Reading over the tributes to former Prime Minister Gough Whitlam, who passed away last week, it’s difficult to write a tribute to such a great political giant without admitting that I wasn’t alive when Whitlam was in office.
Growing up a decade later in the 80s, in a politically conservative household in the politically conservative state of Queensland, Whitlam was the stuff of folklore. I have memories of Bob Hawke as PM being yelled at during the nightly news, being told Keating was the ‘devil’, while Gough was supposedly the ‘worst Prime Minister in history’. In wanting to reject a lot of this conservative backdrop, and indeed the throws of the politics of the deep Nor’ of Queensland, I was naturally drawn to Whitlam, and the old toe tapping footage of the 1972 election song ‘It’s Time’, which, if ever there was a period when Australian politics seemed ‘cool’, it’s epitomised in this video.
Admitting I wasn’t alive during the Whitlam years, is in part to acknowledge members of the generations before, many of whom opined in tributes this week, of the great social change that enveloped Australia during that time of Whitlam winning office in 1972 after 23 years of conservative rule.
Twenty-three years. Eleven years of more recent conservative rule under the Howard Government provides just an inkling to younger generations of what this change would have felt like, but when Whitlam took over, it followed more than double that of Howard’s run of conservative rule.
It’s what Victorian Women’s Trust Executive Director Mary Crooks described this week to Channel Seven news as ushering in a “the biggest breath of fresh air that wafted over this great continent.”
And it’s what feminist Eva Cox referred to in describing why 1972 “was so significant and why it symbolises what can be done when courage and imagination combine to create serious change”.
Remarkably, despite not living through the Whitlam years, his short term in office provided a social legacy that is still sourced to this day, and one that has continuously been held up in feminist and community services.
Of the news this week of the passing of the 98 year-old PM, we fired off this acknowledgement
- The commitment to equal pay for women and greater workplace equity, the introduction of the Maternity Leave Act for Commonwealth employees, the banning of discrimination of female Commonwealth employees on the basis of pregnancy.
- The introduction of the “world’s first government advisor” on women’s affairs to a head of state, with Elizabeth Reid’s appointment in 1973.
- Establishment and funding of critical women’s community services – including women’s health organisations and rape and family violence refuges.
- The introduction of No-Fault Divorce laws, the establishment of the Family Court of Australia, the introduction of the Single Mothers’ Pension.
- The removal of taxes on oral contraceptives and inclusion of the Pill on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme.
And hugely, the Whitlam Government’s ushering in of universal health care and free university education changed the face of women’s experiences and that of life in Australia.
The personal stories behind these legacies can’t be underestimated – like the friends who have told me how Whitlam’s changes to family law and introduction of the single mothers pension literally ensured they could be raised by mothers who would have otherwise stayed in abusive relationships, or worse, would not have been able to care for them.
And the progress of women having been afforded access to tertiary education that otherwise would not have done so, combined with access to better pay conditions (however still lagging), that radically forced Australian workplaces into more equitable, improved and modern environments.
“Despite the short tenure of the Whitlam government, the changes it put in place created a much better, fairer society which we still benefit from. Whitlam took social issues seriously so many out-groups, including women, benefitted. Women gained substantially, because we were, for the first time, treated like equal citizens and voters who had legitimate input into public policies.”
Driving this social change, could be what writer Mungo MacCallum wrote about in this week’s Australian newspaper:
“[What I] saw immediately in the man I first met in 1969 was not only a consuming interest in the affairs of the world and a desire to change them for the better; there was also a deep personal concern for people — not as a political abstraction, but as flesh and blood individuals. He was genuinely curious about my background and appeared seriously attentive about my opinions.
“This, of course, is a trick most successful politicians develop. But in Whitlam’s case it wasn’t a trick; over the years I saw it over and over again. While he was capable of the odd temper tantrum and he never suffered fools gladly, by and large he was the kindest and most considerate of men.”
In terms of what drove Whitlam in implementing great changes for Australian women, Eva Cox quotes former Labor Minister (and now Age Discrimination Commissioner) Susan Ryan:
“In 1975 we were seen, because of the Whitlam policies, as leaders in the world for improving opportunities for women”.
“Because he was surrounded by strong, wonderful women, it never occurred to him that there was anything correct about treating women as second-class citizens,” Ryan said (check out the full audio of Ryan’s comments at the end of Cox’ piece).
Yes, the “women of Australia” have a lot to be grateful for, in terms of directly benefiting from the policies introduced by Whitlam – not just the generations that lived through it, but to this day, nearly forty years on.
Despite what side of the political spectrum you lean on, many of these great social changes cannot be denied. The opportunities these policies provided, created a better, more modern and equitable Australia.
And this spirit of equality, and indeed equity, and in what politicians often source as being about “the land of a fair go”, is a lens in which we should hold close and never forget to apply.
As feminists, we understand that vigilance is always required in terms of maintaining and bettering women’s policy. Whitlam’s legacy, while far reaching, remains under attack, to this day – whether it be in maintaining universal healthcare or affordable access to higher education. We need to remain vigilant about such changes to social policy, particularly in a climate where ‘returning the budget to surplus’ means making cuts which will create much more harm than good. And where groups remain marginalised, or worse, attacked through fear driven policies.
In thinking about those three short years Whitlam was in power 40 years ago, it would be great to ask some of our current politicians, state and federal, what they would like to be remembered for – short term political gain, or long term change that benefits our social fabric and makes this a greater place to live?