Australian media had never seen anything like it. Suddenly print, radio, television and social media were overwhelmed – blanket coverage of a single event.
Edward Gough Whitlam, Australia’s 21st and greatest reforming Prime Minister, was dead.
Newspapers were turned over to almost complete coverage ,not only of the fact that the former PM had died, but with coverage of the extraordinary series of changes he made to life and living in Australia in a short three years in office more than 40 years ago.
Throughout Australia newspapers (including News Limited) carried full facial photographs and wrap- arounds of up to 8 pages, outlining the major events of the Whitlam Era. Radio talkback shows were flooded with Whitlam tributes, anecdotes and testimonies. Greek, Chinese and other ethnic newspapers who might occasionally give front page treatment to a political event but rarely to a personality, featured the late reformer all across their covers.
Aboriginal leaders lauded Whitlam as “a brother” who had made great steps in advancing land rights and other interests of Australia’s native people. Within two days newspapers worldwide had made more than one and a quarter million references to Whitlam and what he had done for Australia.
Television stations began screening hours of features on the Whitlam era, listing the dozens of major changes initiated by Whitlam and which were still part of Australian life. Social media were similarly overwhelmed. At one stage one media site registered more than 410 accolades to Whitlam in just over an hour.
These came from professional people acknowledging the importance of Whitlam’s free universities in building their careers, from people who themselves or their families had come through health crises thanks to Medibank which was won against strong political opposition only after the holding of a Double Dissolution election. Others, from formerly unsewered sections of our major cities, expressed gratitude for the new comfort in which they now lived thanks to Whitlam’s initiatives. And there were dozens from men, now of mature years, who in their youth had been saved from possibly perilous tours in the Vietnam War by the Whitlam intervention. And there were many others.
Nowhere, it seemed, was there anyone who had not had some aspect of their lives affected by changes made by Gough Whitlam 40 years ago and which have been left untouched by succeeding Governments.
No other major event – the outbreak of World War II, the unexpected (in Australia) death of King George VI, the passing of Churchill or Menzies has generated nearly the outpourings that followed the death of Gough Whitlam.
But somehow this impressive cross section of the Australian community, including media masters, had somehow got it wrong. In one quarter we were told Gough was not great; the endless string of enduring changes for which he was responsible, it seems, had just routinely happened.
The political battles which Gough was forced to fight over recalcitrant political opponents to win these changes it seemed had never occurred.
For this unusual view we have three principal authorities – all unsurprisingly from the Murdoch Press. Miranda Devine who is considered to be a mere convenience in her predictable religio-political views by thinking conservatives but is actually taken seriously by some others; Andrew Bolt, who having failed to distinguish himself in mainstream journalism, has won some notice with his nutty extremism; and Greg Sheridan who was immortalised in an online publication some years ago in a hilarious two page listing of his erroneous predictions and fatuous assessments and, more recently, reinforced this criticism removing any doubt about his worth as a commentator with the novel assertion that George W Bush would come to be seen as one of the great US Presidents.
For the millions who somehow “got it wrong” the list of Whitlam’s accomplishments is awesome – almost endless. It is as impressive as it is long.
Organisations like the Federal Court, the Foreign Investment Review Board, The Trade Practices Commission, The Administrative Appeals Tribunal, every day institutions in Australia today, came from Whitlam initiatives.
The Honours system, which is now exclusively Australian, came when Whitlam discarded the borrowed British system of Knights and Dames. He started the move to scrap “God Save The Queen” and adopt an Australian anthem of our own. He put “Australian” rather than “British” on our Passports for the first time.
Whitlam started the process of granting Independence to Papua New Guinea, finally abolished the White Australia Policy, he introduced legislation for equal pay for women and introduced benefits for single mothers and homeless people. He created the Australia Film Commission, introduced FM radio and colour television, removed the necessity for a paid licence to watch television and, in his first year, doubled the amount of Government money directed to the Arts in Australia.
He created the Australian Law Reform Commission, the Consumer Affairs Commission, established the National Film and Television School in Sydney and unveiled the plaque launching the construction of Australia’s National Gallery.
At the Government level he amalgamated five Defence oriented departments – Army, Navy, Air Force, Supply and Defence into a single Defence entity. He split Australia’s largest, but most cumbersome department, the Postmaster Generals, into two efficient and highly profitable sections, Telecom (now Telstra) and Australia Post. The list goes on.
For the first time he went beyond the provision of Science blocks to Catholic and other Non-Government Schools providing, for the first time, assistance to all schools on a needs basis (something that may have appealed to Miranda Devine), he gave votes to 18 year olds whom the previous Government had unhesitatingly drafted for war in Vietnam while denying them any say in the governance of their country. He legislated for no fault divorce and for the first time introduced parental leave for Commonwealth employees.
The handful of detractors who would have us believe that these reforms had somehow “just happened” ignore the fact that almost, without exception, they were bitterly opposed in both Houses of Federal Parliament by the Liberal-Country Party Coalition of the day. From the recognition of China to the exit from Vietnam and the creation of our enduring health system, Medicare, opponents fought to frustrate the Whitlam Government. These critics also ignore the fact that there had been 23 years – a generation – of non Labor Government and four non Labor Prime Ministers leading up to 1972 where there had been no action on these fronts or, indeed, any evidence that they had even been contemplated.
And while these remain among the hallmarks of Whitlam’s accomplishments leaders like Howard who in 11½ years left us two unhappy wars and a GST, Turnbull and Abbot continue to assert that the Whitlam Government was somehow totally inadequate.
One reminds the reader that in more than 20 years and three non Labor Prime Ministers since, not a single major Whitlam reform has been reversed – surely a matter of some disappointment to those who assess the Whitlam reign as a failure.
Eric Walsh was a long-time member of the Canberra Press Gallery, and Press Secretary to Prime Minister Whitlam.