Gough Whitlam overcame fierce resistance to usher in universal health care

When Gough Whitlam took office, only Queensland and Tasmania provided free public hospital treatment, and more than a million people could not afford insurance. While the then Coalition government provided tax incentives to encourage people to purchase private cover, these were grossly inequitable.

“I personally find quite unacceptable a system whereby the man who drives my Commonwealth car in Sydney pays twice as much for the same family cover as I have, not despite the fact that my income is four or fivetimes higher than his, but precisely because of my higher income,” Mr Whitlam said in his 1972 election campaign speech.

Mr Whitlam’s solution was Medibank, Australia’s first universal health insurance scheme. The scheme would provide free public hospital treatment and access to a range of other subsidised medical services.

“It was absolutely revolutionary,” recalled John Deeble, who co-authored proposals that formed the basis of Medibank.

To implement the scheme, Mr Whitlam fought opposition from private health funds, who argued it constituted a socialist takeover, and doctors’ groups, who were worried it would hurt their incomes.

The Medibank bills were repeatedly blocked by the Senate, only becoming law after the first joint sitting of Parliament in Australian history, following the double dissolution election of May 1974.

Medibank began operation little more than a month before “the dismissal” and was largely repealed by the Fraser government, before being restored under the name of Medicare by the Hawke government in 1983.

Mr Whitlam also committed significant funding to build new hospitals, including a seeding grant for the construction of Westmead Hospital in Sydney’s west. His government also funded the construction of community health centres and provided money to the states for alcohol and drug rehabilitation and mental health services.

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Tributes flow as former PMs reflect on Whitlam legacy

Former prime minister Malcolm Fraser said Gough Whitlam was in some ways a mythological figure. Photo: Justin McManusSix former prime ministers helped lead tributes to Labor legend Gough Whitlam on Tuesday, highlighting his contributions to Australian life in the arts, civil society and on the international stage.

Former Liberal prime minister Malcolm Fraser, who replaced Mr Whitlam in the dramatic days of the 1975 dismissal, credited his former rival with opening new doors in Australia and helping “to show the possibility of a new and perhaps better future” after leading the ALP out of the political wilderness of 23 years of conservative rule.

“He is in some ways almost a mythological figure, he is revered, whatever the success or shortfalls of his government, he has played an enormously important part in Australians’ life and that can’t be taken from him,” he told Fairfax Media.

Mr Whitlam was a formidable parliamentary performer and a tough opponent, Mr Fraser said, but he had “never had the feeling he carried personal animosity to me as a result of 1975” and nor had the pair discussed those days as “he knew and I knew what the facts were”.

“As we met at different forums, mostly overseas initially, the ice began to break and we established a friendship … it was only later we developed a closeness and a friendship, after we left the Parliament.”

Bob Hawke said the simple truth was “Australia is a better country because of the life and work of Gough Whitlam”.

The longest-serving Labor prime minister said Mr Whitlam would be remembered for everything from civic improvements that put in place sewerage services in Australia’s newer suburbs, through more equitable health and education services, to his vision as an international statesman.


“If you look at the two fundamental issues which determine the welfare of ordinary people, that’s health and education. He was absolutely profoundly important in transforming both those aspects of the lives of ordinary Australians,” he said.

Paul Keating, who served briefly as a junior minister in the final days of the Whitlam government, said the Labor leader had “changed the way Australia thought about itself and gave the country a new destiny”, helping create a more inclusive and compassionate society that was more engaged in the world.

“He snapped Australia out of the Menzian torpor – the orthodoxy that had rocked the country asleep, giving it new vitality and focus. But more than that, bringing Australia to terms with its geography and place in the region,” he said in a statement.

“Along his journey he also renovated the Labor Party, making it useful again as an instrument of reform to Australian society. He will missed by all who identified with his values and determination to see Australia a better place.”

John Howard said Mr Whitlam, who had been prime minister when he entered Parliament in 1974, was possessed of high intelligence, a commanding presence and strong beliefs that left a lasting impact on Australian politics.

“Fundamental to his policy attitudes was Gough Whitlam’s belief that an activist and interventionist national government was always the appropriate response to Australia’s challenges. Whilst there will always be debate on such a proposition, Whitlam’s commitment to it permeated his actions in government.”

And Kevin Rudd, who like Mr Whitlam led Labor out of a long stint in the political wilderness, said Mr Whitlam had left an “indelible mark on Australia” and “Australia will always be the better for it”.

Mr Whitlam’s courage in serving with the RAAF during the Pacific War was often forgotten, Mr Rudd said, as “some also forget his political courage, profound foresight and sheer statesmanship when as leader of the opposition, in the anti-Communist hysteria of the time, he visited China, met Mao and Zhou Enlai, and undertook to recognise China if elected in 1972. Which promptly he did,” he said.

On the domestic front, “Gough’s instinctive embrace of indigenous Australians, and their rights to land, particularly at a time when racism was still alive and well in our country, has made him an unassailable hero in the hearts and minds of our Aboriginal brothers and sisters,” he said.

“Just as his introduction of the Racial Discrimination Act fundamentally reshaped our laws.”

Julia Gillard said Mr Whitlam would be remembered for his impact on Australia’s universities, Medicare, family law, land rights for indigenous Australians and improving relations with China.

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Council mergers: Local Government Minister Paul Toole tells mayors to ‘get on with it’

‘Get on with the job’: Local Government Minister Paul Toole. Photo: Dean SewellLocal Government Minister Paul Toole has ruled out polling voters about council mergers at the state election in March.

Mr Toole told the state’s councils “you know your communities now”, when asked at the Local Government Association conference in Coffs Harbour if he would support councils wanting to include a question on the contentious issue when the electorate headed to the polls.

“You know what they’re looking for from the council,” he told delegates on Tuesday.

“You already know that answer. It’s something now you’ve just got to go and actually have that conversation in whatever way it’s going to be.”

The government has argued that amalgamations would help address the dire financial state of the local government sector. Two-thirds of NSW’s 152 councils were operating in the red last year. Last month, financial incentives worth $258 million were announced to encourage voluntary mergers – a proposition opposed by many councils.

“We have spent the last three years discussing the need for change and planning the best way to approach it,” said Mr Toole, who also told the conference that many supported the reforms “privately”.

“Now is time to get on with the job.”

Councils have until the end of the financial year to put forward submissions about how they intend to be “fit for the future” – including by nominating to merge. The make-up of the panel that will assess those proposals is expected to be announced by the new year.

However, the state government has left open the door to forcibly reducing the number of councils if its reforms are not successful. Labor, which opposes forced amalgamations, has called on the state government to come clean before March regarding its position on the issue.

Local Government NSW president Keith Rhoades said Mr Toole had not clarified what would happen to councils if they failed to make a submission. The association was still waiting to be consulted about the next stage in the process, he said.

“What can only be perceived as a taint of secrecy is concerning nearly all councils in NSW because some of them still can’t sit at the table and explain to their communities … why they’re going to be better if they merge,” Cr Rhodes said.

But Steve Russell, the Liberal mayor of Hornsby Shire Council, which is in favour of amalgamating with neighbouring Kur-ring-gai, said while he was leaving the conference with greater clarity, he did not think many other of the delegates had heard the message.

“The message is: change is inevitable and we need to get ready for it,” Cr Russell said.

“A lot of people didn’t hear it because they didn’t want to hear it.”

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Pacific warms towards El Nino levels as Australia heats up

Broadscale warmth expected over Australia over the coming weekend, including for Sunday. Photo: BoM

Broadscale warmth expected over Australia over the coming weekend, including for Sunday. Photo: BoM

Unusual temperatures: Some regions are going to cop a blast of heat as near-El Nino conditions dominate.

Unusual temperatures: Some regions are going to cop a blast of heat as near-El Nino conditions dominate.

Unusual temperatures: Some regions are going to cop a blast of heat as near-El Nino conditions dominate.

Unusual temperatures: Some regions are going to cop a blast of heat as near-El Nino conditions dominate.

Broadscale warmth expected over Australia over the coming weekend, including for Sunday. Photo: BoM

Broadscale warmth expected over Australia over the coming weekend, including for Sunday. Photo: BoM

Most of the planet was warmer than average in September – with sea-surface temperatures at record levels. Photo: NOAA

Ocean temperatures are again warming in the Pacific, helping to drive global temperatures to new highs and also leaving conditions primed for an El Nino event to be declared in coming months.

The Bureau of Meteorology said sea surface temperatures in the central equatorial Pacific had warmed closer to El Nino-threshold levels in the past fortnight.

“They’re at the warmest levels they’ve been since the build-up [for an El Nino] started in March,” Andrew Watkins, manager of climate prediction services, told Fairfax Media.

However, meteorologists are yet to see the signature elements of such an event, such as a sustained stalling or reversal of the east-west trade winds, Dr Watkins said.

One reason why the atmosphere to yet to “couple” with the oceans and reinforce conditions needed for an El Nino to develop is that sea surface temperatures also remain warmer than usual in the western Pacific, he said. Without that temperature gradient, winds won’t reverse.

Globally, sea surface temperatures in September were the warmest for any month in records going back to 1880, at 0.66 degrees above the 20th century average, the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) said on Monday – beating a record set just the previous month.

This year will be the hottest on record should the anomaly for the first nine months of the year be maintained for the October-December period – a result possible given the near-El Nino conditions in the key Pacific region.

The 12 months to September have already been the warmest such period on record, NOAA said. At 0.69 degrees above average, it eclipsed three earlier stints, September 1997-August 1998, August 2009-July 2010, and September 2013-August 2014.

Outback to bake

Australia is already experiencing unusually warm temperatures and rainfall deficiencies typical for an El Nino year. Clear night skies in inland areas are also leading to frost – another symptom, Dr Watkins said.

Adelaide’s maximum reached 37.3 degrees on Tuesday, its warmest October day in eight years and the city’s fourth day in a row of 30-plus weather.

Melbourne warmed to a top of 28 degrees while Sydney’s cool patch will end with a string of warm days reaching into next week.

The real heat, though, will be on show over outback Australia with “very high temperatures” predicted for Friday to Monday, the Bureau of Meteorology said.

A huge pool of heat will settle over much of South Australia, Northern Territory and Queensland with maximums of 42 degrees or more for Sunday and Monday.

Average national daily maximums will likely top 26 degrees, potentially challenging the record for the month of 28.4 degrees set on October 31, 1988.

The bureau says the chance of an El Nino being declared in coming months remains about 50 per cent. NOAA, which uses a lower temperature anomaly threshold, said it “favours one to begin in the next one to two months”.

Climate signal

The hottest years on record were in 2005 and 2010, which just pipped the “super El Nino” year of 1998 – a year often used by climate change sceptics to claim global temperatures haven’t increased in as long as 18 years.

The fact 2014 may challenge for the hottest year even with at most a weak El Nino is one reason climatologists warn action must be taken to curb the rise of greenhouse gas emissions that trap ever more heat from the sun.

The bureau’s Dr Watkins said heat records could be broken even without a “full-blown El Nino” because of the planet’s broadscale warming. Sea-surface temperatures in the central Pacific, for instance, had increased by about 0.5 degrees since the 1950s.

“You get the warming signal on top” of any El Nino, he said.

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Canberra dance critic Michelle Potter writes biography of Dame Maggie Scott

I first met Dame Margaret Scott in March 1993. Of course I knew of her before then. Everyone in the dance world in Australia did. Just the year before our meeting, at the age of 70, she had given a series of memorable performances with the Australian Ballet as Clara the Elder in Graeme Murphy’s remarkable ballet Nutcracker: The Story of Clara.

That initial meeting was a business one, part of my work for the National Library of Australia to record oral history interviews with eminent Australians from the world of the arts. As I walked down Orrong Road towards her Toorak home, carrying a heavy Nagra reel-to-reel tape recorder – state of the art in professional audio circles at the time – I wondered what she would be like. After all, she was a Dame of the British Empire. Well, Maggie (as she likes to be called) was warm, welcoming, and an easy conversationalist. We laughed a lot. She was a perfect subject.

At the time, I had no idea that the interview, which was recorded on  two days, would become the basis of a biography. In fact, it was more than 20 years later that an unexpected but welcome series of events led to a commission from Text Publishing in Melbourne to write the story of Maggie’s life. I hesitated slightly – the time-frame for submission of the manuscript was somewhat daunting. The biography needed to be published in 2014 to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the Australian Ballet School, of which Maggie was founding director. I had seven months in which to present a final manuscript to Text. But, with the thought that the oral history interview could be the basis of the biography, and knowing too that extensive secondary- source materials were available in several of Canberra’s cultural institutions, I signed the contract.

I was fortunate to be able to work closely with Maggie and her husband, Emeritus Professor Derek (Dick) Denton, during those seven months. In January 2014 I spent a week living in their home while they were on their summer holiday, with full access to Maggie’s collection of letters, photographs, clippings and other personal memorabilia. She gave me instructions not to feel as though I was prying, but to feel completely free to look at anything and everything. Some amazing finds were made during that week: Maggie’s school records from Parktown Convent in Johannesburg and some eisteddfod and examination reports from her early ballet days, for example, as well as personal correspondence from her wide circle of friends, including Australian stage designer Kenneth Rowell, South African poet David Wright, English composer of ballet music Arthur Oldham, and esteemed choreographer-at-large John Cranko. I returned to Melbourne several times to visit Maggie and Dick and am grateful for their kindness and generosity towards me, and for their openness in answering every question I posed to them. Again, we laughed a lot and I enjoyed many a delicious quiche Lorraine from the local bakery as we continued to talk, and laugh, during lunch.

In Australia, Maggie is indeed probably best known as founding director of the Australian Ballet School. The publication of her biography in the 50th year of the school’s existence is a celebration of her commitment to the young men and women whose careers in dance she guided in the 27 years that she held the post of director. But, as readers of the book will discover, Maggie’s life has been an adventurous one, and has been lived across continents and cultures.

Born in 1922 in Johannesburg, she spent her childhood as one of “three rambunctious South African children”. But dance was her destiny and, when she was 17, she made her way to England, arriving in London in 1939 just weeks before World War II erupted. Her determination to be a dancer had her touring endlessly during the war years, first with Sadler’s Wells Ballet and then Ballet Rambert. She endured bombings, some occurring during performances; lost her first love, a sergeant in the Glider Pilot Regiment; and danced on every kind of stage imaginable.

Her journey to Australia in 1947 as a principal dancer on tour with Ballet Rambert marked the beginning of a new phase in her life. But in Australia she suffered a serious injury to her spine and lay in hospital for months. Would she ever dance again? She did, this time with the Melbourne-based National Theatre Ballet of which she was a founding member. But eventually, she returned to England where she performed in the early 1950s with a small, experimental dance company led by John Cranko. In England she also enjoyed socialising with her English and Australian colleagues, from Benjamin Britten to Donald Friend. With Friend, Maggie and Dick made an exuberant journey by car through Europe. Friend recorded it all in his diaries.

It was only after her return to Australia in 1953 that Maggie began to look for ways in which a national ballet might be developed to provide permanent employment for dancers. Readers of her biography will discover the little-known, behind-the-scenes story of how the Australian Ballet really began, and the intrinsic role Maggie, mentored by the distinguished public servant Dr H. C. “Nugget” Coombs, played in the flagship company’s beginnings. Then came the era of the Australian Ballet School, established in 1964 and built by Maggie from scratch into a world- renowned institution.

There were, of course, moments in Maggie’s life when not everything went according to plan. In particular, she was unhappy with the way she was asked to finish up her career as director of the school. But her dance background kept her strong and, now in her 93rd year, she continues to talk with unabashed pleasure of her return to the stage in the 1990s in works choreographed by her former students – as Aunt Sophy in Robert Ray’s Nutcracker, as Mary Ward in Nicholas Rowe’s In the Body of the Son, and as Clara the Elder in Graeme Murphy’s Nutcracker: The Story of Clara.

I doubt I could have written Maggie’s story in the short space of time I had without the quite astonishing resources available to me in Canberra, in particular those of the National Library, the National Archives, and the National Film and Sound Archive. But I also needed to investigate some critical archival material in England. So in March 2014, I made a flying research visit –just ten days – to London and worked mostly in the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Rambert Archive and the Imperial War Museum, with a day spent at Henley-on-Thames visiting the Kenton Theatre, a tiny, beautifully restored Regency theatre in which Maggie danced as part of John Cranko’s company.

On my way home from London I happened to be on the same plane as the British royal family, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and their baby son Prince George, who were setting off on an official visit to Australia. At one stage, Prince George showed exceptional interest in my laptop and thought he might add a few words to the story. So, I thought, my manuscript has been touched by royalty. How appropriate for a biography of a Dame. And when the story of my brush with royalty appeared in The Canberra Times, there was an unexpected bonus. I was contacted by a Canberra resident who had read the story and who had been a student of Maggie’s in Melbourne well before the formation of the Australian Ballet and the Australian Ballet School. I added her recollections of Maggie and her teaching to the narrative.

I loved writing this biography. So many artists in Australia have come to admire dance across its pages. So many of Maggie’s former students have told me how they were touched by her spirit. I think I was too.

Michelle Potter is a Canberra Times dance critic. Dame Maggie Scott: A Life in Dance is published by Text. $49.99.

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Claims soldier pulled handgun on ASIS agent in Afghanistan to be investigated

Declined to confirm the report: Dr Vivienne Thom, the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen Declined to confirm the report: Dr Vivienne Thom, the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

Declined to confirm the report: Dr Vivienne Thom, the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

Declined to confirm the report: Dr Vivienne Thom, the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

The watchdog that oversees Australia’s spy agencies is investigating an incident in which a special forces soldier is reported to have pulled a gun on an Australian Secret Intelligence Service officer during a drinking session in Afghanistan. The claim is being examined alongside concerns ASIS officers are handling weapons despite consuming alcohol and amid revelations inaccurate information has been provided to prior investigations into the issue, however the Inspector-General of Intelligence Service, Dr Vivienne Thom, says there’s no evidence she’s been lied to. The incident is included in the annual report of the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security which was sent to Prime Minister Tony Abbott on September 30. The report said “in December 2013 a further more serious incident occurred overseas involving an allegedly inappropriate action by an officer of another Australian government agency towards an [ASIS officer]”.   “While no physical injury resulted, the incident had the potential to cause serious injury.”  The ABC is reporting that this involved a soldier pulling a gun on an ASIS agent. An intelligence source told Fairfax Media that the reference was unusually explicit. It is not stated if the ASIS officer was armed or unarmed. Dr Thom declined to confirm the report when contacted but said ASIS had made “further improvements” to its processes to ensure that its staff comply with requirements. “I will not provide any further details about the December 2013 incident,”  she told Fairfax Media. The report said ASIS’s own investigation into the “serious incident” had “highlighted systemic issues” and the Director-General of ASIS told the Inspector-General that “inaccuracies” had been provided to her inquiry conducted earlier in 2013.   “My review of the ASIS investigation report and interviews indicated other substantial discrepancies,” Dr Thom said.  But Dr Thom said she had “no evidence” anyone had lied to her. She said: “If I did have evidence that any officer lied under oath, the matter would be referred to the AFP to be dealt with under the Criminal Code.” She pointed out the maximum penalty for such an offence is 12 months’ imprisonment. The 2013 inquiry raised concerns about the consumption of alcohol and weapons used by ASIS officers. ASIS policy prohibits anyone consuming alcohol being issued with a weapon but Dr Thom said “the inquiry found some staff misunderstanding in relation to this requirement”. The IGIS said “ASIS did not have adequate controls in place to provide assurance that there was compliance with this requirement”.

A spokesman for the Department of Defence refused to say whether or not the soldier had been reprimanded. The spokesman said: “It would not be appropriate for Defence to make comment on investigations undertaken by, or involving, other government agencies.”

The Inspector-General has promised an update on the matter in her next annual report.

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Press gallery veterans recall Whitlam era

Press gallery veteran Laurie Oakes was at the Sunnybrook Hotel in Cabramatta the night Gough Whitlam won the 1972 election.

Then a reporter for the Melbourne Sun, Oakes was writing a book on Whitlam’s campaign and was with the Labor leader and his staffers as the votes were being tallied.

“There was a look of relief on his face when the bloke operating the computer said, I think we can send the white smoke up the chimney now,” Oakes recalls. “He cracked open a bottle of champagne.”

Oakes remembers Australia’s 21st prime minister as a flawed but “special sort of bloke” who had to take on the Labor Party before he could challenge the Liberals.

“He genuinely wanted to change Australia for the better and had big ideas of how to do it,” Oakes said. “That crash through or crash approach he took, took guts.”

Oakes says Whitlam faced a tough Canberra press gallery, but he took the media seriously and was not the sort of politician who relied on talking points.

“He gave good answers to questions, often witty answers,” he said. “He had a wonderful wit.

“If you were wrong, he’d tell you in no uncertain terms.”

Ken Begg was the ABC’s political correspondent during the Whitlam years. He recalls arriving in Canberra as a young reporter in 1972 when there was a sense of change in the air.

“It was an exciting time,” he said. “And for my generation who grew up only knowing one government, a Liberal Coalition, it was a time of extraordinary change.”

Begg remembers feeling intimidated by “a giant of a man … a giant in intellect”.

“If you asked a foolish question you got pulled down very, very quickly,” he said. “I, as a young reporter, was slightly in awe of this man.”

Begg says he learnt more about Australia and issues such as health care and state rights from Whitlam than he did from any other prime minister.

“And, of course, Whitlam’s great humour,” he said. “I think that humour was quite often misunderstood.

“The last time I saw him in the Old Parliament House I was coming out of the toilet. And he turned to me and said, ah, Begg, new office, I see.”

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