations. This was expounded by Curtin in 1941 when he shocked the colonial relics with his candid assessment that, at this time of war:

Australia looks to America, free of any pangs as to our traditional links or kinship with the United Kingdom.

For Whitlam, the continuing, quasi-colonial deference to the United Kingdom was little more than an embarrassing reminder of an arrested national development, and he enthusiastically took up Curtin’s shifting rhetoric and embraced the security implications of the growing US influence in the region – not least because he had experienced its implications in action.

Whitlam’s commitment to an international order

In 1945, two days after Curtin’s death, Whitlam returned home on leave. He joined the Darlinghurst branch of the Australian Labor Party the following month. Twenty-seven years later, as he began the final stage of his long road to government, the opening words of his now-famous “It’s Time” policy speech were also Curtin’s words:

Men and women of Australia.

In this continuity of political influence and history, Whitlam was more than just a product of these postwar global forces. He was an ardent proponent of them. While in government, he drove Australia’s recommitment to them after decades of desuetude.

Under the Whitlam government, more than 133 international treaties were entered into force. This included:

Whitlam’s appointment in 1983 as Australia’s Ambassador to UNESCO by the Hawke government gave him a rare opportunity to meet that commitment to international governance from within one of the key international organisations itself. He remarked:

For the rest of the decade I sometimes had to apply as much intensity to international politics and administration as I had often applied to national politics and administration during the three previous decades.

As a specialised UN agency, UNESCO was itself a product of the postwar drive for internationalism, peaceful conflict resolution and universal human rights that was also fundamental to Whitlam’s domestic political agenda.

Although Australia had played a major role in the creation of the international organisations, this early engagement had waned during the decades of conservative government that followed. Not a single UNESCO convention had been ratified by the Menzies government – an inertia comprehensively overturned by Whitlam.

There is a fine circularity in Whitlam’s appointment as Australia’s Ambassador to UNESCO (1983–86) and his subsequent election to its Executive Board. It was emblematic of the lasting impact of the postwar influences of modernism and internationalism on Australian politics. This was the overdue transformation of the postwar political settlement, promised yet unmet through the decades of Liberal–Country Party government.

The Whitlam government was the necessary rupture with that strained past. It had a reformist vision whose origins lay in Whitlam’s own wartime experience. In the developing institutions of international law, it saw the mechanism for the peaceful resolution of conflict, for equity and democratic rights.


You can read a longer version of this article and others from the Griffith Review’s latest edition on the enduring legacies of war here.