Gough Whitlam is perhaps best known for the manner in which he prematurely exited from power rather than how he chose to wield it
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.
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