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Australia’s film industry owes a debt to Gough Whitlam

2010’s Animal Kingdom – one of many films to benefit from the legacies of the Whitlam government. EPA/Simon Mein/Sony Pictures

Filmmakers and audiences – indeed Australian arts and screen culture more broadly – owe a deep debt of gratitude to Gough Whitlam and the government he led.

Although the foundations had been laid by Whitlam’s predecessors John Gorton and Billy McMahon, the Australian film revival of the 1970s only really took shape after Whitlam became Prime Minister in 1972. Whitlam’s government established the Australian Film and Television School (AFTRS) in 1973; included a Film and Television Board as one of the initial specialist panels in the new Australia Council for the Arts; and replaced Gorton’s film support agency, the Australian Film Development Corporation (AFDC), with the Australian Film Commission (AFC) in 1975.

In contrast to the AFDC, the new Commission prioritised cultural and artistic merit over the prospect of economic success in their funding decisions. For the first time, filmmakers were provided with substantial financial backing. In keeping with Whitlam’s broader embrace of the arts, the first annual budget of the new Commission exceeded the total funding received by its predecessor over its five-year life.

It was undeniably the case that the AFC had the power to direct as much as facilitate film production and screen culture, and its legacy is arguably still evident today. The Whitlam government was elected on a cultural nationalist platform, and the new agency’s early funding decisions reflected this.

Gough Whitlam in 2002. AAP Image/Alan Porritt

Funded projects included literary adaptations, historical films, social-realist dramas and art-house projects that drew inspiration from European cinema rather than from Hollywood or contemporary Australian popular culture.

The popular ocker comedies that dominated the early years of the revival were considered inappropriate, even embarrassing representations of national film culture, and were soon marginalised.

Arguably the conservatism of the AFC’s cultural mission and outlook continues to shape Australian film culture to this day.

The Whitlam government also committed funds for the first time to assist the marketing and distribution of Australian films. On the face of it, this was not a particularly radical move, but it was perhaps the most controversial film industry issue of the time.

In opposition, Whitlam had consistently argued restructuring cinema distribution and exhibition was essential for the local production industry to flourish. This was a popular position among advocates for Australian cinema. The reluctance of distributors and exhibitors to invest in local films was one of the main reasons given for the lack of local production since the end of the second world war.

The reformists’ cause was aided by the Tariff Board – forerunner of the Productivity Commission – which had been instructed by Whitlam’s predecessor McMahon in early 1972 to conduct an inquiry into the film and television industry. The Board’s 1973 report recommended the creation of a government-run distribution network, and the forced sale of some cinemas owned by the largest exhibition chains.

The new measures were nowhere near as far-reaching as that, in large part because of the pressure brought to bear on the government by Jack Valenti, the influential president of the Motion Picture Export (Distributors) Association of America, the organisation that represented the interests of the major Hollywood studios outside the US.

Valenti visited Australia in February 1973 – just two months after Whitlam became Prime Minister, and just before the Tariff Board released its report – ostensibly to pay his respects to the new Minister for the Media, Senator Doug McClelland. He was met at the Chevron Hotel in Sydney by 200 demonstrators carrying placards reading “We can make our own rubbish, Jack”, “Stop cultural genocide”, “Cut the US connection”, and “It’s time to end 50 years of US domination of Australian films”.

Valenti’s visit had the desired effect of watering down the government’s response. Despite some bullish statements by McClelland, the government chose not to intervene in the exhibition industry.

It was perhaps no coincidence that, by 1975, two of the three major exhibition companies, Greater Union and Village, had begun investing in local film production. And it may also have just been coincidental that the new Australian Film and Television School building, opened in August 1975, contained projection equipment donated by the Motion Picture Distributors’ Association.

Some 40 years on, films are made here in relatively large numbers, and aspiring filmmakers can realistically aim for a career, albeit perhaps not a financially secure one, in the industry. In no small measure, these are the legacies of the Whitlam government.

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