“We cannot afford to limp along with men whose attitudes are rooted in the slogans of the 1950’s – the slogans of fear and hate”. Extract from Gough Whitlam’s policy speech on November 13th, 1972.
I remember ‘studying’ in the lounge room of my grandparent’s home for my Year 12 Higher School Certificate exams. The year was 1972, just prior to the December 5th Federal Election. The Labor Party hadn’t seen office in 23 years but there was something different going on this time. Something even a naive and immature teenager seemed to recognise.
Searching for any distraction from my laborious swotting that I could, I even resorted to the media. Black and white television, the sound waves and the newspapers were awash with the Labor Party’s catch-cry jingle ‘It’s Time’, resonating behind its leader, Gough Whitlam’s confident and visionary words.
While I never had the privilege of meeting the Australian Prime Minister in person he made an impact on my life just the same. The decades of the 1960s and 70s were a time of significant change and in many respects, Gough Whitlam’s Labor Party not only embraced this change but guided it.
Many things we take for granted today, we owe to the legacy he, and it, left behind.
Conscription became abolished and the young men who were incarcerated for resisting the draft were set free. Capital Punishment was also abolished in 1973. So too were university tuition fees, while under the new Student Assistance Act, financial assistance was provided to those students who needed it. Higher education became more accessible than ever before; sadly, a seemingly diminishing proposition four decades later.
Multiculturalism was introduced as a government policy, while alongside it, discrimination against indigenous peoples became outlawed. In a complete about-face from previous political thinking, Australia established diplomatic relations with communist China, our largest trading partner today. Medibank (or what today we call ‘Medicare’) was created in 1975 and welfare payments were introduced, again to those Australians who needed it most.
Gough Whitlam himself, probably for the first time in a world dominated by male politicians, invited women to play an active role in political life. While nowhere near enough, his legacy is seen today in both Houses of Federal and State Parliaments throughout the variety of political party persuasions.
As mentioned earlier, I was nothing short of a sheltered teenager during the late 60s and early 70s, whose only genuine interest was sport. Thankfully, Gough Whitlam arrived just in time to instil something in me that required a little more questioning and deeper thinking than the number of premierships won by Hawthorn before 1971; just one I believe.
His bravado and stoicism during his ill-fated dismissal and the subsequent election he lost soon after, helped to engender in me a sense of determination when fighting what might be a lost cause. Put simply, whatever you do in life, don’t quit without at least giving it your best shot. That way, you never, ever lose anything of yourself.
If Gough Whitlam can be accused of making a mistake, then it was trying to initiate too much change in the short time he was Prime Minister. Over the past 24 hours, I’ve heard many Australian dignitaries, some of them icons themselves, state that there are just two periods of Australian politics, the period before the Whitlam Government and the period after.
In today’s environment, where party leaders seem more like pragmatic CEO’s than visionaries, it would be a political resurrection to be celebrated out loud if another Gough Whitlam could please stand up.