Back to All News

Christine Milne: Condolence statement - Gough Whitlam

Estimates & Committees
Christine Milne 27 Oct 2014

The Australian Greens Leader, Senator Christine Milne, speaks in the Senate on the passing of former Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam.

Senator MILNE (Tasmania-Leader of the Australian Greens) (10:57): I rise today on behalf of the Australian Greens to join my parliamentary colleagues in celebrating the life and contribution to our nation of Edward Gough Whitlam, who died last week aged 98. What a life-1916 until last week. In that lifetime, having been born during the First World War, he served with the RAAF in World War II, served 26 years in the House of Representatives, became our 21st Prime Minister and was married for almost 70 years to Margaret, who he described as the love of his life. He was a towering figure in the life of the nation for all of us born after the end of the Second World War.

In 1972 I was at the University of Tasmania as a 19-year-old. I was not able to vote in that election, because 21 was still the voting age at that time. But I had known nothing in my entire life except Liberal-Country Party government. It is an extraordinary thing to think about what it would mean to a young person to have got to the age of 19 and known nothing other than one political perspective. For 23 years, from 1949, the Liberal-Country Party had governed this country. That is why the Whitlam years politicised a generation. Those three years changed us. At that time we were still a nation which followed. We followed the United Kingdom. We followed the United States into the war in Vietnam. We still had capital punishment for federal crimes. What Gough Whitlam did was throw off all the shackles and allow us to rethink who we were as a nation. What did we love about our country? What was our place in the world? What did we want for people? He set us all on a path of exploring what it is to be truly Australian-independent and confident-and distinctively Australian in the cultural context.

As a 19-year-old at that time I saw that there were two issues that were central to out thinking. One was the call-up. When you are a young person and your friends and family are standing around a radio or a television and waiting for the lottery, where the birth dates come out on balls out of that machine, you know that that means being destined for either national service or conscientious objection and imprisonment. That is what it actually meant. Even though most of the troops had been brought home from Vietnam by that time, we still had people serving in Vietnam as advisers, and we still had national service. That was something that everyone in that 1972 election was thinking about at that time.

As a young person, I came from the country, from north-west Tasmania. There is no way my family could have afforded to get me to university as a young woman in 1971, my first year at university, unless I got a scholarship or found some other mechanism for getting there. I chose a teacher studentship, because a teacher studentship paid more than a Commonwealth scholarship-which I did get, but I had to go on a teacher studentship because it was less of a burden on my family. So I can tell you that in the 1972 election what we were thinking about was ending the call-up and getting to the point of free universities, because we knew what it meant for people of all backgrounds to be able to get to university.

So, the two weeks following that election result, when so much happened so quickly, was transformative for our whole generation. In terms of what was achieved, I talked about a sense of who we are as a nation. I thank Senator Faulkner for a wonderful contribution outlining the achievements of the Whitlam years, and I want to refer to some of his comments. One was of course about nationhood-the fact that we stopped having God Save the Queen as our national anthem and got Advance Australia Fair, that we got our own Australian honours list and that we had the change in terms of the Queen of Australia. We had a commitment there to the notion that Australia was an independent country and one day could become a republic. It set an inspiration in the minds of all of us that this is what we as a nation could do. The recognition of the People's Republic of China meant a redefinition of who we were as a nation in terms of where we looked and how we thought of ourselves. It was a recognition of where we sit in the world, not only geographically but geopolitically, and the idea that the Commonwealth had a role to play in the nation, whether it was in education, in health care or in urban development. And one of the things we can look back and recognise is that the decision by the Whitlam government for the Commonwealth to enter health and education and urban development changed Australian cities, and the urban development engagement led to the reconstruction in many parts of Australian cities that we can look back to today as the legacy of those years. Our cities are better for it. And of course there is universal health care, with Medibank; ending university fees; and a recognition of needs based funding in our schools. They were incredible achievements.

Regarding Aboriginal land rights, Senator Faulkner spoke about the putting into the hand of Vincent Lingiari the sand in Wave Hill Station as one of those incredibly important moments in the history of the nation and the move to recognise land rights, hand in hand with a recognition that we had to do something about racial discrimination more broadly in Australia when it came to Aboriginal people, as well as globally. Remember, this was 1972, the year after the Springbok tours. Again, I was at university at that time, and there were protests from one end of the country to the other about the fact that we had racially discriminating sports teams touring our country at that time. People wanted to take a stand, and the Whitlam government did, banning that from occurring.

I want to talk about the environment for a moment, because that too was important. At that time we had the Bjelke-Petersen government in Queensland prepared to drill for oil on the Great Barrier Reef, and they intended to do it. Looking back today, imagine what would have happened if they had been successful in doing that. But they were not, because the Whitlam government took them on. Ultimately the Great Barrier Reef became a marine park. Other achievements were the ratification of the World Heritage Convention, the National Parks and Wildlife Act, and the Environmental Protection (Impact of Proposals) Act-the Commonwealth for the first time taking a role in overseeing the environmental impact of major projects as they were proposed.

But it was not only that. The Whitlam government went on to negotiate several treaties. Ramsar, the protection of wetlands around the world, was a major contribution of that period, and also the treaties on protection for migratory birds, particularly with Japan. We had the international trade in endangered species treaty also negotiated, with the Whitlam government taking a predominantly important role in that. And, of course, there was the setting up of the Australian Heritage Commission. All of those things have had profound ramifications for the nation in years since. But saying that the Commonwealth had a role on the environment, in actually ratifying the World Heritage Convention, meant that in later years the Hawke government, as a result of the major community campaign, could support and protect the Franklin River in Tasmania. All of these things have their seeds during this time.

On the arts, I think there is no doubt that the contribution of the Whitlam years is highly significant. As Gough Whitlam, himself, said:

In any civilised community the arts and associated amenities must occupy a central place.
Senator Faulkner mentioned the letting of the contract to build the National Gallery. As people go into the National Gallery, it is not only the construction of the National Gallery but it is the collection of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island art he supported in being a predominant part of the collection. But I remember Pollock's Blue Poles very well. One point one million dollars on one painting! I remember the conversation around the kitchen table in the farm in North West Tasmania, and my father, for the life of him, could not understand how you could possibly spend $1.1 million on a painting-and that painting. So we had this conversation around the table. It was not until I was researching Gough's life and contribution for this speech-and it fits entirely with Senator Faulkner's analysis-I could see that Gough Whitlam would never take a backward step. When he had approved the $1.1 million to purchase Pollock's Blue Poles he made sure that it was the image on his 1973 Christmas card-which just demonstrates his commitment to it.

Apart from the National Gallery, he also legislated for minimum Australian content for radio stations in Australia to give a boost to local, Australian talent and our cultural identity. Of course, his establishing of the Australian Film Commission led to films such as Picnic at Hanging Rock and Gallipoli, and others made as a result.

In terms of family law, there is no doubt that the no-fault divorce made a huge difference to the social cohesion and life of the nation. That was a major contribution to the way that people thought about their possibilities and their capacity to change things. That change to the divorce laws was highly significant for many of us. In terms of the life after his political career, it was entirely appropriate that he was made Ambassador to UNESCO, especially since he had made such a contribution to establishing environmental law and Australia's role as part of global treaties protecting the environment. That ambassadorship to UNESCO was important and, of course, his Companion of the Order of Australia was so well deserved. As chairman of the National Gallery, for someone who let the contract for the gallery I am sure he felt that was an enormous achievement and something he could successfully do. Also, he was part of the successful Sydney Olympic bid. The work he did was always looking to the future of the country. Then, of course, there was his profound commitment to Australia as a republic, and the role that he played in the 1999 referendum.

I want to just conclude by saying to his family-to his four children, his five grandchildren and his great-grandchildren-that he made an enormous contribution to the nation, for which we are grateful. We send our love and condolences to you at this time of grief but hope also that you can take comfort in the outpouring of the respect, the gratitude and the love that so many Australians have for a man who shaped our nation, for the courage and commitment that he demonstrated his entire life in whatever he did and for the fact that he gave Australia the confidence to break with the past and set out on a journey towards a progressive, independent future in which all people are equal. That is a great contribution to our nation.

[End]

Back to All News