I’m doing a different kind of post to honour one of the giants of Australia’s parliamentary history who died yesterday so hopefully you’ll bear with me even though this Prime Minster is probably a complete unknown to you.
Gough Whitlam, former Prime Minister of Australia from 1972-75, is one of my heroes. He was a progressive, gutsy, courageous man with a towering intellect who tried to drag Australia from worshipping the past to building a future, egalitarian society.
My then boyfriend, Jack, and I arrived in Australia in 1972 a month or so before the Whitlam government was elected. We really had no idea of the upheaval such a government would unleash. It undertook quite revolutionary action which left the conservative Establishment beside itself with rage and determined to restore what the L-CP believed was its right to rule which had, in the 1972 election, been usurped by a bunch of upstarts.
Once we decided to stay in Australia, I got caught up in the excitement of the early Whitlam years when great social change took place, particularly to the benefit of women and Aboriginal people.
When I worked as the Western Australian Organiser for the Australian Union of Students, I had the honour of meeting Gough Whitlam and his wife, Margaret. It was a short handshake but they were both very tall and, even though I was standing two steps higher than them, they towered over me and cut very impressive figures!
The Whitlam government:
* Abolished conscription
* Established free, universal healthcare (despite fierce opposition from conservative forces)
* Established free tertiary education
* Established diplomatic ties with the People’s Republic of China and cut ties with Taiwan.
* Removed the sales tax on contraceptives.
* Re-opened the equal pay case pending before the Commonwealth Conciliation and Arbitration Commission, and appointed a woman, Elizabeth Evatt, to the commission
* Appointed a Women’s Affairs Advisor
* Recognised the United Nations International Year of Women in 1975
* Held a Women in Politics conference in Canberra in 1975
* Announced major grants to the arts
* Barred racially discriminatory sport teams from Australia, and instructed the Australian delegation at the United Nations to vote in favour of sanctions on apartheid South Africa and Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe).
* Ordered home all remaining Australian troops in Vietnam, though most (including all conscripts) had been withdrawn by McMahon.
* Set up legal aid programmes
* Recognised de facto relationships
* Established no-fault divorce
* Appointed a Schools Commission
Heady times as you can imagine. Those who may have read that the Whitlam years were ones of complete chaos may be a bit surprised to read anything good about the ALP to office at that time.
But history, as they say, is written by the victors and the conservative forces in Australia have done their best to portray the years of Whitlam rule as chaotic, unhinged and run by a bunch of ignorant nutters.It hides the truth that reactionary forces worked to undermine Whitlam and among the most vociferous opponents of Labor in office was the Murdoch empire, whose bias was so bad reporters at The Australian went on strike in protest.
In what many regard as a coup backed by the US government worried about Whitlam’s more independent stance, the then Governor-General sacked the Whitlam government and the video above is Whitlam’s response to his sacking. Uproar broke out, people walked off jobs to march in protest. My husband can remember his construction site downing tools to join the spontaneous marches on the streets. In the end, Labor leaders smoothed down what were undoubtedly revolutionary times, believing that right would triumph. Right did triumph, only not that of true justice, but the reactionary Right who used everything at their disposal to destroy the Whitlam forces.
Whatever, the truth, Whitlam straddles Australia’s history like a colossus – someone who had vision for Australia, who wasn’t afraid to make contentious decisions and who respected the rights of women and Aboriginal people.
What a contrast with our present Prime Minister: current Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, is a visionless, racist, misogynist, spineless thug worshipping the past and dismantling Australia’s egalitarian society. Well may we say now: “God Save Australia”.
As a footnote, the Governor-General, Sir John Kerr, who sacked the Whitlam government, was roundly reviled and unable to attend public events without people abusing him. He descended into alcoholism and, on his death, his funeral had to be carried out in secret so that people couldn’t turn up to express their contempt for this traitor to the country.