On the morning of 21 October, the family of Edward Gough Whitlam, Australia's 21st Prime Minister, informed the nation that he had passed away at the age of 98.
This was a sad day not only for the Whitlam family, to whom we extend our condolences, but for all Australians. Gough Whitlam was a giant of Australian political life. The tone and number of the tributes to him both in Australia and from overseas since his death underscore the special place he occupies in our Australian story, and the affection and admiration that are felt for him across politics.
The election of the Whitlam government on 2 December 1972 ended 23 years of conservative rule and saw a rush of progressive policies and reforms that helped modernise our country. Although only Prime Minister for three years - from 5 December 1972 to 11 November 1975 - he and his government were pivotal in shaping contemporary Australia.
I still remember the excitement as we watched the Whitlam government's rush of reforms. The creation of Australia's national health insurance scheme, Medibank; the abolition of university fees which made tertiary education available to all; the establishment of diplomatic relations with China; the withdrawal of the remaining Australian troops from Vietnam; the introduction of no-fault divorce laws. The Whitlam government passed the Racial Discrimination Act and protected the Great Barrier Reef. It took important steps in the protection of our cultural and natural environment, introducing national environmental protection legislation, the Australian Heritage Commission and the Register of the National Estate.
I will always remember the moving ceremony when Prime Minister Whitlam returned traditional lands in the Northern Territory to the Gurindji people by pouring a handful of desert sand through the fingers of Vincent Lingiari, telling him: "Vincent Lingiari, I solemnly hand to you these deeds as proof, in Australian law, that these lands belong to the Gurindji people and I put into your hands part of the earth itself as a sign that this land will be the possession of you and your children forever." The photo of that moment is among the most treasured images in our nation's history.
The Whitlam government introduced a focus on cities for the first time in Australian politics. Informed by his experiences raising a family in Sydney's western suburbs, Prime Minister Whitlam spoke frankly and eloquently about the reality that we are an urban nation. He knew that getting our cities right was essential to the health, happiness and prosperity of our people and environment. Prime Minister Whitlam spoke about the need to ensure that our expanding cities provided adequate services, amenity and infrastructure for their growing populations and in government he matched that rhetoric with action, providing Commonwealth funds for basics like sewerage and transport and promoting urban renewal.
This commitment to urban renewal resulted in saving two of our most historic Sydney suburbs - Glebe and Woolloomooloo. When Prime Minister Whitlam came to power in 1972, Glebe was under threat of being sold by its owner, the Church of England. The Commonwealth saw the opportunity to demonstrate its concern for inner-city heritage and protection of affordable housing and intervened, buying the land and properties. The actions of the Whitlam government not only helped to ensure that Glebe is the vibrant inner-city suburb it is today but that it includes a good proportion of affordable housing.
Woolloomooloo was also protected by the Whitlam government against proposals to wipe out historic homes for high-density commercial development. In June 1975, the federal, state and local governments signed a tripartite agreement to retain Woolloomooloo predominantly for low income housing. The Federal Government provide funding for the project, including restoration of historic homes and construction of new low-rise medium density housing.
Gough Whitlam was a great visionary leader who was motivated by the desire to create change and drive much needed reform; he used his high office for the betterment of his country and fellow citizens.
Michael Pascoe, the SMH's BusinessDay Contributing Editor in asking why Gough's death has struck such a chord, wrote:
I think it's partly because of the invidious comparison with what our nation has become.
The optimism, the positivity, the change, the opening up, the justice, the independence, the betterment of the nation, the internationalisation that Whitlam sought and represented has been replaced after four decades with a more general negativity, with so little ambition, with a conservative determination to uphold the status quo or even return to some earlier imagination of it, with white-bread nationalism resplendent.
I fear we don't mourn Gough, but ourselves.
Vale Gough Whitlam. A great Australian.