“Gough Whitlam changed the way Australia thought about itself and gave the country a new destiny. A more inclusive and compassionate society at home – a more engaged and relevant country abroad.
“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.
“Along his journey he also renovated the Labor Party, making it useful again as an instrument of reform to Australian society.
“He will be missed by all who identified with his values and determination to see Australia a better place. But no one will miss him more than his family.”
From the SMH, that was Paul Keating’s summary. That will do me. If you start listing how he changed Australia, you are bound to miss something important, no matter how long the list. He was like no other. Comparison’s are pointless.
This morning I woke to Gerard Henderson on local ABC being mean-spirited about Whitlam’s “incompetence” and a prime minister. The ABC’s idea of ‘balance’. Other than that comments have been universally positive. Certainly politics was always interesting when Whitlam was in power, and he had some wild men in his cabinet.
For my own experience, two things stand out.
Firstly, early in 1975 I was separated from my wife and about 20 months later we had an amicably arranged no-fault divorce. Before Whitlam that would not have been possible. What often happened was that one partner engaged a private eye to catch the other in a compromising situation. Someone had to be at fault. In our case there was nothing to see. The marriage had simply ceased to work.
Secondly, when Whitlam was elected I was the first ever Supervisor, School Library Service, for the Queensland Government. School libraries had been in a dreadful state, but some progress had been made with the Commonwealth funded Secondary Schools Libraries Program. For primary schools we were trying to improve things but there was a desperate lack of resources.
Come the Whitlam government and we soon had a primary schools library program, plus lots of special needs programs and massive general funds for schools generally. I remember visiting Catholic parish primary schools that were literally falling down. I remember talking to a private school headmaster who said that he had always assumed that private school facilities were better. Not now. Government schools were building facilities as good or better than anything the private schools had to offer.
Overall, I recall for the first time feeling proud to be an Australian. We no longer had to apologise on multiple fronts.
This morning I learned something new about Whitlam. Susan Mitchell, who has a biography of Margaret Whitlam coming out soon, said he was actually a very shy man. And absolutely hopeless at small talk. Margaret had to cover that department for him.
My favourite story about Gough was the time he took the press gallery down to Manly beach. Gough strode out upon the waters, turned around, waved to the gallery and strode back to land without getting his feet wet. The headlines next day?
GOUGH WHITLAM CAN’T SWIM!
May he rest in peace. We will never see his like again.
Here’s Clifton Pugh’s 1972 portrait:
Update: Be sure to check out wpd’s list of achievements @ 2.
John Quiggin has done an excellent assessment of Gough Whitlam.
More than any other Australian political leader, and arguably more than any other political figure, Gough Whitlam embodied social democracy in its ascendancy after World War II, its high water mark around 1970 and its defeat by what became known as neoliberalism in the wake of the crises of the 1970s.
In all of this Whitlam is emblematic of the social democratic era of the mid-20th century. Despite the resurgence of financialised capitalism, which now saturates the thinking of all mainstream political parties, the achievements of social democracy remain central to our way of life, and politicians who attack those achievements risk disaster even now.
With the failure of the global financial system now evident to all, social democratic parties have found themselves largely unable to respond. We need a renewed movement for a fairer society and a more functional economy. We can only hope for a new Whitlam to lead that movement.
Elsewhere there’s Phillip Adams’ repeat of the 20th anniversary of the Dismissal.
16 thoughts on “Honouring Gough Whitlam”
When you look at the enduring legacies of various Australian prime ministers Whitlam really stands out. In addition, there were all the changes in attitudes at the time that turned Australia into a better place.
Really appreciated your personal stuff Brian. The Davidson’s were very pleased at the changes Whitlam brought and disgusted at the way he was brought down. It didn’t make a great deal of difference to our personal lives (we were basically very OK at the time.) However, we really did appreciate the benefits he brought to the less well off.)
The real thing that brought him down was the OPEC crisis. The surge in energy prices and the government’s failure to work out started pushing up unemployment to levels that we would consider tremendous now but not so tremendous by the standards of the time.
Here’s a few of his achievements:
1. ended Conscription,
2. withdrew Australian troops from Vietnam,
3. implemented Equal Pay for Women,
4. launched an Inquiry into Education and the Funding of Government and Non-government Schools on a Needs Basis,
5. established a separate ministry responsible for Aboriginal Affairs,
6. established the single Department of Defence,
7. withdrew support for apartheid–South Africa,
8. granted independence to Papua New Guinea,
9. abolished Tertiary Education Fees,
10. established the Tertiary Education Assistance Scheme (TEAS),
11. increased pensions,
12. established Medibank,
13. established controls on Foreign Ownership of Australian resources,
14. passed the Family Law Act establishing No-Fault Divorce,
15. passed a series of laws banning Racial and Sexual Discrimination,
16. extended Maternity Leave and Benefits for Single Mothers,
17. introduced One-Vote-One-Value to democratize the electoral system,
18. implemented wide-ranging reforms of the ALP’s organization,
19. initiated Australia’s first Federal Legislation on Human Rights, the Environment and Heritage,
20. established the Legal Aid Office,
21. established the National Film and Television School,
22. launched construction of National Gallery of Australia,
23. established the Australian Development Assistance Agency,
24. reopened the Australian Embassy in Peking after 24 years,
25. established the Prices Justification Tribunal,
26. revalued the Australian Dollar,
27. cut tariffs across the board,
28. established the Trade Practices Commission,
29. established the Australian National Parks and Wildlife Service,
30. established the Law Reform Commission,
31. established the Australian Film Commission,
32. established the Australia Council,
33. established the Australian Heritage Commission,
34. established the Consumer Affairs Commission,
35. established the Technical and Further Education Commission,
36. implemented a national employment and training program,
37. created Telecom and Australia Post to replace the Postmaster-General’s Department,
38. devised the Order of Australia Honors System to replace the British Honors system,
39. abolished appeals to the Privy Council,
40. changed the National Anthem to ‘Advance Australia Fair’,
41. instituted Aboriginal Land Rights
Comrade Gough has finally passed on and I fear that we will never know the like of him again. Many thanks, Brian for the above post, and wpd for the long list of achievements. In some commentary earlier today, I heard that his 1969 election campaign launch speech was 12000 words long and contained more than 60 policy proposals. Presumably, these and more were still there in 1972 when Labor swept to victory.
Brian, I have to agree re Gerard Henderson’s contribution this-morning …. what a mean spirited performance it was. But never mind – he has been drowned out by an avalanche of generous comment from all sides of politics.
A couple of my memories re the great man.
In those days, leaders still held public meetings during election campaigns that anyone who cared to was able to attend. Nola and I went to a rally at King George Square where Gough was the star act. He stood head and shoulders above everyone else and his oratory was simply electric …. talk about leading from the front!
At the 1972 election, Nola and I went to a polling booth to vote with our ‘It’s Time’ tee shirts on ….. we were turned away by the presiding electoral officials – no political material allowed in the polling booth. So it was out to the car park to turn our tee shirts inside out and we were duly allowed in to cast our vote.
By the time the dismissal came around in 1975, I was working in Lao PDR on an ADAA (see above, later ADAB) project. They were worrying times. Malcolm Fraser was as yet ‘unreconstructed’ and made many statements at home, primarily pandering to prejudices of a domestic audience, that made our lives rather precarious. By that time, Lao was being run by the communist Pathet Lao government. But the project continued in one form or another for many more years and I was fortunate to visit as a specialist adviser for about one month in each of 1988 and 1989. My experience is that a huge amount of international goodwill (in addition to the tangible benefits) is generated through effective aid programs.
So thanks for the memories,Comrade Gough – you left the world a better place …. and may you rest in peace.
wpd @ 2
No, he was sworn in 5/12/72.
From the Australian War Memorial
But I forgive you, the ABC has been spouting that BS all day.
Was this the Henderson/ABC interview ?
Like Brian I benefited from the Family Law Act. My first marriage fell apart in 1976 and the divorce process was painful enough without having to prove fault.
My overwhelming memory of Gough becoming PM was the feeling that the sun had come out from behind the Menzian grey clouds which had prevailed for my whole life. Your Keating quote nails it.
John Curtin was my father’s choice as greatest PM ever (and Dad was a lifelong Liberal voter) but he died before I was born. For me Gough stands as the greatest PM of my lifetime. The current crop of apparatchiks is not liable to topple him from this position.
Vale Mr Whitlam.
Jumpy: I have a strong memory that Gough got the last troops out of Vietnam. It was one of the first things he did when he got into power. This is not inconsistent with your
wdp: A stunning list. My wife says the list for other prime ministers is pretty slim. The closest would have been Gillard.
wpd, thanks for a great list. To 4 you could add establishing the Schools Commission.
I believe he had a list that he ticked off. Worth mentioning also is his initial establishment of himself and his deputy Lance Barnard as a two-man cabinet to start implementing election promises.
jumpy, yes, you’ve got it. The first interview with James Walter was also pretty negative. I know under Whitlam things were pretty wild but he got a hellava lot of things done.
I like what Andrew Denton said. There was Before Whitlam and there was After Whitlam. You can’t say that about any other PM.
Actually, you can, about John Howard, for example, and we’ll probably say it about Abbott, but not with any warmth and approval.
My own personal gratitude to Gough Whitlam was for
(1) Giving Australia back its vision and its confidence – for a very short two-and-a-half years – but it did happen. And it can happen again, even in 2014.
(2) Asserting Australian semi-demi-hemi-independence and thereby exposing the Yank Republican losers and dullards in control of British money rackets – along with their collaborators inside Australia – for what they really were …. our real enemies.
(3) Giving my the opportunity – against all the discrimination, prejudice and obstruction – to get a university degree. Alright, it was the lowest grade of degree and it never ever opened any doors for me but at least I have one.
I can distinctly remember the feeling of change and joy in the air when Whitlam won in 1972. Australia became different and better overnight. For many of us the Whitlam Government and Whitlam himself never lost that feeling of happiness despite the later scandals of 1975, which is something a lot of Whitlam’s enemies can’t recognise.
On a personal level I have Whitlam to thank for my university education and for Medibank/Medicare. Without the latter I’d have been in oceans of debt for most of my life given my exceedingly poor state of health.
Vale, Gough Whitlam. None of your successors, even Keating, have remotely matched up to you, though he did try to keep the light on the hill burning.
16 Completely Life-Changing Things Australians Can Thank Gough Whitlam For
Fair enough, but truth be told, McMahon brought the troops home other than a few advisers and Embassy guards.
Paul Burns is somewhat of a military historian, perhaps he could have some input.
Don’t know, Jumpy, and I have no books on Vietnam in my library to refer to. I understand it was the Whitlam Government ended our involvement in Vietnam. He certainly ended conscription and had all conscientious objectors released from jail, which is more to the point.
If you haven’t already seen it, have a look at John Quiggin’s assessment of Gough Whitlam.
Elsewhere there’s Phillip Adams’ repeat of the 20th anniversary of the Dismissal.
What is missing from the reporting is that Frazer was only able to block supply because Askin and Jo replaced Senate vacancies caused by the departure of Labor politicians with an independent (NSW) and a “Labor Member” picked by Jo because he was anti Labor. It is part of the reason why the dismissal should be seen as outrageous behavior by the “right to rule” conservatives.
I do think Kerr has been treated badly by history. The scandalous behavior of Frazer put him in an impossible position. On the other hand I do think Kerr should have resigned immediately after Frazer became prime minister on the grounds that he (Kerr) had become a divisive figure in a job that was supposed to unify the country.
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