Whitlam's leadership of the ALP spanned 11 years, longer than that of Curtin, Chifley, Hawke, Keating or Rudd. In today's era where changes of party leadership has become commonplace, this is an achievement in itself. When Whitlam became leader after the ALP's disastrous 1966 result, the ALP was an antiquated party in a structural sense that relied upon traditional mass party values to serve its trade union base, rather than being a party that concentrated on winning elections in order to capture the minds of the majority of voters.
It was Whitlam who became the face of internal party reform during the middle of the 1960s. As Deputy Leader he had already confronted the ALP's National Executive who controlled the party's rules. Famously calling them 'faceless men' Whitlam risked expulsion from the ALP.as he fought them over state aid to private schools.
Concurrently, Whitlam helped the party broaden the ALP's political base by courting voters who had previously been ignored by the ALP. From 1967, the party sought out intellectuals by promoting policies that focused upon tertiary education and the Arts. During a famous speech at the 1967 Party Conference Whitlam made his intentions clear:
Our Party is weakest electorally and organisationally... we as a Party or a Movement ignore the vast changes that are taking place in the nature and composition of the workforce in Australia
Essentially what Whitlam was arguing led to the first electoral campaign in Australia that targeted specific demographics in order to win elections. This strategy was a significant reason why the ALP obtained its best ever electoral result at the 1969 poll. Given the extremely low base the ALP was coming from in 1966, the party did not triumph in this election, however, this stunning result laid the groundwork for the ALP eventual victory in 1972.
The story of the Whitlam Government is well known. It was the most prolific government in Australia. It's policy platform known as 'The Program' ushered Australia out of the postwar years and into a more modern social environment befitting its times. In less than three years the Whitlam Government instituted universal health care, free tertiary education, as well as legislation to prevent discrimination on the basis of race, gender and disability. In addition the Whitlam Government pulled Australia's remaining troops from Vietnam and annexed Puppa New Guinea as part of an attempt to broaden Australia's foreign policy generally. Despite these successes it is agreed that the Whitlam had an extremely poor economic legacy and could not carry 'The Program' out effectively.
This is where the impact of Whitlam the political leader becomes complex. Whitlam has cast a shadow over all who have obtained the leadership since his resignation in 1977. While the ALP as a party is happy to embrace the legacy of the Government's comprehensive social programs, it has become paranoid in attempt to learn from Whitlam's economic failures.
The Hawke Government was overt in labeling itself as the Anti Whitlam Government by adopting free market economic policies that were the antithesis to the Whitlam model. ALP leaders have continued to become weary of the Whitlam legacy since, both in advocating internal party reform, and implementing comprehensive social policy.
Most obituaries will therefore focus on what Whitlam achieved as ALP leader, but it is what he did not do, which is far more important. Whitlam in death, casts such a huge shadow over his party. The party has not recovered from his dismissal in 1975. Whitlam had a clear set of values and beliefs as leader of the ALP. Whatever the merits of these, the party has struggled to define itself in this manner since. Whitlam's legacy stretches far beyond his eleven year term as leader. Instead it is a multi-generational struggle in which the social and economic ideologies of the party are in constant battle.
Whitlam may have changed the party for the better in the short and medium terms, but the long term ramifications of his leadership have proven to be far more destructive for the ALP.