ON THE LIFE AND WORKS OF GOUGH WHITLAM (1916-2014)

October 21, 2014


There weren't many of us wearing 'We Want Gough' badges in Wangaratta in 1974 as I lined up to cast my first vote.

Gough had brought the voting age down from 21 to 18 just a year earlier, and my friends and I – like many other idealistic young Australians – were swept up in the feeling that finally our time had come.

Change was here.

Reducing the voting age to 18 was just one of those many changes of the Whitlam Government which put young people at the centre of the Australian political debate.

It was Gough that also made sure the boys I went to school with would not be drafted and sent to Vietnam.

For our generation the end of conscription was personal and transformative.

Gough’s was a government that spoke to young Australians in a way that governments never had previously.

This was a government that cared about us.

He cared about our future.

It was a heady time for those of us who wanted a society that was more open and more equal.

Finally, we had a government prepared to deliver on the changes to society we wanted.

As a young feminist, Gough was the first Prime Minister to make it clear to young women that we could be and do all that we hoped for.

One of the first acts of the Whitlam Government was to reopen the Equal Pay case, a case which led to significant improvements in the pay for women.

It was the Whitlam Government in its first week in power that removed the Commonwealth sales tax on the contraceptive pill and made it available through the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme.

Whitlam also outlawed discrimination on the grounds of pregnancy and introduced paid maternity leave for Commonwealth employees.

It took until 2011 for Australia to get our first national paid parental leave scheme, but it was Gough that started the ball rolling.

I am acutely aware of the pioneering work that Gough had done on reconciliation and land rights. 

It was the Whitlam Government that paved the way for Aboriginal Land Rights through the implementation of the 1965 International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.

It was this Act that enabled Aboriginal people to put their land rights arguments before the courts.

It was the Whitlam Government that established the Aboriginal Land Fund, enabling Aboriginal people to buy back their traditional lands.

As a result, the Gurindji people were able to regain ownership of their land.

It was the Whitlam Government that drafted the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Bill that has meant more than 42,000 square km of land in the Northern Territory is now back in Aboriginal hands.

In the second Vincent Lingiari Memorial Lecture in 1997, Gough spoke passionately about the need to correct what he saw a flaw in the Australian Constitution: its exclusion of any mention of Aboriginal people.

Gough always said that his first political campaign was conducted on Aboriginal lands in the cause of reforming the Australian Constitution.

This was in 1944 in Yirrkala in the Northern Territory. Gough continued his campaign for the rights of Indigenous Australians throughout his life, and so now must we.

It was the Whitlam Government that decided to increase pensions to 25% of average weekly earnings recognising that this would enable pensioners’ standard of living to better keep up with the standard of living of other Australians.

Another of Gough’s great achievements was the establishment of the Woodhouse Inquiry into Compensation and Rehabilitation.

The story of the National Disability Insurance Scheme begins with Gough.

The Inquiry demonstrated the importance of a social insurance approach to the provision of support to people with disability, and became a significant step in the campaign for a National Disability Insurance Scheme.

As Gough said in a speech in 1974:

'We want to reduce hardships imposed by one of the great factors for inequality in society - inequality of luck....Australians should not have to live in doubt or anxiety lest injury or sickness reduce them to poverty.' 

Legislation for a disability insurance scheme was before the Parliament when the Government was removed in 1975.

Of course, people with disability had to wait until 2013 before they would finally get the support that they deserve.

Funding for this transformative disability insurance scheme will come in part from an increase to the Medicare Levy. This levy too has its origins in the Whitlam Government's creation of our universal health insurance system, then called Medibank, now Medicare.

Medicare and the National Disability Insurance Scheme are now pillars of the Australian fair go.

Gough was the embodiment of the commitment to improving the lives of everyday Australians, to creating a fairer, more inclusive and just Australia.

I am so glad that as a young country girl I was able to cast my first vote to a man of his caliber.

His influence on me and our country will never be forgotten.