Steve Whan shares personal memories of a nice bloke
and Gough Whitlam’s enduring legacy for progressive politics
Maddi, my 20 year old daughter, was nowhere near being born when Gough Whitlam was Prime Minister but after his death she said on Facebook “Rest in peace Gough Whitlam. Even though I wasn’t alive whilst you were in your prime, I know that you were someone fantastic. I will always treasure the stories I hear about you from my grandparents and my dad. Thank you for what you achieved for this country, and I hope eventually we can catch up to where you would have led us if you’d had the chance.”
Maddi has the advantage of having a grandfather, my father Bob Whan, who served as Member for Eden-Monaro in the Whitlam Government, so she has heard (just a bit!) about him.
I was a child when Gough was Prime Minister but as I hung around the corridors of old Parliament House he always took the time to say hello and ask me how I was going. My father tells me I once responded “I’m going well but you aren’t.” I suspect that was a rare comment because I normally remember being totally tongue-tied.
Thanks for free tertiary education, but doctors did not like Medibank
I, like many others, am a beneficiary of the free tertiary education that he introduced. He created Medibank, the forerunner to Medicare, our universal healthcare system. At the time it was controversial.
In my father’s unpublished biography he says that policies such as Medibank “were understood and appreciated by the bulk of the electorate even though the doctors were waging a vicious campaign against the proposal. ‘Nazi Whitlam’ signs, approved by doctors, were appearing all over Eden-Monaro.”
My mum of course was out with the women’s movement campaigning for equality and Gough made massive early steps along that path. Then there is that image so many of us have etched in our minds of the Prime Minister pouring soil into the hands of Northern Territory indigenous elder Vincent Lingiari – the first land rights, with the emotion and significance of that gesture summed up by Paul Kelly in ‘from little things big things grow’.
Rural NSW benefited from Gough’s world-leading trip to China, as he took the first steps to open our economy and reduce tariffs. As a result we see the benefits of a Chinese market for our rural products.
Vision for regional growth centres
Whitlam’s regional growth centres plan was part of a big vision for regional Australia, such as Albury Wodonga and Bathurst Orange. Whitlam envisaged them growing to become significant cities and he put the policies in place to do it. Although his government wasn’t around long enough to entrench the plans, both areas today are thriving, proving the wisdom of the choices.
Regional development policy since then has tended to shy away from long term vision; they are short term plans, small fairly ineffective grants and no holistic approach.
The Whitlam Government introduced the Financial Assistance Grants for local Government. It would be fair to say that if they were still the same share of Commonwealth revenue there would be no infrastructure backlog in our local councils!
Yes there were problems, the biggest being the fact that after two decades in opposition the Whitlam team lacked the experience to set a course to being a long term government. Bob Hawke learnt a big lesson there and one of the Whitlam legacies is modern Labor’s understanding that not only do you have to be in Government to introduce reforms but you need to be there long enough to entrench them.
Modern politicians are often accused of losing sight of the sort of vision Gough had for a better society, but when you think about it there are still a lot of people carrying on the work. The future of Medicare and public health, the Gonski vision for public education, NDIS, tackling climate change – all things being pursued by the progressive side of politics.
Those things are all reasons I’m running again. In a sense, I feel a link in that to the work the members of the Whitlam Government were doing.
What we don’t have though is that towering leader, a person whose legacy will serve as an inspiration to the Labor side of politics long after he has gone. I think Maddi summed it up for us, where could Gough have got us to if things had gone a bit differently? Vale Gough.
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