Today is the 92nd birthday of Edward Gough Whitlam.
Listening to Radio National on the way home this evening, I heard the five minute segment, Perspective. Suffice to say, tonight’s Perspective dealt with the legacy of the short, but productive Whitlam years, 1973 to 1975. The transcript bears repetition here:
Gough Whitlam joined the Australian Labor Party in 1945 at the close of the Second World War during which he had served as a Flight Lieutenant navigator in the Pacific. He was elected the Federal member for Werriwa on 29 November 1952. Werriwa then covered a vast tract of Greater Western Sydney stretching from Sutherland through Liverpool to Westmead. An area now divided into some seven federal electorates. He was elected Labor Leader in February 1967. On 2 December 1972 Gough Whitlam became the first Labor Party Prime Minister in 23 years.
What happened over the next three years is seared into the national memory. Yet there is a danger that our passions and our collective memory are reduced to the events of 11 November 1975. The Dismissal. To do so risks diminishing what Gough Whitlam and his Government did achieve.
Many will be quick to tell you the Whitlam Government’s Achilles’ heel was the economy. Even so, significant economic reforms were pursued: dramatic tariff reductions; reform of public enterprise; regulation of the non-banking financial sector. For now let it simply be said that in the face of unprecedented challenges, the Whitlam Government was caught short. This may be a subject for another time.
On this occasion, it is the Whitlam Government’s social reforms that I would like to consider. For the social reforms touched every Australian. As Prime Minister Gough Whitlam gave priority to the needs of our cities and to their expanding outer suburbs. His Government set in train the construction that brought hospitals and universities into these communities for the first time. In Western Sydney this saw hospitals built in Westmead, Liverpool, Campbelltown and Mt Druitt. It also saw the establishment of the University of Western Sydney – where the Whitlam Institute resides today.
Neville Wran once commented that, "It was said of Caesar Augustus that he found Rome brick and left it marble. It can be said of Gough Whitlam that he found the outer suburbs of Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane unsewered and left them flush". In education, the crippling impasse over State aid to non-Government schools was overcome with the establishment of the Schools Commission and the provision of Federal funds to non-government schools based on need. The Whitlam Government also established Medibank, a universal health insurance scheme in July 1974. No simple task. According to Gough Whitlam himself, it engendered more ‘reactionary protest and resistance’ than any of his other social reforms. In related initiatives, the Government established the community health care program, and the Australian School Dental Services Scheme. The introduction of the Family Law Act freed couples and their families from the distress and often public humiliation associated with divorce by establishing one non-adversarial ground for divorce, the irretrievable breakdown of the marriage. That Act also established the Family Court and extended federal protection to maintenance, custody and property matters.
In these and others ways the Whitlam Government catapulted Australia into the modern world.
The Government recognised Indigenous Rights and handed over to the Gurindji people title deeds to part of their traditional lands. They ratified international human rights agreements supported by domestic legislation such as the Racial Discrimination Act. The first environmental protection legislation was introduced and in 1974 the Australian National Parks and Wildlife Service was created. Women’s rights were vigorously pursued. In 1972 the principle of equal pay for work of equal value was industrially enshrined and in May 1974 the Arbitration Commission extended payment of the adult minimum wage to women. The Government itself introduced equal pay for female workers in the Commonwealth Public Service.
The list goes on. Conscription was abolished. The voting age was dropped to 18. The remnants of the White Australia policy were buried. Immigration laws were liberalised and English-language programs were introduced for non-english speaking migrants. The Australia Council was born and the Australian Film Commission was established. Construction began on the National Gallery of Australia. The Arts flourished. A burgeoning, home-grown creative industry sprang up.
Gough Whitlam’s Government was breath-takingly audacious It stirred passions and provoked debate. Gough Whitlam at 92 continues in public service. He attends to his duties in his central Sydney office almost daily. He still receives official guests. Rarely a week passes that he is not attending one or more public engagements. Yet his special devotion remains to his old electorate and the people of Greater Western Sydney. He is diligent as always in responding to the many requests, invitations and approaches he receives and he is often seen in the electorate. This he maintains is no more than should be expected of a servant of the people.
Many happy returns, Gough. Many more to you.