Good books about Gough Whitlam, former Indonesian President Sukarno, “American Stories” and “The Price of Inequality”

GOUGH WHITLAM will be remembered in history as our most controversial Prime Minister. The only one to come anywhere near him as a generator of political heat was Billy Hughes, yet they were utterly different. Whitlam had great intellect and presence, while Hughes was a very cunning old fox. Jenny Hocking has written an objective book about Whitlam’s three years in power from 1972 to 1975. It’s called “Gough Whitlam – His Time” and you will find that reading it is a very worthwhile use of your time because it is a balanced appraisal. She hits him hard for his failings (which were many). But, she gives him measured praise where it is due — eg, Medicare which endures to this day as a fundamental right of all Australians, which no political party would now ever dare to repeal, even though the Coalition declared it to be communist at the time when Whitlam introduced it. The seeds of his demise were sown during the Loans Affair when his Resources Minister, Rex Connor, bypassed Treasury and tried to raise a loan of four billion dollars from Arab sources. Connor had believed throughout his life that our mining industry should be owned by the people of Australia, not foreigners — a sentiment to which many conservative Australians would today subscribe. Connor’s impractical actions finally led to Malcolm Fraser blocking Supply in the Senate and an alcoholic Governor-General John Kerr sacking Whitlam, even though the House of Representatives had given him a vote of confidence that very day. Whitlam’s dismissal was utterly illegal because governments are formed and defeated in the House of Representatives, not the Senate — and you cannot dismiss a Prime Minister who has the confidence of the House. The tragedy is that this disgraceful piece of political thuggery was unnecessary, as Whitlam would have been required to hold a House of Representatives election the following year when he would have been thrashed. So, for the sake of a few months, a constitutional crime was committed and its hypocrisy was made worse by the fact that the Hayden Budget, that Fraser had rejected, was left unaltered when he became Prime Minister. Hocking’s description of the powerful role that two High Court Judges played in the event makes compelling reading. Despite the fact that the High Court is required by the Constitution to stay above politics, Barwick and Mason are reported as having held face to face meetings with Kerr without seeking the approval of the Prime Minister as protocol demanded. They gave Kerr very doubtful legal advice, the validity of which was disputed by their own colleagues on the Bench after the Dismissal. They both detested Whitlam as a person and believed that they had a higher calling to save Australia from his influence. History will judge them badly, but it will record also that, if Whitlam had used a bit of Billy Hughes’ cunning, he could have outfoxed Kerr and remained in power.

 

The founding President of Indonesia was Sukarno, and I have just read John Legge’s well-researched biography of him. In trying to develop an understanding of Indonesian politics, culture and religion today, it is essential reading, as Indonesia will never become anything like Australia, or vice versa. But, it will soon be regarded as our most important ally and a significant trading partner. Legge’s book taught me a lot about how difficult it is to establish a new nation, particularly after it has been raped and pillaged by the Dutch for 250 years, and then viciously occupied by Japan in World War 2, as well as being a mixture of 500 different tribes and dialects, scattered over thousands of islands. That Sukarno was able to hold them together and keep some semblance of peace and harmony for 20 years while they all learned to be loyal citizens of a self-governing republic was a remarkable achievement, particularly as his mind was diverted by a couple of dozen mistresses along the way. In the end he had to go, as he, like Gough Whitlam, had no interest in economics and Indonesia reached the brink of bankruptcy. He was deposed by Suharto who turned the nation around economically, but with great brutality and a lot of corruption by his family and friends. I will read his biography next.

 

MICHAEL BRISSENDEN, of the ABC, has written an interesting book called “American Stories,” which I commend to you. He gives a fascinating analysis of the widely varying groups of people who have a role in American life — whether they be left, right, religious, poor, rich, ethnic, oppressed or lunatic. Brissenden’s story is based around hundreds of radio and television interviews that he did for the ABC as their American correspondent. It covers Cubans, African Americans, Illegal Immigrants, American Indians, Latinos, Las Vegas gamblers, unemployed miners in West Virginia, Car Industry in Detroit, Tea Party, Religious Right, Mormons, Asians, bankrupt Californians, Occupy Wall Street and many others. It made me realise how hard it is for any President to make decisions that will please most Americans. Also made me very aware that Australia is headed in a similar direction-fast. The issues that are involved are worth pondering.

 

The gripping read for the month is a book by Joseph Stiglitz called ”The Price of Inequality”. Stiglitz argues powerfully and convincingly that the world is paying a heavy economic and social price for the enormous gap between rich and poor. In his view, the burden is being carried by the middle class, who are the first to be diminished by the monopoly practices of the rich that smother their economic potential. He makes it clear that wealth does not trickle down from the rich to the poor. It never has. The future of the poor is dependent on there being a strong and growing middle class, and this will occur only when the rich stop manipulating the marketplace and allow a level playing field to operate fairly. The poor need hope, and they will get that hope only from a community-conscious middle class. Their alienation from the rich is total. This is not a negative book, nor does it promote either socialism or communism. It is a pragmatic attempt to spread prosperity by removing unnecessary and unfair distortions from the market place.

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