Gough Whitlam’s free university education reforms led to legacy of no upfront fees

A generation of Australians will forever remember Gough Whitlam as the man who gave them a free university education. Whitlam’s abolition of university fees cemented him as a Labor folk hero yet his higher education legacy remains contested and contradictory.
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In a pre-election speech in Bankstown in 1972, Whitlam said: “We believe that a student’s merit, rather than a parent’s wealth, should decide who should benefit from the community’s vast financial commitment to tertiary education.”

Surprisingly, the Australian Union of Students lobbied for fees to be retained – reportedly because the students believed making higher education free would redistribute resources to those who did not need them.

Nevertheless, the Whitlam government abolished university fees in 1974. The policy would remain in place for 14 years, including the entire life of the Fraser government.

Whitlam also gave the Commonwealth full control over university funding and introduced a system of student income support that survives today through Youth Allowance, Austudy and Abstudy.

While more working-class students and women attended university, the introduction of free higher education did not lead to a dramatic change in the composition of university enrolments. That’s because most working-class Australians did not complete high school, meaning university was not an option for them. And about 80 per cent of students had not paid fees anyway because they were covered by Commonwealth scholarships and other subsidies.

While free higher education remained popular, by the late 1980s senior members of the Hawke government were determined to unwind it. More students were finishing year 12, leading to a growing queue of prospective students. Funding the entire cost of their education would place a significant burden on the budget. It would also be regressive, higher education minister John Dawkins concluded, because most university students came from well-off backgrounds and would earn more over a lifetime because of their degree.

In 1989, Labor established HECS, meaning students would pay tuition fees but only when earning a decent wage.

The Abbott government is now proposing allowing universities to charge students as much as they want for a degree.

While Australia is moving ever further away from the era of no university fees, Bruce Chapman, the architect of the HECS scheme, says Whitlam’s impact should not be underestimated.

“Whitlam’s higher education agenda and Dawkins’ had one thing in common: to take away any need for people to find money to enrol in university,” Chapman says. “Gough Whitlam left a legacy of a system without upfront fees that has lasted for 40 years.”

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.


Gough Whitlam left a long list of achievements

Gough Whitlam is perhaps best known for the manner in which he prematurely exited from power rather than how he chose to wield it
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But wield it he did. Whitlam’s short three-year shelf life as prime minister is generally recognised as one of Australia’s most reforming governments.

Conservative government has been the norm in Australian politics since federation and the preference is for reform by increment rather than by rush. Consequently, much of what Gough Whitlam built – such as a free university education – has been torn down by successive governments on both sides of the political spectrum.

But what remains continues to shape Australia’s national life like a guardian angel. Here is some of the Whitlam legacy:

● His government extricated Australia from the Vietnam War and abolished conscription. Australia had been fighting in South Vietnam since 1962. Two years later conscription was introduced but the first wave of baby boomers rebelled and eventually they, and their elders, took to the streets in moratorium nationwide marches that saw mass civil disobedience reflect the prevailing view. Labor’s anti-war policy became one of Whitlam’s most powerful election campaign assets.

● Whitlam took the demonology out of foreign policy, recognising China after the Coalition had refused contact with Beijing for 24 years. Whitlam ripped the rug from beneath Bill McMahon when he led a Labor delegation to China in July 1971 and the Coalition prime minister accused him of being a Communist pawn only to see United States President Richard Nixon announce his proposed visit to China a week later. Whitlam also attempted to redefine the alliance with the US.

● Medibank, the precursor to Medicare, was established.

● Social welfare reforms included the supporting mother’s benefit and welfare payment for homeless people. Before 1973 only widows were entitled to pension payments, so other women who were raising children alone faced invidious choices. But the pension payment gave single mothers choices and options around the raising of their children. It also helped remove old stigmas around single mothers.

● Equal pay for women: One of the first acts of the Whitlam government was to reopen the National Wage and Equal Pay cases at the Commonwealth Conciliation and Arbitration Commission. The 1972 Equal Pay case meant that Australian women doing work similar to that done by men should be paid an equal wage. Two years later the commission extended the adult minimum wage to include women workers for the first time.

● The Postmaster-General’s Department was replaced by the twin-headed Telecom and Australia Post.

● The Australian Legal Office and Australian Law Reform Commission were set up.

● The death penalty for Commonwealth offences was abolished. Melbourne escapee Ronald Ryan was the last man executed in Australia on February 3, 1967, for shooting a prison guard. Victoria and some state governments (not NSW which abolished capital punishment for murder in 1955) remained proponents of the death penalty. Whitlam’s reforms led to the 2010 federal legislation prohibiting the reinstatement of capital punishment in all Australian states and territories.

● The Family Law Act providing for a national Family Court was enacted, and simplified, non-punitive divorce laws were introduced.

● The Whitlam government also established needs-based funding for schools after appointing Peter Karmel to head a committee examining the position of government and non-government primary and secondary schools throughout Australia. Karmel’s report identified many inequities in the funding system, which for the first time led to the federal government providing funding to state schools.

● A free university education was briefly available to all Australians. In Whitlam’s three years of government, participation in higher education increased by 25 per cent, to 276,559 enrolments. The main beneficiaries were women.

● Amid widespread business and union opposition, in 1973 the Australian economy was opened to the world by a 25 per cent cut in tariffs across the board. An early forerunner of the Productivity Commission was established as was the Trade Practices Act and a predecessor of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission.

● The Australian Assistance Plan to fund regional councils and employment projects continues in the concepts of “social planning” and “community development”.

● The National Sewerage Program connected suburban homes to sewerage. The government spent $330 million on the program before it was cancelled by the Fraser government but in Sydney the backlog of unsewered properties fell from 158,884 in 1973 to 95,505 in 1978. Similarly, in Melbourne, the backlog was reduced from 160,000 in 1972-73, to 88,000 in 1978-79.

● The Whitlam government reduced the voting age to 18 and provided the Northern Territory and Australian Capital Territory with representation in the Senate.

● It replaced God Save the Queen with Advance Australia Fair as the national anthem.

● Queen Elizabeth became Queen of Australia when she signed her assent to The Royal Style and Titles Act 1973. The legislation also deleted the traditional reference to the Queen as Head of the Church of England by removing “Defender of the Faith” from her Australian titles.

● An Order of Australia replaced the British Honours system.

● The Racial Discrimination Act 1975 conferred rights to equality before the law and bound the Commonwealth and the states to the International Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination.

● The Department of Aboriginal Affairs was set up and the first Commonwealth legislation to grant land rights to indigenous people was drafted. The subsequent Malcolm Fraser government passed the legislation.

● Land title deeds were handed to some Gurindji traditional lands owners in the Northern Territory in 1975, a real and symbolic gesture that became a touchstone for the land rights movement.

● The Whitlam government also established the National Gallery of Australia, the Australia Council for the Arts, the Australian Heritage Commission. It introduced FM radio, pushed for the setting up of 2JJ, a radio established to support Australian music and connect with young Australians. It set up multicultural radio services – 2EA Sydney and 3EA in Melbourne – and issued licences to community radio stations for the first time.

● The Australian film industry flowered and the Australian Film and Television School, an idea of a previous Coalition prime minister, John Gorton, was opened.

● The reorganisation and modernisation of Labor’s policy platform saved the ALP from its past.

● Papua New Guinea became independent on September 16, 1975, after being administered from Australia since the First World War.

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.


Sir John Kerr came off worse in the dismissal of Gough Whitlam’s government

When Sir John Kerr presented the 1977 Melbourne Cup, it was almost exactly two years since he had committed his constitutional faux pas. He was dapper in a a three-piece suit and, it seemed, awfully drunk.
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His obvious inebriation, combined with his thicket of white hair and his aristocratic bearing, made him seem more like a Barry Humphries’ character than the governor-general.

The crowd hissed as he tottered through his speech.

“Any little noises that you may happen to hear are only static,” he proclaimed. “It’s just something wrong with the system.

“Cheers from a small minority! However, life is wonderful for all of us.”

Whitlam later said Kerr was a “drunk” and he made an mistake in appointing him.

The irony is that Kerr, much more so than Whitlam, was a true working-class man. Born in Balmain, the son of a boilermaker, he won a scholarship to Sydney University, where he studied law and won the university medal.

He later became a member of the Labor Party and a a protege of Labor great H.V.Evatt as he forged a brilliant legal career. He was made chief justice of NSW in 1972, and in 1974, after a period of negotiation with Whitlam, he was announced as governor-general-designate.

Whitlam thought he knew was he was getting: a Labor man. But Kerr’s political views had evolved and he had firm views on the exercise of the governor-general’s reserve powers.

Sir John will always be viewed by many as the villain of the extraordinary 1975 story. He was also a former intelligence officer, leading some to believe his role in the dismissal was part of an intelligence conspiracy.

Following the dismissal,Whitlam and his supporters denigrated him, and he was often abused when he appeared in public, even after he left his vice-regal role.

He eventually moved to London to escape the public disapprobation, where, according to historian Phillip Knightley, he “could be seen most days, usually the worse for wear, at one or other gentleman’s club”.

He died in 1991. His family did not request a state funeral, which would have been his due as a former governor-general.

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.


Gough Whitlam’s foreign affairs legacy was to give Australia a new independence

Diplomatic vision: Gough Whitlam meeting Communist Party chairman Mao Zedong in China in 1973. Photo: National ArchivesHistory judges Gough Whitlam got China and Vietnam right – and East Timor so tragically wrong.
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Yet his enduring legacy, far beyond individual relationships, was to infuse a greater sense of independence into Australia’s approach to the world.

Whitlam ended military conscription and formally withdrew Australia from the Vietnam War.

He switched Australia’s vote at the United Nations to oppose the white minority regime in then Rhodesia, and hastily ushered Papua New Guinea to independence.

He dominated his government’s foreign policy, remaining both prime minister and foreign minister for much of his term.

But it was diplomatic recognition of communist China that most embodied Whitlam’s vision for Australia to decide its own fate.

“It was a risk because it was going against the policy of the United States, which was about to change too, but no one knew,” said Stephen FitzGerald on Tuesday.

FitzGerald was just 34 when Whitlam made him Australia’s first ambassador to China. The controversy of recognition seems hard to fathom now, especially with China as Australia’s largest trade partner.

But at the time, Whitlam made his visit to Beijing in opposition, and conservative politicians frothed at his “instant coffee” diplomacy and the threat to the US alliance – only for Richard Nixon to go to China a few months later.

University of Sydney historian James Curran believes Whitlam ranks as the leader best prepared in foreign affairs to come to office in the post-war era.

“He clearly revelled in his role as international statesman and there can be no doubt he carried it off with considerable aplomb,” Curran said.

But in a book to be released next year, Unholy Fury: Nixon and Whitlam at War, Curran has unearthed new evidence to show the Americans, incensed by Whitlam’s policies, almost abandoned the treaty with Australia and even costed withdrawing US bases.

Veteran diplomat Richard Woolcott said Whitlam was determined for Australia to be independent within the framework of the alliance, but had to manage a Labor left faction declaring he should not meet the White House “maniac” bombing Vietnam.

Whitlam’s extensive overseas trips, including long sojourns across more than a dozen nations, became the subject of ridicule back home.

Woolcott remembers Whitlam reading in the newspaper about newly independent Bangladesh, Guinea-Bissau and Grenada joining the UN, and quipping: “Having you seen this, comrade? They are creating these countries faster than I can visit them.”

But as his government was overwhelmed by political and economic problems at home, Whitlam’s mistake was not to recognise the determination of the people of East Timor to join the ranks of independent nations.

Indonesia’s violent takeover of the former Portuguese colony, and the debate over whether Whitlam gave the “green light” to Indonesian dictator Suharto, left a stain on what was otherwise a time Australia’s flag waved anew.

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.


Whitlam and conscription – an end to the lottery of death

Gough Whitlam speaking at a Vietnam peace rally in in 1965. Photo: John O’GreadyIt was called the lottery of death.
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From 1964 until 1972, 20-year-old Australian men had to register for the national service scheme where, twice a year, a ballot was held to decide who would be called up.

If a man’s birth date was randomly drawn from a barrel, two years of full-time service in the army beckoned, which from 1966 could also mean combat duties in Vietnam, according to the government’s commemoration website.

Over the eight years of the scheme, more than 15,000 national servicemen served in Vietnam. Two hundred lost their lives.

Among the Whitlam ministry’s first acts after it was sworn in was to release the seven men who were in jail for resisting the draft, Sydney University associate professor James Curran said.

The pending prosecutions for 350 other draft resisters were also dropped and conscription was ended in December 1972. Australia then withdrew its remaining military advisers from Vietnam.

“The lottery of death was abolished,” associate professor Curran said. He is writing a book on the US alliance under Mr Whitlam, Unholy Fury, to be published next year.

Monash University associate professor in politics Paul Strangio said there is no doubt Whitlam’s actions were a “powerful symbolic moment”.

“It lifted an enormous millstone off a generation,” he said.

But he and associate professor Curran cautioned that the issue of conscription was a complex one for Gough Whitlam and for Labor.

While public opposition to the Vietnam War and conscription built to a fever pitch in the late 1960s and early 1970s, there was little opposition in the early years of Australia’s involvement in the conflict.

“Whitlam was always mindful of trying to navigate public opinion [on it],” associate professor Strangio said.

He said Australia had already begun disengaging from Vietnam under the Coalition. Liberal prime minister William McMahon withdrew Australia’s combat troops at the end of 1971.

Associate professor Curran also pointed out that Mr Whitlam had broken with then Labor leader Arthur Calwell on the issue before the 1966 federal election.

Mr Calwell had wanted to bring home all conscripts from Vietnam and withdraw the remaining regulars in consultation with the United States. Mr Whitlam instead argued that if further Australian participation in Vietnam was needed, the regular army would be used, confusing Labor’s public position.

“Whitlam had to walk that fine line between opposing the war, but also maintaining support for the US alliance,” associate professor Curran said.

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.