Oct 21, 2014

Condolence Motion – Hon. Gough Whitlam, AC, QC

House of Representatives

Mr ALBANESE (Grayndler) (13:20): I am humbled to be able to make a contribution to this very significant condolence debate and follow the generous and kind words of the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition, the Deputy Prime Minister, the Deputy Leader of the Opposition and others who have made a contribution.

I begin by expressing my condolences to Tony—who, of course, was a former federal Labor member for Grayndler as well—to Nicholas, to Stephen, to Catherine, to their partners and to their family.

Gough Whitlam was a giant among Australians. He was a great parliamentarian but also a great citizen. At a time when much of the political debate is in the weeds and the details, he soared above the political landscape as a figure in Australian politics. He both anticipated and was able to create the future by his actions.

Whether he was in a small meeting room, at a dinner or at a public event, everyone else seemed to fade to black and white while this giant of a man, physically and intellectually, appeared there in full colour and dominated the venue.

He came to office with an extraordinary agenda. The Whitlam and Barnard government was the entire government for 15 days. Gough had 13 portfolios. In a rare sense of generosity, Barnard had 14. He worked on all the reforms that he could deliver without legislation: reforms that had been in the waiting, some of them, for 23 years.

He ordered full diplomatic relations with China and ended relations with Taiwan. He withdrew troops from Vietnam. At that time there were seven young men incarcerated in jail for refusing to serve in Vietnam. He released them under the powers that were there for ministerial intervention and they were released from jail.

He reopened the equal pay case before the Conciliation and Arbitration Commission. He appointed Elizabeth Evatt to that commission. He also banned racially based sporting teams. Of course, the issue of the apartheid based teams from South Africa were, at the time, very controversial indeed. That short couple of weeks was a sign of things to come, and in three years he did not waste a day. They were three years of enormous reform that transformed our nation into the modern Australia that we see today.

His passing will have a huge impact on so many Australians, because he had an impact on them. When Gough was elected, I was living in Camperdown with my mum and my grandparents. I got to hand out (how-to-vote cards) in 1972, as you did as part of the faith, and I remember the extraordinary celebration in my local community, where people had been thinking that Labor would never quite get across the line.

He made a difference, such as the changes to social security for my mum, who was on the pension. He changed being on social security from something that meant you were not good enough to be a real member of society’ to treating people with respect.

He transformed the health system by the introduction of Medibank, torn down when the conservatives came back into office but now essentially an article of faith in this Parliament whereby no-one can openly say that they are opposed to the universality of public health care.

He changed education so that it was based on merit, not on how wealthy your parents were. His reforms sent a message to young people all over the country: dare to dream, be your best, aim high. That was a call that was answered by many people on all sides of the chamber who are the first people in their family to go to university.

He opened Australia up internationally and saw us as not just an adjunct to the motherland based in London but as a nation that could stand on our own two feet, proudly.

He recognised and made the first major steps to reconciliation after the struggle of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians and their supporters. It was that image of Gough passing the red dirt through Vincent Lingiari’s hands that I think marked a turning point in Australian history with regard to taking the walk and the journey to full reconciliation with the First Australians. Paul Kelly put it very eloquently in his song From Little Things Big Things Grow—and they have indeed from that. In terms of the artistic community, he transformed the way that we see ourselves. Speaking of Paul Kelly, 2JJ and the recognition of youth music culture was a part of Gough’s legacy.

An area that has inspired much of my contribution to this parliament has been infrastructure, urban policy and regional economic development. Gough’s dear friend and comrade Tom Uren is my mentor more than anyone else in political life.

I spoke at the National Press Club three weeks ago, and I began that speech by quoting Gough Whitlam in 1972 at his Blacktown Civic Centre campaign launch, where he said:

 A national government which cuts itself off from responsibility for the nation’s cities is cutting itself off from the nation’s real life. A national government which has nothing to say about cities has nothing relevant or enduring to say about the nation or the nation’s future. Labor is not a city-based party. It is a people-based party, and the overwhelming majority of our people live in cities and towns across our nation.

The fact that you can say so many of Gough Whitlam’s quotes in 2014 and they are as relevant today as they were then is indicative of just how far ahead of the game he was.

He was ahead of the game within our party as well. He understood that you had to take power away from the factional bosses on the national executive. There are those photos of him being excluded from the decision making that was taking place within the party from the entrenched interests. He reformed the Australian Labor Party and made it a modern political party—at great cost to people who, of course, wanted him expelled from the Labor Party at that time.

In terms of Gough Whitlam’s legacies, he is someone who will be regarded very fondly, indeed. As the Leader of the House said, there is no doubt that the events of 11 November, 1975, will loom large over the debate about his legacy.

On that day, my history teacher at the time, Vince Crow, walked into my history class at St Mary’s Cathedral and announced: “Our Prime Minister has been sacked and our government has been overthrown.’’ They were good people, the Christian Brothers! They understood class politics. I was home very late that day, as there was a fair bit of activity in the city of Sydney. There were police on horses and there were people attacking the Stock Exchange.

They were very turbulent times, indeed. In spite of the great injustice that had been done to the government, Gough Whitlam played a role in maintaining national cohesion—then and beyond. He held a demonstration there two days afterwards. We were all excused from wagging class to go across to The Domain—that was our playground at school.  At that time, he said: “Express your views through the ballot box.’’ A great democrat was Gough Whitlam, and he will be remembered for it.

I conclude by saying that I think the legacy of our political contribution can be judged by the permanency of it. If you look at Gough Whitlam’s great reforms—access to education being opened up, recognition of China, engagement of our lives in the full cultural activities, and removal of discrimination against women and on the basis of race through the Racial Discrimination Act—all of these measures have stood the test of time. All of them were very controversial at that time.

Gough Whitlam leaves a great legacy to the nation. He taught us to be brave—brave about our reform ambitions, brave in the face of our critics and unstintingly brave in the pursuit of the greatest ambition any of us could ever pursue: justice and opportunity for all.