Condolence Motion For the Hon. Edward Gough Whitlam, AC, QC, House of Representatives

Gough Whitlam changed Australia for the better. There is no doubt that on any side of politics Gough Whitlam was one of the great leaders of our nation.

Gough Whitlam changed Australia for the better. There is no doubt that on any side of politics Gough Whitlam was one of the great leaders of our nation. He was a bold and courageous reformer in areas as diverse as health care, social policy, foreign policy, education and reconciliation with Indigenous Australia. Many of the excellent contributions on this condolence motion have covered these reforms. I want to speak about Whitlam's contributions to the law and to the arts.

 

Whitlam brought about great and sweeping reforms to the laws of our nation, establishing changes that have transformed public life in Australia and that are part of our lives today. These include the abolition of the death penalty, establishing the Law Reform Commission and the Institute of Criminology, and proposing the establishing of a general Federal Court. Working with his Attorney-General, Lionel Murphy, Whitlam also created the first national scheme of legal aid, which forms one of the pillars of access to justice in our country.

 

In 1975, Whitlam brought in the Racial Discrimination Act, a pioneering piece of legislation that embodies modern Australia's opposition to racism and bigotry. Whitlam also recognised the ongoing injustice being suffered by Indigenous Australians, and part of his government's response was to establish the Woodward royal commission into Aboriginal land rights in the Northern Territory. The reports of that royal commission paved the way for the Aboriginal land rights act. Whitlam also brought Australia's first legal action before the International Court of Justice, demanding that France cease its nuclear testing in the Pacific. He was successful in this, with the French government stopping atmospheric nuclear testing in the Pacific in 1974.

 

Somehow Whitlam also found the time to introduce national trade practices legislation and the Trade Practices Commission, while also helping to modernise family law, establishing no-fault divorce, authorising civil celebrants and, in 1975, enacting the Family Law Act. This list of major legal reforms is remarkable. It is remarkable for its breadth, it is remarkable for its boldness and it is remarkable for having been achieved in less than three years.

 

I also want to draw attention to Whitlam's contribution to the arts, because the arts and cultural policy were central to Whitlam's vision of Australia as a modern and confident nation, sure of its identity and its place in the world. He also saw, as with other areas of public policy, that the Australian government should have a central role in encouraging and promoting our arts and our culture. His 1972 policy speech, 'It's Time', proposed the establishment of a council to promote excellence in the arts, to expand access to the arts in the community, to help establish a distinctive Australian identity, and to promote Australian culture internationally. He also proposed a public lending right for authors and measures to increase Australian content in film, television and books.

 

Whitlam brought to the prime ministership a passionate belief in the importance of the arts. In The Whitlam Government, he wrote:

In any civilised community the arts and associated amenities must occupy a central place. Their enjoyment should not be seen as something remote from everyday life. Of all the objectives of my Government none had a higher priority than the encouragement of the arts, the preservation and enrichment of our cultural and intellectual heritage.

 

Indeed I would argue that all the other objectives of a Labor Government - social reform, justice and equity in the provision of welfare services and educational opportunities - have as their goal the creation of a society in which the arts and the appreciation of spiritual and intellectual values can flourish. Our other objectives are all means to an end; the enjoyment of the arts is an end in itself.

 

In government, Whitlam established the Australian Film Commission and the Australia Council. He saw the Council as offering:

…the prospect of a broad policy for the national development of the arts within a streamlined administration providing independence from political pressures and safeguards against centralised and authoritarian tendencies.

 

This is a principle of arts administration that still holds good today. He began construction of the National Gallery and, in an audacious and hugely symbolic gesture, bought Jackson Pollock's Blue Poles as a statement of Australia's confidence of its place in world culture.

 

Whitlam wanted the arts and our cultural heritage to be open and accessible to all. He established inquiries into the role and funding of museums and national collections, public libraries, the performing arts, and expanded the role of the National Library and introduced compensation for authors for the free loan of their books in public libraries, the Public Lending Right. As with so many other areas of public policy, Whitlam changed the way we think about the role of government for the arts and established the framework of arts policy that still exists today. Above all, he gave us the confidence and the support to speak as Australians and to tell our stories to ourselves and to the world.