Gough Whitlam is probably remembered most in New Zealand for being sensationally dismissed by the Governor General in 1975. However, he is arguably Australia’s greatest ever prime minister, having introduced a massive amount of legislation which transformed the country.Julia Meek in Melbourne looks at the life of a great Australian (with acknowledgment to ‘The Age’) The death of Gough Whitlam, aged 98, in the early hours of Tuesday, 21st October has reminded Australians of momentous times when their country changed for the better — ending their part in a corrupt war and beginning reconciliation with Aboriginals. Gough Whitlam was Prime Minister of a Labor-led government from Dec.5th, 1972, until it ended dramatically on Nov.11th 1975 when dismissed by the Governor-General, Sir John Kerr, a move that was of huge importance to the British Commonwealth, and unprecedented at the time.
‘It’s Time!’ Whitlam’s election slogan in 1972 was ‘It’s time!’ and he lost no time , once elected, in instigating promised reforms. He started with a Cabinet of only two people, himself holding 13 portfolios and Lance Barnard 14.
- Barnard instantly ended national conscription call-up.
- On Dec. 11th they announced the withdrawal of the Australian army from Viet Nam.
- On Dec. 15th Whitlam announced a judicial inquiry as the first move towards legal recognition of Aboriginal rights in land, with Justice Woodward presiding.
- The government also backed the equal pay case for women.
A Department of Aboriginal Affairs is established, upgrading the Office of Aboriginal Affairs to Ministerial level. Jan. 9th 1973: Cabinet acts on 12 pledges; to abolish the death penalty in Federal territories, remove excise on wine, remove sales tax on contraceptives, provide contraceptive pills as pharmaceutical benefits, improve Commonwealth employees’ compensation, extend Aboriginal secondary grants scheme, provide maternity leave (a total of 12 weeks) to Commonwealth employees, lower voting age and age of candidates to 18. Oct. 31st : Whitlam is the first prime minister to visit the People’s Republic of China. Jan. 1st 1974: Tuition fees at tertiary institutions are abolished. April 8th: Advance Australia Fair replaces God Save the Queen as the national anthem. May 18th: Opposition threatened money bills (“supply”) . Whitlam fights a double dissolution. The election only 17 months into his term, sees Whitlam triumphing as the first Labor PM to win twice. August: Historic joint sitting of Parliament establishes the Health Insurance Commission, the basis for Medicare. December: Meeting of Whitlam, Minerals Minister, Rex Connor, Treasurer and Attorney-General, Lionel Murphy, to raise $4 billion loan overseas, sows seeds of downfall. The scandal became known as the “loans affair”. Feb.10th 1975: Murphy is appointed to High Court. The NSW government defies convention and appoints a non-Labor Senator in his place, denying Labor a crucial vote in the Senate. July 1st: Medibank starts. The crisis starts October-November: Constitutional crisis. Citing the “loans affair” as justification, Malcolm Fraser blocks supply in the Senate, with the aim of forcing an election. The defiant Whitlam rallies supporters at huge rallies.November 11th !975: Governor-General Sir John Kerr, sends secretary, David Smith, to read out a proclamation from the steps of Parliament dissolving both houses.Whitlam’s comment: “Well may we say , “God Save the Queen” because nothing will save the governor-general.”
- Refusal to allow oil exploration on the Great Barrier Reef
- the Family Law Act that makes for “No-fault” divorces
- 10 days before his dismissal, Whitlam shepherded the Racial Discrimination Act into law, confirming rights for Aboriginal people.