Death of a Statesman
November 11, 1975 – it was a pretty big day in Australian politics. It started in 1972, on December 2. The Liberal Party, in a coalition with the Country Party had governed us for 23 years and Billy McMahon was our Prime Minister. McMahon was on the nose and Australia went to the polls.
The campaign slogan for the Australia Labor Party, Its Time has since become one of the most iconic campaigns in our political history. Gough Whitlam was elected with a slim majority of nine seats. Remarkably, Whitlam was able to instigate reform unlike we had seen before and Australia changed – it changed a great deal. It was a cloistered, conservative time that ended when Gough was elected. In 1974, after an attempt by the opposition to block supply, his margin was reduced to five seats – but he certainly got some major reform happening.
Some won’t agree and will tell you Gough stuffed the economy with rash spending and poor economic management. I would suggest that this is not entirely true. While the US and UK economies went in to recession during Gough’s time, ours did not. Great social change comes at a cost – and the Whitlam Government oversaw the greatest social change in Australia since Federation.
Universal health care for all Australians costs money, education reforms costs money, law reform costs money, changes to the rights of women costs money, championing the rights of our Indigenous population costs money, and the recognition of and relationship with Red China, costs money. None of these things could have been achieved without a cost – and human rights, equality and justice should not be counted in dollar terms, at all. Ever!
War costs money – and we were at war in Vietnam. The collapse of the US Dollar, a 400% increase in the cost of oil, industrial disputes in the UK with miners walking off the job and forcing the price of coal sky high, the UK inflation rate skyrocketed from 7,4% to almost 25%. Likewise, the US was in some serious doodoo as well between ’73 and ’75. Our financial woes were meek compared to what was happening north of the equator.
Gough Whitlam changed this nation like no leader before him and certainly not one since. Hawke was an incredible leader and Howard one of the best politicians that we have seen. But neither of them can be remembered like Gough. He got rid of the death penalty, he pulled our troops out of Vietnam, he ended conscription. He was behind no fault divorces and saw independence in Papua New Guinea.
Gough was not perfect – East Timor is a dark stain on his record, his indifference leading to the invasion by the Soeharto Government of Indonesia – a wrong that took decades to fix.
Conversely, without his foray in to China, we would not have the relationship we have with China today.
I was saddened by the death of Gough Whitlam. I don’t know that we will ever see another leader like him. There were many tears shed after his death last week – and I fervently hope that there were many more political careers thought of as a possibility. Change doesn’t just happen – people make change and if the death of Whitlam has sparked anything in me, it is a desire to be a part of change.
Edward Gough Whitlam will be remembered by many people in many ways, some of them less than kind. I will remember him as someone who made Australia a place that I can live in safely, with dignity and respect and in a place that I can be who I was born to be. There is no greater legacy than that. There has been no greater statesman.