Condolence motion on the Hon. E. G. Whitlam AC, QC

gough_whitlam.jpgToday we pay tribute to Edward Gough Whitlam, QC, AC: patriot, veteran, barrister, Prime Minister, ambassador, Australian legend, husband to Margaret and father to Antony, Nick, Stephen and Catherine. We pass on our condolences to his family and all who knew and loved him.

Throughout the course of this discussion we have seen the best of the Australian parliament. We have seen the outflowing of genuine affection and admiration for a great Australian, and I believe in this discussion we have genuinely held up a mirror to the Australian nation. Gough himself was more than a reflection of Australia as he found it. He was a leader who gave political voice to Australia not as he found it, but as he thought it could be. As Gough himself explained in 1973, his government was elected on the basis of policies which were developed carefully, steadily and intelligently to meet the important demands of our community.

His was the politics of courage and conviction. Indeed it is hard to imagine Australia without the reforms that were driven through by the Whitlam government. In the area of equality, we turn our minds to the reforms to the education system: free access to tertiary education and needs-based funding for our school system. In the area of electoral reform: one vote, one value; lowering the age of voting so that the age of voting was the same as the age at which you could be conscripted to go and fight for the country—the age of 18. In the area of gender equality, we have heard many speakers talk about the importance of his family law reforms: no-fault divorce, introducing onto the PBS the contraceptive pill and reopening the equal pay case to ensure that that important principle could flow through to our industrial tribunals. In the area of land rights: ensuring that the First Australians could once again have full custodial ownership of their traditional lands. On race discrimination, one of his first acts was to ban race-based sporting contests, which was an incredibly controversial issue in the early 1970s, and we all remember the controversy around the Springbok tour. It went beyond that, he was indeed the father of modern multiculturalism.

As previous speakers have talked about, the concession of Australia to a raft of international treaties laid the platform for a broad sweep of reforms, legislative and otherwise, in areas as diverse as industrial relations, heritage and conservation; and sex and disability discrimination. Not all of this was achieved in his term, but for him it would not have been achieved.

We are currently gripped in a debate around paid maternity leave, but Australians first enjoyed the right to paid maternity leave through the reforms of Gough Whitlam and his industrial relations minister Clyde Cameron. It was Whitlam and Cameron who also introduced a great reform which ensured that when Australians today go on holidays they enjoy four weeks annual leave and not three weeks annual leave. It was the Whitlam government which extended annual leave entitlements and provided an annual leave loading to ensure that when working class families took leave they could afford to go on a holiday. Extending the long service leave provisions was another one of his important industrial reforms.

Often overlooked when we recount the contribution of the Whitlam government to modern Australia were his economic reforms. It was Whitlam who introduced the Trade Practices Act and started the process of reforming our tariff system and opened up our diplomatic and trade relations with China, which are so much a part of our modern trading relationship and our economic success.

An important lesson of the Whitlam government, a lesson that must be heeded by all of us who occupy a place in the 43rd Parliament is this: you cannot do in government that which you have specifically disavowed in opposition. Indeed, you must use those years in opposition well and this is something that the Whitlam government did. Gough Whitlam spent plenty of time in opposition. He was first elected at the age of 36 in the Werriwa by-election in 1952, and he often remarked that his brilliant career in local government was cut short by the Werriwa by-election. He did not see government for another 20 years—20 years in opposition, 20 years of doing the hard slog of reforming the party, reforming the policy so it was fit to govern in modern Australia and ensuring that he had a vision which was right the government when he eventually achieved government in 1972. It was time; that was true—but it was Gough that made that possible.

In August this year, we celebrated the 40th anniversary of the first and only joint sitting of this parliament under the deadlock provisions of the Australian Constitution—the deadlock provisions designed to ensure that when the House of Representatives passes a bill which is blocked successively by the Senate, there is a means of resolving that. In the case of the August 1974 joint sitting of parliament, central to that sitting was the Medibank legislation. When that legislation was first introduced into parliament, Gough spoke on the bill in December 1973 and he had this to say:

We propose a universal health scheme, based on the needs and means of families. This proposal—the most rigorously investigated proposal ever put by any party on any subject at any election—has to be seen against the contrast of the existing scheme, unwieldy, unjust, enormously costly, inherently costly.

He said to those who opposed it and who forced the government to a double dissolution:

Let the warning be quite clear: if Liberals propose next week to prop up, patch over, the existing scheme, it will mean more in contributions and more in taxation for everybody. Let's have a clean sweep.

All those words remain true today.

When you ask what motivated Gough Whitlam to introduce the Medibank legislation, something which is now an article of faith on this side of the House, you need look no further than his own words. He had this to say:

I personally find quite unacceptable a system whereby the man who drives my Commonwealth car in Sydney pays twice as much for the same family cover as I have, not despite the fact that my income is 4 or 5 times higher than his, but precisely because of my higher income.

These values find an echo in the 43rd Parliament.

In America they call it the 'Kennedy moment'; in Australia it is the 'Whitlam moment'. Every Australian knows where they were on 11 November 1975. He inspired a generation of political activism, he is a reference point for all who follow, and today we pay tribute to a great Australian.