Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles generated considerable controversy for Gough Whitlam. Photo: Belinda PrattenLive: Tributes pour inTim Colebatch: the Whitlam government’s legacyGough Whitlam: full coverage
He was prime minister for a relatively brief three years, but Gough Whitlam’s legacy is extensive. Here’s a selection of how he changed Australia.
That green and yellow Medicare card in your wallet is there thanks to one man.
Whitlam introduced Medibank, the ancestor of Medicare, as Australia’s first national health insurance system. It began operating on July 1, 1975.
Both sides of politics, often at their peril, have sought ways to wind back Medicare.
A $3.50 co-payment in Labor’s 1991 budget arguably cost Prime Minister Bob Hawke the leadership and opened the door to Paul Keating’s successful challenge.
The Hawke co-payment was gone by March 1992 but the Abbott government’s pursuit of a co-payment has been met with similar outrage by doctors, welfare groups, pensioners and even Liberal state governments.
EDUCATION FOR ALL
“When government makes opportunities for any of the citizens, it makes them for all the citizens. We are all diminished as citizens when any of us are poor. Poverty is a national waste as well as individual waste. We are all diminished when any of us are denied proper education. The nation is the poorer – a poorer economy, a poorer civilisation, because of this human and national waste.” Gough Whitlam on the campaign trail in 1969
Whitlam attended Sydney’s prestigious Knox Grammar, but for him the difference in opportunity for private and government school students was “morally unjust and socially wasteful”.
Part of Whitlam government’s turbo-charged start to office was the establishment of the The States Grants (Schools) Act 1973 and the Schools Commission Act 1973 to create the new system of fairer funding.
A much-talked about legacy – both by those who took advantage of it and those who missed out when fees were reintroduced – is the abolition of university fees from January 1, 1974.
Former prime minister Julia Gillard and many other prominent Australians trace their opportunities and successes back to a free university education.
The policy also created the modern phenomenon of “mature-age students”, with a rush of older Australians getting degrees in the 1970s.
ABORIGINAL LAND RIGHTS
Paul Keating: “Gough Whitlam changed the way Australia thought about itself and gave the country a new destiny.”
Part of that change in thinking was a new approach to the indigenous owners of Australia.
Ten days after taking office, Whitlam and his deputy, Lance Barnard, announced a royal commission into Aboriginal land rights under Justice Woodward.
The findings of the royal commission led to the drafting of the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976 and the establishment of an elected National Aboriginal Consultative Committee.
In his first month in office, Whitlam established the Department of Aboriginal Affairs.
In 1975, he handed the Gurindji people at Wattie Creek in the Northern Territory title deeds to part of their traditional lands.
Rarely a day goes by without a member of the government acknowledging China’s part in Australia’s enduring prosperity.
Forty years ago, relations were very different.
In January 1973, Whitlam re-opened the Australian embassy in Beijing, resuming diplomatic relations after 24 years.
After a visit to Indonesia with wife Margaret, Whitlam became the first prime minister to visit the People’s Republic of China in October 1973, having earlier led a Labor delegation in opposition.
Whitlam’s engagement with China came before US President Richard Nixon initiated the thawing of relations between the superpowers.
His early steps are seen as vital to the multiculturalism that developed in Australia throughout the 1980s and beyond.
Gough Whitlam did not like God Save the Queen.
SBS Soccer caller Les Murray recounted on Tuesday how Whitlam was the first prime minister to attend a Socceroos match – but only on the proviso that Advance Australia Fair was played.
It became the official national anthem on April 8, 1974.
SEWAGE TO THE SUBURBS
Whitlam is remembered for his big thinking but part of his legacy is at the most local level – the backyard dunnie and the septic tank.
As the member for Werriwa, based around the then new-built but largely unsewered suburb of Cabramatta, Whitlam had a grasp of what was needed in the battler belt.
His government set a goal to leave no urban home unsewered. The Whitlam government gave grants directly to local government units for urban renewal, flood prevention, and the promotion of tourism.
Federal grants financed highways linking the state capitals.
In opposition, Whitlam described the Vietnam War as “disastrous and deluded.”
On taking office he quickly abolished conscription and released all conscientious objectors from jail.
The process of withdrawal from Vietnam had begun in 1970 under Liberal prime minister John Gorton and his successor Billy McMahon announced additional troop withdrawals.
On its seventh day in power, the Whitlam government announced the withdrawal of Australia’s remaining troops, which by then were military advisers.
Australia’s involvement in the war ended officially ended on January 11, 1973.
Whitlam “snapped Australia out of the Menzian torpor – the orthodoxy that had rocked the country asleep – giving it new vitality and focus,” according to Keating.
Part of that was a new approach to the arts.
Whitlam doubled funding to the arts in a year and created the Australia Council for the Arts, which is still operating today.
The government pushed forward with the creation of the National Gallery in Canberra with the first purchases of art.
The most controversial of which was Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles. There was outrage at the $1.1 million price tag for a single piece of abstract art.
By some estimates, Blue Poles, is now worth $100 million.
Whitlam introduced “no fault divorces” through the Family Law Act 1975.
A national Family Court was set in train but not established until 1976 under Malcolm Fraser.
Sales tax was removed from contraceptives.
In June the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 also became law, ratifying a United Nations convention that, although signed by Australia, had remained unratified for nine years.
Whitlam scuppered plans to allow drilling for oil on the Great Barrier Reef.
His government introduced environmental protection legislation and the Australian National Parks and Wildlife Service in 1974 .
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