Gough Whitlam, young people and public support for the arts

Gough Whitlam, Labor prime minister from 1972 to 1975, has died aged 98. AAP/ Joe Hildebrand

Gough Whitlam’s legacy in the arts first hit me as a little indie-music nerd in the 1990s. The inner-city Sydney band The Whitlams made a funny little music video about their namesake, a bloke who was part fairy-tale, part legend, all booming voice and big character. He happily played along, announcing the band’s win at the annual Triple J Hottest 100 a few years later. What a nice bloke, I thought. Then I started to explore. Wow.

Whitlam, who died this morning, age 98, had a huge influence on young people – when he was elected, and still today. His commitment to public support for the arts started before he became prime minister.

As early as 1968 Whitlam, then the leader of the opposition, made key statements about the arts at the annual conference of the Professional Musicians’ Union of Australia. He was speaking in response to the then Liberal government’s arts budget.

The Whitlams, Gough (1993).

As reported in the Sydney Morning Herald in 1968, Whitlam argued that “government intervention should be positive, not merely prohibitive”. He also asserted a belief that artists should be treated as professional and earn adequate money for their work, arguing against the “underlying if unspoken impression that artists should labour for love rather than lucre”.

Not long after that speech, the Artists for Whitlam Committee emerged, a movement that included practitioners, as well as broadcasters and scholars. As Jim Davidson notes in the Journal of Australian Studies, when “an Artists for Whitlam Committee was formed; advertisements appeared in the papers, academics figuring prominently among the signatories”.

The most famous part of this appeal came via the all-star cast for his 1972 Campaign, It’s Time.

ALP: It’s Time (1972).

When in power Whitlam came good on his promises to the arts, establishing the Australian Film Commission, the Australia Council and other centralised forms of local arts support. He was also a supporter of community broadcasting and formal training and research centres such as the Australian Film, Radio and Television School (AFTRS) and the National Institute for Dramatic Arts (NIDA).

Prior to these works, there was, as broadcaster Phillip Adams recalled in the 2008 documentary Not Quite Hollywood, a “great cinematic silence in Australia”. Whitlam also acknowledged the unique place of the media in democratic life, supporting a Minister for Media as well as a Minister for Aboriginal Affairs.

As well as prime minister, he held the title of Minister for Environment, Aborigines and the Arts himself, establishing the Aboriginal Arts Board as a dedicated space for Indigenous artistry and distribution.

A key emphasis of Whitlam’s arts policy was the development of a diverse and critical arts sector. Whitlam put his money where his mouth was – appearing in one of the Barry McKenzie’s films despite the character having claimed, only half tongue-in-cheek, that “the government’s shelling out piles of bloody mullah for bastard who reckons he can paint pictures, write poems or make films”.

Whitlam also played along to support someone who would become an intergenerational international icon of Australian artistic achievement – Barry Humphries and Mrs, later to be Dame, Edna Everage.

Whitlam bestows the honours on Dame Edna.

One of our greatest filmmakers, Bruce Beresford, got his start thanks to Whitlam. He was just one of many of his generation who were given support to explore telling Australian stories under tax breaks like what would become the 10BA scheme.

When Whitlam was famously dismissed another great comedian was present. I am proud, and also still tickled by the fact, that Norman Gunston addressed the crowd just before Whitlam did.

No-one would save the Governor General, and this type of access would set up a tradition of comedic public service forth estate engagement that is still alive and kicking.

Norman Gunston at Whitlam’s dismissal, 1975.

One of Whitlam’s big legacies, Australia’s internationally unique national youth network, Triple J, showed a belief in the next generation of artists, voters and citizens. It began humbly in a makeshift office in Sydney’s King Cross broadcasting as Double J, a place to celebrate local musicians. It was home to a diversity of identities including female broadcasters, young and diasporic voices.

Whitlam’s influence was recalled by the station on the occasion of its 30th anniversary in 2005. Triple J is still going strong and Double J was relaunched this year.

At a time when young people are bearing a heavy burden of federal budget cuts, when artistic and education funding is threatened and public broadcasters have been asked to tighten theirs belt again, it’s time to remember, thank him, and celebrate what he gave us.

Help combat alt-facts and fake news and donate to independent journalism. Tax deductible.