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30 October 2014
by Peter Bowden

Gough Whitlam with very faint praise

The press, almost to excess, have farewelled Gough Whitlam over the past two weeks. Even the current government has praised the man who, it is widely acknowledged, "changed the face of Australia." Tony Abbott was especially fulsome. In the House of Representatives condolence motion last week, he stated: "In every sense, Gough Whitlam was a giant figure in this Parliament and in our public life. He was only prime minister for three years – three tumultuous years – but those years changed our nation and, in one way or another, set the tone for so much that has followed. Whether you were for him or against him, it was his vision that drove our politics then and which still echoes through our public life four decades on."

The morning that Gough died the Australian reported that "Politicians from across the divide have heaped praise on Gough Whitlam, describing the former prime minister as a "visionary" leader who spurred both progressives and conservatives into public life."

The Leader of the House, Christopher Pyne, said: " In fact, to many in the non-Labor side of politics, as is clear by this debate so far and from what I'm sure is to come, he is a hero to many".

Amanda Vanstone, a minister in the former Howard government, recently tried to cash in on this multiplicity in eulogies about our former Prime Minister. "Why Whitlam and Thatcher are two of a kind" she wrote for the Fairfax Press – the Age and the Sydney Morning Herald- on October 27

The thought that Gough Whitlam and Margaret Thatcher had anything in common made the article near mandatory reading. It turns out however, that the article is not a eulogy. It uses Gough to promote the conservative side of politics; and to downplay Gough Whitlam's contributions.

"Maggie lasted a lot longer, achieved a lot more in different ways" she tells us in the opening paragraph, before tackling Whitlam: "Gough, on the other hand, became a train wreck, but left with the affection of many which only appears to have grown over time."

He is a myth, she continues:

Clearly Gough's perfection did not lie in management of the economy. Many of his reformist policies were well intentioned but substantively flawed. Even so, they have been written into the mythology of Whitlam. Take the introduction of free university. It was meant to change the socio-economic make-up of university graduates. It didn't. That Robert Menzies had earlier presided over the biggest expansion in higher education is conveniently overlooked.

I did not know that Menzies had presided over the biggest expansion in higher education in Australia. Those who have praised Whitlam for introducing free university education in Australia should have been better informed.

Vanstone then unleashes a statement which is highly debatable: "As Labor subsequently realised, it (free education) was an untenable policy if you wanted to expand access to higher education." The reasoning behind this statement is a little difficult to follow, but it would seem that if you are planning to go to university, you would go anyway. Free education would not change anything. I do have to disagree. I as a young student had just enrolled in night school when I learned that I had won a scholarship. Near free education enabled me to go to university. There are many who would not have a university education at all if it were not for Gough Whitlam.

As Louise Luscombe's letter to the Herald said a few days ago "Gough Whitlam changed my life. I was a housebound mother of four young children in the mid-1970s. His policies on women allowed me not only to return to university to become a teacher but paid me for doing so."

Vanstone's eulogy in fact turns out to be condemnation of the Labor side of politics: "Of course the major political beneficiary of Whitlam was the Labor Party itself. Before he got hold of them they were genuine dinosaurs," she tells us. "The Liberals had guaranteed places for women in all the electorate committees and on the federal executive. Not so Labor. Labor was truly a blokey, male-dominated, socially conservative club".

Poor Gough. The multitude of praises heaped on him this last week appears, according to Amanda Vanstone, small potatoes compared with Liberal party achievements. This writer has to confess that he thought Gough Whitlam ended the White Australia policy, but Amanda tells us otherwise: "It was the previous Labor leader, Arthur Calwell, who championed the White Australia Policy. The Liberals under Harold Holt had effectively killed it."

And again: "Whitlam did some great things, but at the end of his term the economy was a wreck and thousands of workers had lost their jobs. Australians wanted reform but not coupled with chaos."

The 23 years in dinosaur land that preceded him, did not really exist for Amanda. No mention of the list of reforms necessary after those 23 years.

It is difficult for those of us who were the beneficiaries to pick those we endorse the most. Education must be high on the list. Establishment of a universal health insurance scheme would also a major achievement. He also established controls on foreign ownership of Australian resources in the Foreign Investment Advisory Committee, the forerunner to The Foreign Investment review Board. It is an issue that even today, still stirs controversy.

The establishment of no-fault divorce must be high on many peoples' list : the banning racial and sexual discrimination are also among his forward looking moves. Extending maternity leave was yet another.

Choosing which of his many progressive moves really stands out the most is a difficult task. Many will disagree with me, but in my view, it was the benefits for single mothers. The previous practice where a mother had been separated at birth from a child who was then adopted out was cruel and inhumane.

Single parent support enabled the mother to keep her child. Studies by the Child Welfare Information Gateway indicate some of the problems that this practice creates, included identity development, a sense of loss and grief, even a diminishing of self–esteem.

Anyone who has met a woman yearning for a child taken away from her; sometimes many years before, or a son knocking at every door in the street looking for his mother, who he has learned, once lived in that street, will be aware of the tremendous increase in fulfilment for many people that Gough Whitlam has given to those who would otherwise have been separated.