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Gough Whitlam’s life and legacy: experts respond

The Whitlam government’s legacy continues to be felt today, close to four decades since it lost office. AAP/Mick Tsikas

Gough Whitlam, Labor prime minister from 1972 to 1975, has died aged 98. A giant of modern Australian politics, his passing triggered a flood of tributes on Tuesday morning.

In a statement, current Labor leader Bill Shorten said:

Like no other PM before or since, Gough Whitlam redefined our country and in doing so he changed the lives of a generation … Our country is different because of him.

Despite spending less than three years in office before being sensationally dismissed by the governor-general, Sir John Kerr, the Whitlam government enacted a series of reforms, including the extension of publicly funded health care (through Medibank, now Medicare) and higher education, a raft of changes in social, Indigenous and arts policy, and the establishment of diplomatic relations with China. His government’s legacy continues to be felt today four decades after it lost office.

The Conversation spoke to a number of experts to get a sense of Whitlam’s achievements and legacies in key policy areas. Their responses follow.

Aboriginal land rights

Diana Perche, Lecturer in Politics and Public Policy at Macquarie University

One of the most iconic images of Gough Whitlam’s period in government is the photograph of the prime minister putting a fistful of sand into the hand of Aboriginal elder Vincent Lingiari, marking the resolution of the Gurindji people’s long-running land rights campaign known as the Wave Hill walk-off.

Whitlam had been introduced to Lingiari by author Frank Hardy early in the campaign. The return of land to the Gurindji people in August 1975 foreshadowed the passage of the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act in 1976. The legislation was awaiting its final reading in the House of Representatives when Whitlam’s government was dismissed, and the act was ultimately passed with amendments by his successor, Malcolm Fraser.

Aboriginal land rights were a crucial part of Whitlam’s policy agenda in opposition, featuring in the Labor Party platform in 1969 and 1971. Whitlam was keenly aware of Australia’s poor international reputation for its treatment of Aboriginal people, racial inequality and lack of civil rights.

Whitlam famously visited protesters at the Aboriginal Tent Embassy on the lawns of Parliament House with his wife Margaret in 1972, and thus helped to place Aboriginal land rights on the national agenda. Soon afterwards, Whitlam declared in his election campaign that

We will legislate to give Aborigines land rights – not just because their case is beyond argument, but because all of us as Australians are diminished while the Aborigines are denied their rightful place in this nation.

Within two weeks of assuming government, Whitlam commissioned Edward Woodward to investigate how to grant land rights. Woodward’s reports formed the basis of the legislation for the Northern Territory, providing for the establishment of the Aboriginal land councils, and grants of freehold title on the basis of traditional links to land.

Legislating land rights changed the political and economic landscape for Indigenous Australians, well beyond the boundaries of what is now recognised as Indigenous-owned land. The policy allowed for the beginnings of self-determination. State governments passed their own land rights acts, albeit less ambitious in scope.

Land councils developed expertise in policy advocacy and in negotiations with mining and other interests extending over Aboriginal land, ensuring that Indigenous views continue to be heard today. Australian governments have acknowledged the importance of land in Indigenous law and custom, and its potential value in traditional and modern economic ventures.


Ian Lowe, Emeritus Professor, School of Science at Griffith University

Gough Whitlam will be remembered for passing Australia’s first environmental legislation, the Environmental Assessment (Impact of Proposals) Act; for appointing our first national Minister for the Environment (Moss Cass); and for setting up the inquiry into the environmental impacts of the proposed Ranger uranium mine.

That inquiry broadened into a general consideration of Australia’s role in the uranium industry generally, leading to the conclusion in the 1976 report that it is problematic to export uranium while the problems of weapons proliferation and waste management remain unresolved.

As in other areas like education and health care, Whitlam was decades ahead of his time.


Margaret McKenzie, Lecturer, School of Accounting, Economics and Finance at Deakin University

The Whitlam government was more broadly globalist in its economic approach than previous governments, which had served to protect the traditional interests of largely British company subsidiaries, and of agriculture. It had a big task, being faced by the oil crisis of the mid-1970s. The oil price increased around fourfold in nominal terms between 1972 and 1977 (around threefold adjusted for inflation), at a time that inflation doubled from 10% to 20%.

Whitlam’s role in the development of the modern Australian economy is fundamental. Policy direction was shifted towards freeing up both trade and international capital movements. The Whitlam government moved away from the more Eurocentric perspectives of previous governments and recognised that Australia was a part of the Asia-Pacific region. It opened up cultural and educational links with China and Indonesia that were the precursor to economic ties.

In 1975, the Whitlam government established the Foreign Investment Advisory Committee, the predecessor to the Foreign Investment Review Board. The purpose was to monitor the level of foreign investment in Australia and regulate the takeover of Australian companies to defend Australia’s interests. This was modified and replaced by Fraser with the Foreign Investment Review Board, which was still more positive toward foreign investment flows.

The Whitlam government was in fact far less protectionist than previous governments. This was driven by Whitlam himself in opposition to the union movement. The commissioned Rattigan report recommended tariff cuts. In 1973, a burst of inflation was followed by the well-known action in this area of a tariff cut across the board of 25%.

Given that the average level of industry assistance was more than 30% in 1970, this is significant, amounting to an overall reduction in import prices of something like 10%.

In 1974, the Whitlam government commissioned the Crawford report and with its recommendation replaced the Tariff Board with the Industrial Assistance Commission (IAC). Its purpose became more market-focused. It was intended to improve the efficiency of the Australian economy.

Economists’ modelling of the effects of tariffs on prices and quantities of traded goods across industries began to be built into policy. The IAC was the predecessor to the Industry Commission, which has since evolved into the Productivity Commission. The modern role of economics in Australian policy was put in place by the Whitlam government.

The Trade Practices Act of 1974 was intended to promote competition in the economy and improve consumer protections. This was to be administered by a new body, the Trade Practices Commission. Together with the Prices Surveillance Authority it later became the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission.

Richard Holden, Professor of Economics at UNSW Australia Business School

The Whitlam government is remembered as transformative and revolutionary: sometimes fondly, sometimes not so fondly. In the economic sphere, the most salient memory is typically ballooning spending, a failure to appreciate the perils of inflation, and allowing a wage-price spiral from 1974. This was bad. Really bad.

But there is also a hugely positive side of the Whitlam economic ledger. The introduction of the Trade Practices Act in 1974 brought Australia into the modern economic era in dealing with harmful monopoly practices. The revolutionary 25% cut in tariffs acknowledged, and did a lot to further, the crucial role of international trade for Australia. In this sense, Whitlam put a lot of faith in markets – a faith that was frankly rather lacking under Robert Menzies.

What Whitlam did wrong – and there was plenty of it – was relatively easy to fix. What he did right was incredibly hard to do. And that is the economic legacy for which he should be remembered.


Jo Caust, Associate Professor, Cultural Policy and Arts Leadership at University of Melbourne

Without question, a significant achievement of the Whitlam government was its profiling and support of the arts. Gough Whitlam, unlike his prime ministerial predecessors, saw the connection between nation building and the arts. He recognised that in order for a country to be seen as truly independent, it needed to support and be proud of its own culture. He noted:

In any civilised community the arts and associated amenities must occupy a central place.

The establishment in quick succession of the Australia Council, the Australian Film Commission, the National Film School and the National Gallery reflected this objective. In addition, their separation at ‘arm’s length’ from political processes was critical for their effective functioning. They could not be seen as tools of one government or another as their credibility and objectivity would then be questioned.

It was also recognised that as government statutory bodies they could not be easily removed. While government arts funding programs had previously existed, such as the Commonwealth Literary Fund, they were seen as flawed because it was recognised that there was direct influence by the government of the day in their decision making.

So like the models of the Arts Council of Great Britain and the Canada Council before it, the Australia Council as Australia’s national arts funding body was established as a statutory body. The Australia Council was not legally recognised until the Australia Council Act of 1975, but it was formalised from 1973 by the amalgamation of various bodies that already existed and then operational from 1974.

The Australia Council created seven art form boards whose government-appointed members were well-respected peers from each field. This was vitally important for the policies and programs of the council to be seen as respected and appropriate by the artists themselves. Importantly, Aboriginal arts were formally recognised as a distinct board and given a seat at the table.

Another key part of Whitlam’s approach was to significantly increase the financial support for the arts. So, in 1974, the government funding allocation for the arts under the new structure was doubled from the previous year and then received another 50% increase in 1975. This generous increase in funding produced a flowering of arts activity in many different fields, brought expatriate artists back to Australia and gave recognition internationally of Australia’s unique cultural traditions and contributions. As Whitlam observed:

The enjoyment of the arts is an end in itself.

Joanna Mendelssohn, Program Director, Art Administration, School of Art History and Art Education; Editor in Chief, Design and Art of Australia Online at UNSW Australia

Gough Whitlam’s understanding of the arts and what they can do and be for people epitomised his great vision for Australia. It wasn’t just the money – it was the way he trusted those most involved in the arts to make professional decisions.

To him we owe the Australia Council, with its continuing belief in arm’s length funding (without political interference). We owe not just the National Gallery of Australia with its magnificent collections and superb staff, but the many exhibitions of major art from other counties that now come to us. It was Whitlam who personally endorsed the Australia Council’s proposal that the Australian government would indemnify rather than pay insurance premiums for priceless art that toured the country. That has saved us tens of millions of dollars in premiums over the years, and brought us art we otherwise could never have seen.

To him we owe the free rein given to Nugget Coombs in enabling the magnificent support of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art – art forms that now internationally define this country.

Whitlam showed that true leadership is putting policies first, thinking of the needs of the people ahead of their wants, planning for the long term.


Hannah Forsyth, Lecturer in History at Australian Catholic University

Almost 20 years before he was elected prime minister, Gough Whitlam gave words to an idea that remains central to his legacy:

Everybody in Australia is entitled, without cost to the individual, to the same educational facilities, whether it be in respect of education at the kindergarten or tertiary stage or the post-graduate stage.

After the 1972 election, education was made free, including university study.

Historians, educationalists and political analysts have attempted ever since to smart-arse their way out of how important this was. The arguments are predictable. Most university students had been on scholarships before this anyway. Equity did not improve much, statistically speaking (which should not be a surprise when we consider the timeframe, economic conditions and when we understand disadvantage properly). The main beneficiaries were women, which is dismissed as not important enough to warrant as radical an idea as free university education.

Despite the qualifiers (which are perfectly true – and I offer some myself in my own history of universities), historical data nevertheless supports us in honouring Whitlam’s reforms. In his three years of government, participation in higher education increased by 25%, a jump to 276,559 enrolments.

We also know from lived experience that Whitlam’s free education mattered. Many Australians are conscious that they owe their university degree to Whitlam. Social media is plastered with their stories today. These show that free tertiary education had a significant impact on the ways people saw themselves and their opportunities in life.

No matter how little it suits current politicians to say so, Whitlam’s free education was momentous. He demonstrated that every citizen does indeed have the right to educational opportunity, regardless of their socioeconomic background, gender or ethnicity. Free education – as does the figure of Gough Whitlam himself – remains an important symbol of Australia’s commitment to fairness.

Social policy

Veronica Sheen, Research Associate, School of Social Sciences at Monash University

One of the most outstanding achievements of the Whitlam government was the introduction of the supporting mother’s benefit in 1973 (now called parenting payment). Prior to 1973, only widows were entitled to pension payments, so other women who were raising children alone faced invidious choices, often involving a traumatic relinquishment of the child for adoption or having to work long hours to support her family, which was not an option for many women.

The pension payment gave single mothers (and, in 1977, also fathers) choices and options around the raising of their children, enabling a focus on full-time care for babies and small children and a balance between work and care when the children were older. It was an immensely important initiative in removing old stigmas around single mothers.

This achievement also linked to a proactive approach for women’s employment, taking forward the equal pay initiatives beginning in 1969 and resulting in equal pay for equal work across most of the workforce by 1972, and in 1974 a comparable minimum wage for both men and women. It is hard to believe some 40 years later that such a difference could have existed.

An important achievement of the Whitlam era, which should not be underestimated, was its support for civil society organisations, including women’s services and representative organisations. These organisations have been and continue to play an important role in fostering Australia’s participatory democracy. In many countries today, peoples strive to create these organisations, which have an important role in social and economic progress.

The introduction of Medicare and the abolition of university fees, combined with assistance for students from low-income families, were also major innovations of the Whitlam era in creating a more egalitarian and progressive society.

Foreign affairs

Mark Beeson, Professor of International Politics at Murdoch University

We live in an era of diminished expectations. Big ideas are out of fashion and so are big political personalities. It’s difficult to find, let alone have political heroes these days – something that helps to explain the apathy and disconnect among so many of the young.

It’s one of the great regrets of my life that I never got to meet Gough Whitlam. He did more to break this country out of its stultifying, insular past than any other figure I can think of – recent attempts to rewrite the history of the Menzies era notwithstanding.

The tragedy is that so many of the projects he initiated – opening up to China, reorienting the nation toward Asia, redefining the alliance with the US, actually making Australia an independent nation – remain unfinished works-in-progress at best. It is a reminder of how diminished the vision of the current crop of leaders actually is that we find ourselves fighting yet another war on behalf of one patron and readopting the anachronistic honours of another.

We are unlikely to ever see the like of Gough again and the nation is all the poorer for it.


Anne-marie Boxall, Director, Deeble Institute for Health Policy Research, Australian Healthcare and Hospitals Association; Adjunct Lecturer at University of Sydney

Without Whitlam, Australia wouldn’t have Medicare. His legacy in the field of health care is as simple and profound as that. While major landmark reforms are nearly always the work of many, the introduction of universal health care in Australia is different. Whitlam was central to ushering in universal health care in Australia. He brought the Labor Party and the Australian people along with him. It was an example of reform driven by strong leadership and a clear vision for how to make Australia a better and fairer place.

Whitlam’s role in delivering Australians universal health care began almost as soon as he became opposition leader in 1967. It was at Whitlam’s urging that the architects of Medibank, Richard Scotton and John Deeble, developed a proposal for universal healthcare in Australia. This proposal was originally known as Medibank, and later became Medicare. Whitlam was concerned that in a country as wealthy as Australia, some people were unable to afford basic health care.

Under Medibank, access to health care became a right of citizenship. And because it was funded largely through taxation, it was more equitable than the existing private health insurance scheme.

Whitlam also convinced the ALP to adopt Medibank as official party policy and take it to the 1972 federal election as part of Labor’s ambitious social reform program. While there were alternative options for expanding access to health care under consideration at the time, Whitlam insisted that his Labor colleagues back Medibank because it was the only option that could quickly provide universal cover.

When colleagues dared to suggest an alternative, Whitlam reportedly said:

You pissants. I’ve nearly just won an election on this. Get out of my office.

There was no further argument.

Once in government, Labor had a hard time getting its Medibank legislation through parliament, and many of Whitlam’s colleagues thought it politically expedient to compromise and scale back the reform. However, in his characteristic way, Whitlam refused to compromise and demanded his Labor colleagues stick with Medibank, even though there was little chance of getting it through a hostile Senate. After a double-dissolution election and the one and only joint sitting of federal parliament, the Medibank legislation was finally passed, just weeks before the Whitlam government was dismissed.

When reflecting on the introduction of Medicare nearly a decade later, in 1984, the health minister at the time, Neal Blewett, commented that it would have been very difficult, if not impossible, to have implemented Medicare if Medibank had not first been introduced. Medicare now enjoys bipartisan support and is acknowledged as the basis of one of the best health systems in the world. We can largely thank Whitlam for it.

Click here for a timeline of key events in the life of Gough Whitlam.

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