Obituary: Lance Barnard

Lance Barnard shook Australia during one of the most exciting periods in Australian politics, the fortnight in 1972 known as the "two- man government". His partner in this episode was Gough Whitlam, who led the Australian Labor Party to power in November that year after 23 years in the electoral wilderness. Barnard was Whitlam's deputy leader, and the two men set about reforming public life at a pace that has never been equalled before or since.

Without waiting for the customary two weeks that it would normally take the newly- elected Labor MPs to gather and elect a front bench, as the rules then decreed, Whitlam and Barnard divided between themselves the entire spread of ministerial portfolios and fired off a volley of executive decisions that left Australians gobsmacked.

The outgoing conservative Liberal-National coalition had been in power since 1949. It was tired, plagued by dull leadership and out of touch with a new generation of baby-boomer voters. For Labor supporters, the atmosphere was not unlike that of Britain in 1997, when the torpor of a sclerotic administration was swept away and the excitement of a new political era unfolded.

The Whitlam-Barnard duumvirate became an earthquake under Australia's stolidly conservative political landscape. Whitlam held 13 ministries, Barnard 14, including defence, the portfolio that he retained when normality was restored after the full ministry was sworn in.

The duo's first act was to abolish conscription to the armed forces, which the conservatives had introduced eight years earlier to bolster Australia's controversial commitment of troops to the Vietnam war. Then they released draft dodgers from prison and announced that Australia's remaining soldiers in Vietnam would be brought home. The youth of Australia applauded.

Next, the two-man government abolished British imperial honours down under and replaced them with an Australian honours system. They announced that Australia would recognise the People's Republic of China, thawing a Cold War diplomatic freeze, banned the granting of mining leases on Aboriginal reserves, refused entry of racially selected sporting teams to Australia and started moves to grant independence to Papua New Guinea, Australia's northern neighbour.

Gordon Bilney, then an Australian representative at the United Nations, and later a Labor minister, captured the excitement of those times when he said: "By the time the duumvirate had been operating for a week, all I wanted was to get back to Australia as soon as I could. There were thousands like me, accustomed to cringing culturally when, as an Australian abroad, one was either thought of as an Austrian or as a variety of South African, but who quickly found reason to take pride in what the new government was doing."

With a typical flourish, Whitlam described his interregnum with Barnard as "the smallest ministry with jurisdiction over Australia since a temporary British administration under the Duke of Wellington in 1844". Barnard himself was more down-to-earth. "It was the most interesting period of my life," he said. "This had never occurred before in the history of Australia. The public were, I think, pleased something was being done. We were sworn in on the Monday, on the Tuesday conscription had ended and I had arranged for national service personnel to leave the camps as they wanted to."

The remarks say much about the differences between these two unlikely partners. Whitlam was a "new Labor" man, a lawyer who prided himself on his erudition and who found few close friends among his team. Barnard was a traditional Labor man, a teacher from Tasmania with no pretensions to match his leader's intellectual reach but whose practicality and unflagging loyalty Whitlam treasured. Whitlam, now 81, praised Barnard fulsomely on his death.

According to Ross McMullin, author of The Light on the Hill, a history of the Australian Labor Party, Barnard was one of the few friends that Whitlam made among federal Labor MPs: "Barnard's most important attribute was being a foil to Whitlam, something that helped to keep Gough on the rails."

Barnard was born into a political family in Launceston, Tasmania, and educated at Launceston Technical School. His father held the local federal seat of Bass for 15 years, during which he was a minister in the post- war Labor government headed by Ben Chifley. Lance Barnard served with the Australian army in the Middle East during the Second World War. The battle of El Alamein, where he was an artillery officer, left him with permanent hearing damage.

Barnard himself won his father's old seat at the 1954 general election and held it for 21 years. In 1974, he was unseated as deputy prime minister by Jim Cairns, a scion of the Left. The following year, Barnard told Whitlam he wanted to retire from politics. Whitlam appointed him Australia's ambassador to Sweden, Finland and Norway.

By then, Whitlam's government was under siege from a series of political and economic scandals. Barnard's departure brought a by-election for Bass in 1975, which was a landslide against Labor. It presaged the decimation of Labor at the general election later that year after its controversial dismissal by Sir John Kerr, the Governor-General.

Whitlam's government lasted only three years, but it was a watershed in changing Australia's image, particularly in social and foreign policy. Barnard played an important part in bringing those changes to fruition. In his own unostentatious way, he later claimed that looking after his constituents down home in Tasmania was his most lasting achievement. "I never forgot their interests at all times," he said.

Robert Milliken

Lance Herbert Barnard, politician; born Launceston, Tasmania 1 May 1919; Deputy Prime Minister of Australia 1972-74, Minister for Defence 1972- 75; died Melbourne 6 August 1997.

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