12 Ways Gough Whitlam Changed Australia

Gough Whitlam in London, 1973, with his wife Margaret, daughter Catherine and sons Nicholas, left and Antony. Photo Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty

Gough Whitlam was in power for just 1071 days, but his government’s reformist zeal after 23 years of conservative rule was unprecedented. In 1973, the first year of his prime ministership, his government passed a record 203 legislative bills.

Labor MP Anthony Albanese described Whitlam as “the father of modern Australia” and many of those reforms, such as the Racial Discrimination Act, continue to be the subject of hotly contested debate under the Abbott government four decades on.

And the people of western Sydney – the battlers so beloved of politicians today – have Whitlam to thank for his advocacy for Westmead Hospital and the University of Western Sydney, two essential institutions in the area today.

Here are 12 ways Whitlam changed the nation.

1. Universal health care

What we now call Medicare began under Whitlam as Medibank. You only need look at President Obama’s fight for a health care safety net in the USA to understand how ferocious opposition to Whitlam’s plan was 40 years ago. It was labelled a socialist takeover and a threat to Australian freedom and was fiercely resisted by the health care industry, but Medibank began on October 1, 1975. The subsequent Fraser government rolled it back, but Hawke’s ALP government reinstated the system as the Medicare of today in 1983.

2. Free tertiary education

While free uni is the one many remember – and it provided opportunities to many in a way that profoundly shaped who leads the nation today – it was a policy that was ultimately unsustainable. The more profound reforms involved the Commonwealth taking responsibility for the funding of the tertiary sector and introducing direct Commonwealth funding, “state aid” for non-government independent schools at a time when the sectarianism that had dominated Australian society through the Menzies era had left the Catholic education system struggling.

3. Engagement with China

PM Gough Whitlam with Mao Zedong in China, November 1973. Photo: Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty

Whitlam was in opposition when he visited China in 1971, just ahead of plans for US President Nixon to also visit. It marked the start of thawing Cold War relations and in government, Whitlam established diplomatic relations with our now major trading partner and began to focus more heavily on Asia, including negotiating the NARA treaty with Japan.

4. Indigenous recognition

In August 1975, Whitlam poured sand into the hands of Vincent Lingiari in a symbolic gesture that ended a decade-long strike by Gurindji people to reclaim their traditional lands. Whitlam’s gesture was an echo of the moment in 1834 when an indigenous elder did the same to Melbourne’s founder John Batman when he claimed the land. His government drafted legislation to grant land rights to indigenous people, passed later by the Fraser government, and abolished discrimination against Aboriginal people with the Racial Discrimination Act.

5. Opposed apartheid in South Africa via sporting sanctions

The 1971 Springbok tour of Australia was a bitter moment in our history. There were large-scale protests against the South African side, which was chosen on racial grounds, six Australian players boycotted the test series and local airlines refused to fly the team. The Whitlam Government banned racially selected South African sports teams from visiting or transiting through Australia in its first week in power. The ban continued under subsequent governments until apartheid’s collapse 21 years later.

6. No-fault divorce

Until the Family Law Act came into being in 1975, a marriage could only be dissolved if one party could prove that the blame for its breakdown was due to adultery, cruelty, desertion or some other “offence”. And because proceedings were held in the Supreme Court, divorce was a salacious newspaper staple that humiliated the families concerned, as well as being legally expensive. The change meant a couple had only to show that the marriage had suffered an irretrievable breakdown via a 12-month separation, for divorce to be granted. To achieve the change, Whitlam also established the Family Court of Australia.

7.Triple J

The golden age of Australian rock through the 1980s (think Midnight Oil) is in part due to the Whitlam Government mandating a minimum Australian music content of 10% on commercial radio stations. It launched 2JJ, a “yoof” station with a charter to support Australian music (the first song played was the then-banned Skyhooks track “You Just Like Me ‘Cause I’m Good in Bed”) and when FM radio began, along came the multicultural radio stations 2EA Sydney and 3EA in Melbourne, along with the first community radio stations.

8. Saved historic inner-city Sydney from the wrecking ball

While Glebe is now one of the city’s trendiest and most expensive suburbs, it was a slum 40 years ago and was going to be flattened by the NSW government for a freeway. Whitlam bought land to block the freeway’s path and restored 700 buildings there, revitalising the area and also creating affordable housing. He did a similar thing in Woolloomooloo, which was earmarked for high-density commercial development, as well as Emerald Hill in Melbourne.

Despite Australia’s bush mythology, Whitlam recognised we were urban dwellers and focused on how cities functioned. Most notably, even in 1973, 320,000 homes – evenly split between Sydney and Melbourne – were unsewered, so Whitlam spent $330 million to halve that number before the Fraser government cancelled the program.

9. The national anthem and honours

Advance Australia Fair didn’t officially become our national anthem until 1984, but it was Whitlam who set the ball rolling on Australia Day, 1973, when he established the Australian National Anthem Quest, attracting 2500 lyrics and 1300 melodies.
Three existing songs – Advance Australia Fair, Waltzing Matilda and Song of Australia, remained firm favourites and in a national poll, 51% preferred Advance Australia Fair, which for the next decade, became the unofficial anthem to a generation still singing God Save The Queen.

In 1975, Whitlam replaced the imperial honours system with the Order of Australia, letting a panel choose the recipients rather than politicians.

10. Blue Poles

Pollack’s Blue Poles. Source: National Gallery of Australia.

The Whitlam government courted controversy when it paid $1.3 million for the American painter Jackson Pollock’s abstract work Blue Poles in 1973 (Whitlam then reproduced it on his Christmas cards that year). The purchase was the result of the Art Acquisitions Committee he created, believing Australia needed a national art collection, having signed off on the construction of a National Gallery in 1973. Blue Poles is now regarded as one of Pollock’s greatest works and a modern masterpiece, estimated to be worth more than $100 million.

11. Lowering the voting age to 18

There’s a bigger context to this change: Whitlam ended the Vietnam War and conscription, but up until then, while 18-year-olds could be conscripted to fight and die for their country, they could not vote for or against a government that forced it upon them until they turned 21. In lowering the voting age, it also allowed teenagers to run for political office.

12.The film and television industry

Gough and Rupert Murdoch helped make this movie happen and launched Mel Gibson’s career.

Former Liberal leader John Gorton had the idea for the Australian Film and Television School. Whitlam brought it to fruition and the first year intake included Phillip Noyce (Rabbit Proof Fence), Chris Noonan (Babe) and Gillian Armstrong (My Brilliant Career) and later, Jane Campion (The Piano).

As with radio, the Whitlam government also increased the local content requirements for TV stations and in 1975, launched the Australian Film Commission to help fund feature films, documentaries and TV. Picnic at Hanging Rock and Gallipoli were among the early successes partly funded by the AFC.

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