Subject: Gough Whitlam
JOE O’BRIEN: Anthony Albanese, good morning. A sad day for the Labor Party. How are you feeling?
ANTHONY ALBANESE: It is indeed a sad day for the Labor Party but more importantly it’s a sad day for the nation. Gough Whitlam was a giant who had a gigantic impact on this country. I think that modern Australian history can almost be defined as pre-Whitlam and post Whitlam. His impact was that significant. In having the vision to envisage a future of a modern Australia but also having the ability to help shape that future.
O’BRIEN: What role did he play in you as a youngster developing a passion for politics?
ALBANESE: I remember handing out how-to-votes as a young kid in 1972 and the happiness and thrill that went through my household and through my community. I grew up in public housing in Camperdown and you voted Labor. And they started you pretty young handing out those how-to-votes. You handed out how to votes and you voted Labor and that’s what you did. It was very much a part of the culture that everyone was in the Labor Party, including my mother and my grandfather who I lived with as well. And so was it was an honour getting to meet the great man in when I was Young Labor. He was always someone who had encouraging words for young people coming through the Labor movement, he was a source of inspiration. He opened what is now my electorate office in Marrickville Road, Marrickville for the then member Jeannette McHugh and I remember that day as the day Marrickville shut down. Gough was greatly loved by multicultural Australia but no group more than the Greek Australian community. He was more popular than any Greek. They all came to talk to him and to be in his presence and to pay homage to him.
O’BRIEN: What were his policy commitments and achievements that you really developed a respect for?
ALBANESE: Firstly, education – the valuing of education – opening up universities. There is a whole generation of Australians such as myself who are the first in our family to go to university. Gough Whitlam created that in such a short period of time. Secondly, in terms of my own area of policy that I’ve concentrated on – that of urban Australia. He wanted to create a better life for people in our suburbs. Prior to the Whitlam government and the work of Tom Uren you didn’t have sewage in the outer suburbs of Sydney. There wasn’t curbing and guttering. These basic necessities. Support for transport. Jobs in our outer suburbs is what Gough Whitlam drove through. And his support for a more creative and outward looking Australia. Whether it was our engagement in international affairs, of course the historic visit to China, bringing troops home from the Vietnam War, or whether it be support for arts and culture that flourished under the Whitlam Government. He soared above the political landscape. At a time where so much of politics gets mired in the weeds, Gough Whitlam always was above that. He gave an example of how politics could be inspirational.
O’BRIEN: And health is also named as one of his most significant legacies.
ALBANESE: Yes, the creation of Medicare, now everyone supports it in public anyway – the public health care system. But it was Gough who brought in Medibank and because of that and its popularity essentially over 40 years it’s become a given. But before that it wasn’t. In my household the difference that he made to pensions had a real impact on our standard of living. Before then you really struggled to get by. Gough with free education, universal healthcare, the increases to pensions that he delivered made such a big difference to so many.
O’BRIEN: How did it all fall apart so quickly for him in Government?
ALBANESE: They’d had 23 years in opposition so there was a lack of experience in government. He also of course challenged the existing power structures and the power structures fought back. We had a campaign whereby the newspapers and the media coverage ran a campaign against him, the likes of which perhaps only the last campaign we’ve seen a comparison in terms of consistency. At that time, if you go back to 1975 you’ll see papers being taken off the backs of trucks and burnt. It was a very controversial time and Gough Whitlam did challenge those existing power structures. That’s not to say there weren’t errors committed. Of course there were. All governments do. In that 3 years Gough Whitlam left a legacy that is permanent change. Not for Gough just sitting there and just occupying office. For Gough it was about making a difference and he did every single day.
O’BRIEN: Do you remember where you were on that day they were standing there on the steps in Parliament House in Canberra?
ALBANESE: I certainly do. My history teacher who is now in a Labor party branch in my electorate so he won’t mind me naming him, he’s retired. Vince Crowe came in to my classroom – I went to St Marys Cathedral in the city. And he came in and announced to the class that ‘our Prime Minister has been dismissed and our government has been thrown out’. People weren’t clear what it was. I got into trouble that day. I was twelve years old, I got home pretty late because there were police horses and chaos in the city and we hung about and became observers in what was going on. These were turbulent times. The big demonstration against the dismissal was held in The Domain. I didn’t go to school, we all went across and went to the demo. The good old Christian Brothers, no one got into trouble.
O’BRIEN: As someone who was so passionate about what happened that day, how did you feel when the election was lost, was there a sense of disbelief?
ALBANESE: I think people expected that we’d win, is my memory. Everyone that you knew was angered by the dismissal. It was very disappointing but the thing about Gough is that he didn’t just disappear. He continued to have an impact both in terms of the Parliament but outside the Parliament as well with his leadership on issues, on the environment, on international relations, on education, on arts and culture. He continued to write, he continued to be a very active source of advice for people in the Labor movement, and he continued to be an inspirational figure.
O’BRIEN: Malcolm Fraser lamented this morning that both major parties have drifted a long way to the right. Do you as a member of your party’s left faction hold out any hope that the passing of Gough Whitlam will lead some to re-examine what they want to stand for?
ALBANESE: I think we often romanticise the past. Significant gains have been made because of the work of people like Gough Whitlam. Many of the issues that he championed are now mainstream. Medibank is one that we spoke about. Malcolm Fraser dismantled Medibank. Now you see Tony Abbott while he’s trying to do it by stealth, at least in public supports public health care. History does move forward. Gough Whitlam would have been, if he was in the Labor Party Caucus today would have been there arguing for reform. His legacy has helped transform the political debate. There have been significant advances made. Many of the advances that Gough made. Many of the causes which were championed by Gough Whitlam – anti-apartheid, the end of the Vietnam War, the expansion of educational opportunity, universal health care, the recognition of China, seen as radical at the time – all of these are now mainstream. All of them were opposed by the conservatives at the time.
O’BRIEN: And another of those causes that you didn’t mention there that you’ve tweeted about this morning, that classic photo, of Gough Whitlam with a fistful of dirt, the red dirt of Central Australia, and dropping that dirt through the hands of an Aboriginal man. Tell us about that moment and how that significant that is.
ALBANESE: Well that’s the moment when people look back the path to reconciliation really began. That’s the turning point. From that point there was no moving back. There had been much campaigning as a result of the conflict that had been there on the land in the Northern Territory, the struggle for Indigenous rights and land rights. Whitlam was ahead of his time. He was prepared to push out there, his agenda. Gough Whitlam will be remembered for that. I know that first Australians in my local community regard Gough as being up there on a pedestal. It is a very sad day for so many Australians. Because the thing about Gough is that even though he was 98 years of age and was in ill health, it’s still a shock because we can’t imagine an Australia without Gough Whitlam’s presence. That says a lot about him and the contribution that he made.
O’BRIEN: Thanks a lot for making the time to talk to us.
ALBANESE: Thank you.
Leader of the Australian Labor Party, MP for Grayndler, Rabbitohs Life Member. Authorised by Anthony Albanese, ALP, Canberra.