The Gallipoli centenary provides a unique opportunity to reflect on the many wartime legacies – human, political, economic, military – that forged independent nations from former colonies and dominions. The Conversation, in partnership with Griffith Review, is publishing a series of essays exploring the enduring legacies of 20th-century wars.
In July 1944, stationed with RAAF Squadron 13 in Gove, Flight Lieutenant Navigator Gough Whitlam wrote “a letter of passion” to his wife, Margaret:
Darling … You must conjecture what State administration would have been like in war and compare it with what Commonwealth has been. Similarly you may conjecture what Commonwealth administration may be like in the five postwar years if this Referendum is carried and compare it with what the States’ administration was like in the two previous peacetime periods of stress after the last war and during the depression … You can hardly fail to see that the Commonwealth is better fitted to deal with such nation-wide problems. And so to bed. Love, G.
Whitlam’s “passion” for the animating question of Commonwealth–state relations was a thinly disguised, self-deprecating acknowledgement of the depth of his own “aching to return home” – of the dread loneliness of years of war service, which he had increasingly filled with politics.
Margaret and Gough had been married for barely six weeks when he left Sydney to begin his training with the RAAF. For the next three-and-a-half years as an air force navigator, Gough operated across Northern Australia and the South Pacific – from Coffs Harbour, Cooktown and Gove, to Milne Bay, Biak, Hollandia (Jayapura), Merauke, Leyte, Morotai and Palau. Whitlam had applied to join the RAAF in December 1941 – the day after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor.
Four years later, as the war in the Pacific ended, Whitlam navigated the only Empire aircraft assigned to the RAAF Pacific echelon at General MacArthur’s headquarters at Leyte and Manila.
The contrast between American power and dynamism in the region, its keen engagement with the Australian services, and the tired unchallenged British expectations of deference and support could not have been starker. And it did not go unnoticed.
Early formative experiences
Whitlam was no stranger to international politics’ changing dimensions. His unusual childhood was spent in the earliest years of the new national capital, Canberra, where his father, Fred Whitlam, was Crown Solicitor and one of Australia’s most significant public servants.
Even as a child, Gough had been immersed in the dynamics of internationalism, current affairs and political debates. It was always in the structured context of parliamentary democracy, which Fred Whitlam considered:
… the best political system for the ordering of a humane organised community life.
Their reading matter was the Round Table, the Observer, the Children’s Encyclopedia and the Times Literary Supplement. Their guests were a broad mix of politicians, lawyers and senior public servants. Gough emerged with an astonishing breadth of knowledge and familiarity with international politics and governance. It was the perfect civic grounding for a future prime minister.
Despite the notable distinction between the gentle tolerance and determined political neutrality of Fred Whitlam and the biting wit and fiery political oratory of his son, Fred was an undoubted yet underplayed influence on Gough – in particular on his internationalism and confident view of Australia’s place in the world.
In the postwar formation of the United Nations, Fred Whitlam played a major role as a member of Labor External Affairs Minister’s HV Evatt’s delegation to the Paris Peace Conference in 1946. He was Australia’s key legal advisor in the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the greatest legacy of Evatt’s presidency of the United Nations General Assembly.
The first indications of Gough Whitlam’s abiding concerns for social equality, electoral equity, postcolonial national independence, enhanced federal powers and Aboriginal rights – the pillars of what would become his government’s reform agenda – also emerged at this time. This was seen most clearly in his unstinting support for the Curtin Labor government’s 1944 Commonwealth Referendum on Post-war Reconstruction and Democratic Rights – the “14 powers” referendum.
Stationed in Gove, Whitlam had first come into contact with Aboriginal Australians and was shocked by the conditions in the missions and the towns. He was dismayed by the discrimination that he witnessed not only in the community but also in the services. It was the beginning of his determined policy of recognition of Aboriginal land rights, acknowledgement of wrong and a commitment to end residual discriminatory policies. In his own modest assessment:
That gave me an insight which nobody in the parliament had so well.
In Cooktown, Whitlam led what he termed “my first political campaign”. He agitated among his own squadron in support of the 1944 referendum to extend the Commonwealth wartime powers for a further five years, to enable it to undertake the extensive national reconstruction effort needed once the war had ended. Evatt called it “planning for peace”.
The 1944 referendum
The referendum powers to be transferred to the Commonwealth included national health, employment and unemployment, “reinstatement and advancement” of service personnel and their dependents, uniform company legislation, trusts and monopolies, profiteering and prices, overseas exchange and investment, air transport, uniform railway gauges and family allowances.
The 14th of the Commonwealth powers sought was for “the people of the aboriginal race”. The inclusion of the race power in the 1944 referendum was both a reflection of a “new wartime idealism about the position of Aboriginal people”, and an acknowledgement of the growing international dimension to national considerations of Indigenous affairs. Paul Hasluck, then a senior member of the Department of External Affairs, tried to impress upon successive Australian governments that:
… in the postwar settlements, the treatment of native races is likely to be made the subject of international discussion.
This international dimension to postwar national developments is the critical framework for understanding Whitlam’s own political trajectory. The extensive reform agenda he later spearheaded through the ALP platform, and the blueprint for “the Program” once in government, provided the domestic articulation of these same postwar international principles of justice and rights first seen in the 1944 referendum.
Whitlam was already a strong supporter of the Curtin government and of John Curtin’s determination that the expansive reach of Commonwealth powers in wartime should not be seen as just a “passing phase”. Curtin’s refusal to concede the undoubted difficulty of reform or to accept “the paradox that the Labor Party was free to enact its policies in times of war alone”, was particularly compelling.
This drove Whitlam’s proselytising for the referendum and his belief – as his war service had already shown him – that only the national government had the capacity to undertake the massive, nationwide postwar reconstruction effort that would be essential once the war ended.
From Canberra, Fred Whitlam (who had drafted the terms of the referendum) sent Gough the paperwork – in typical disinterested public service style enclosing both the “Yes” and “No” cases – together with Evatt’s 188-page 1942 “booklet” Post-war Reconstruction: A Case for Greater Commonwealth Powers, and United Australia Party (UAP) leader Robert Menzies’ second reading speech in forensic opposition.
The referendum’s international context
The referendum’s apparently pedestrian proposals to continue the expanded federal powers of wartime were in reality a powerful mechanism for change. Often forgotten yet fundamental to any understanding of it, the earliest iteration of the necessary Commonwealth postwar powers considered at the Constitutional Convention in 1942 had also included four key “democratic freedoms”.
These freedoms were considered, in the context of world war and the rise of fascism, as central to the postwar spread of liberal democratic citizenship and to future world peace:
… freedom of speech and expression, freedom of religion, freedom from want and freedom from fear.
In this original specification of core political and democratic rights, postwar reconstruction would enable a radical reconfiguration of pre-war certainties, “to lay the foundations for a new social order” through its recognition of fundamental civil and political rights, and of social justice.
It was a dramatic conception, an expression more of hope than possibility, which drew clearly on the urgent political poetry of the Atlantic Charter – a visionary wartime commitment by Roosevelt and Churchill in August 1941 to a world without war, free of deprivations, tolerant and non-discriminatory.
This would be a world that would, with harmony and security at home, never again see the insidious rise of fascism. At its heart, the Atlantic Charter – a pact of mutual aspiration rather than a binding treaty – pointed to a new world order of self-determination and nation-building, of territorial respect, economic security, human rights, international governance and, above all, of peace:
All of the nations of the world, for realistic as well as spiritual reasons, must come to the abandonment of the use of force.
Roosevelt had first articulated the four freedoms in a January 1941 address as “a definite basis for a kind of world attainable in our time and generation”: freedom of speech, of worship, from want and from fear. The inclusion of the freedoms from want and from fear represented both an early notion of economic security as a human right in this post-conflict democratic paradigm, and an internationalism within which the national elaboration of rights and freedoms should be understood.
Like the Atlantic Charter and the initial terms of the Post-war Reconstruction referendum to follow, Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms” brought the specifics of national reform into an international framework for a democratic future. It was a forerunner of the postwar international organisations to come.
Evatt’s elevation of the Atlantic Charter and these “four great freedoms” can be seen in his concluding remarks of his first ministerial speech in the House of Representatives on November 26, 1941:
… international peace can be maintained only through international justice, and … the four great freedoms – freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from fear, and freedom from want – are meaningless unless they be enjoyed, not in one or two or three countries, but, as President Roosevelt insists, “everywhere in the world”.
To Curtin, the four freedoms and the “common principles of national policies outlined in the Atlantic Charter” were at the very heart of a new and better world order. He described them to the 1943 Labor Party national conference as:
… comparable in their significance to the Magna Carta, the Bill of Rights and the Declaration of Independence.
The referendum’s defeat
In its conception, the 1944 referendum was decades ahead of its time. Remarkably, Curtin initially appeared to have secured the necessary cross-party support for its success. After all, in 1942, the states had agreed to the voluntary transfer of much of these same powers.
What defeated the 1944 referendum in the end was time. The end of the war quickly brought an end to any appetite for what was readily depicted as a continuation of onerous wartime regulation and control. Meanwhile, the capricious politics of federalism saw the support of the states evaporate.
Hasluck recalled that the referendum had provided one of the few rallying points for the rapidly disintegrating UAP and Country Party unity, feeding conservative concerns over:
… the possible use of wartime powers and arrangements to inaugurate lasting socialist or unificationist programmes.
The campaign became further mired in petty squabbles with the states, both Labor and conservative, over the detail of the 14 powers and the implications of the four rights and freedoms. When the revised referendum bill was finally put to the House of Representatives after two years of escalating division, the “four freedoms” had been its greatest casualty. None appeared in the version introduced on February 10, 1944.
Curtin and Evatt insisted that the provisions would be put as one. They argued that they made little sense in isolation. They refused to be drawn into endless arguments about specific clauses, state rights and confected fears of federal control – driven by dire press claims that the referendum would “impose a dictatorship in Australia” and that freedom “would vanish entirely”.
In its final form, the “democratic rights” referred to in the referendum’s formal title – Constitution Alteration (Post-war Reconstruction and Democratic Rights) Act – bore little resemblance to the powerful and purposive “four great freedoms” originally proposed.
Instead, the referendum question would now include provisions “to safeguard freedom of speech and expression and freedom of religion” – the latter by extending the provision of Section 116 guaranteeing freedom of religion to include the states – and to increase regulatory oversight of delegated government decisions.
This only served to further confuse an already confused debate over the nature of and powers needed for postwar reconstruction. As Ian Milner described it:
Referendum campaign politics twisted beyond recognition the actual basic issues involved.
Whitlam had campaigned fervently for the 1944 referendum, convincing even long-term RAAF pilot Lex Goudie – a paid-up member of the UAP – to support it. But despite majority support from within the services, the referendum did not succeed. It was carried in just two states and failed even to reach the necessary nationwide majority.
The greater degree of service support showed the willingness of those already familiar with and personally reliant on the adequate reach of Commonwealth power in wartime to accept its extension in peacetime, particularly given the specified power for the “reinstatement and advancement” of service members.
The service vote also evinced an anomaly in the broader voting system. The Commonwealth Electoral War-Time Act enabled all service personnel to vote in the referendum even if they were not on the electoral roll. This led to the unusual outcome of an apparently greater than 100% turnout in the referendum vote in some divisions.
The 1944 referendum’s failure had an immeasurable impact on Whitlam. It was not only personally disappointing, but in his now-committed Labor view it was politically devastating. Nearly 60 years later, Whitlam reflected that:
The campaign had an immediate and lasting effect on my attitudes and career.
Whitlam understood the almost insurmountable difficulties faced by reforming Labor governments with the Constitution deemed to minimise the reach of federal powers except during wartime. He saw the failure of the 1944 referendum as a singular lost opportunity for future Labor governments.
The “14 powers” propounded by Curtin and Evatt foreshadowed the expanded federal responsibilities in health, welfare, regional and urban development, trade and industry regulation and Aboriginal rights later introduced by the Whitlam government, as well as the protection of basic rights and freedoms that are its hallmark.
Much of what was set out in that referendum, and in the arguments for the expansion of Commonwealth powers first rehearsed there, can be seen in a direct policy line from the extensive renovation of the Labor Party platform of the 1960s driven by Whitlam and the “modernisers” to the reform agenda of the Whitlam government itself.
This was unfinished Labor business – expanding the reach of Commonwealth powers, ensuring the rights of Aboriginal Australians, recognising international responsibilities and agreements, an independent foreign policy stance and a fundamental notion of equality of opportunity as the gateway to social and economic progress – that he would pursue in the Labor Party, in opposition and in government.
Whitlam’s appointment of Curtin’s Director-General of Post-war Reconstruction, Dr H.C. “Nugget” Coombs, as his personal adviser in the days before the 1972 election was an equally powerful reclamation.
How it shaped Whitlam’s reform agenda
Perhaps most significantly, the nature of the referendum and its defeat did not consign Whitlam to the pessimism and constitutional impotence that would soon engulf the Labor Party during the bitter infighting of the postwar decades.
Instead, it gave way to Whitlam’s energetic search for alternative means to accrue federal powers within the confines of the constitution – to enable a reform agenda despite the apparent strictures of Section 92 (that trade, commerce and intercourse among the states shall be “absolutely free”) long seen as an historic constitutional barrier to fundamental Labor reform.
In this, Whitlam would follow – with greater success – Evatt’s defiant attempt through the 1944 referendum to remove any such constitutional barriers to “building a better world”:
If there are constitutional limitations on such bold and imaginative action, then the Constitution has become the instrument of reaction. Let us not fear to change it.
Ultimately, Whitlam would realise this shift in federal–state powers without constitutional change, through his expansive application of the interstices of Section 96 enabling the use of “tied grants” of federal funds to the states:
I went from the despair of Section 92 to the confidence of Section 96 – 92 was the barrier, 96 the avenue.
Both the reach of the Whitlam government’s comprehensive reforms – “the Program” – and the means through which to achieve it had their origins in his own wartime experiences, and in particular in the lessons of the Curtin government’s 1944 referendum. Out of failure had come opportunity.
Although rightly seen as a moderniser in terms of Labor reformism and policies, Whitlam’s approach to policy and method also evidences a continuity to this earlier Labor tradition. As an unashamed protector of the Curtin legacy, Whitlam’s novelty in government was less about policy reform and more about finding a means to achieve, within the existing constraints of the constitution, Curtin’s stalled vision for postwar reconstruction, democratic rights, social justice and peace.
Whitlam’s RAAF missions across the Pacific had reinforced the simple reality of this profound geopolitical shift in Australia’s international and security relations. This was expounded by Curtin in 1941 when he shocked the colonial relics with his candid assessment that, at this time of war:
Australia looks to America, free of any pangs as to our traditional links or kinship with the United Kingdom.
For Whitlam, the continuing, quasi-colonial deference to the United Kingdom was little more than an embarrassing reminder of an arrested national development, and he enthusiastically took up Curtin’s shifting rhetoric and embraced the security implications of the growing US influence in the region – not least because he had experienced its implications in action.
Whitlam’s commitment to an international order
In 1945, two days after Curtin’s death, Whitlam returned home on leave. He joined the Darlinghurst branch of the Australian Labor Party the following month. Twenty-seven years later, as he began the final stage of his long road to government, the opening words of his now-famous “It’s Time” policy speech were also Curtin’s words:
Men and women of Australia.
In this continuity of political influence and history, Whitlam was more than just a product of these postwar global forces. He was an ardent proponent of them. While in government, he drove Australia’s recommitment to them after decades of desuetude.
Under the Whitlam government, more than 133 international treaties were entered into force. This included:
Whitlam’s appointment in 1983 as Australia’s Ambassador to UNESCO by the Hawke government gave him a rare opportunity to meet that commitment to international governance from within one of the key international organisations itself. He remarked:
For the rest of the decade I sometimes had to apply as much intensity to international politics and administration as I had often applied to national politics and administration during the three previous decades.
As a specialised UN agency, UNESCO was itself a product of the postwar drive for internationalism, peaceful conflict resolution and universal human rights that was also fundamental to Whitlam’s domestic political agenda.
Although Australia had played a major role in the creation of the international organisations, this early engagement had waned during the decades of conservative government that followed. Not a single UNESCO convention had been ratified by the Menzies government – an inertia comprehensively overturned by Whitlam.
There is a fine circularity in Whitlam’s appointment as Australia’s Ambassador to UNESCO (1983–86) and his subsequent election to its Executive Board. It was emblematic of the lasting impact of the postwar influences of modernism and internationalism on Australian politics. This was the overdue transformation of the postwar political settlement, promised yet unmet through the decades of Liberal–Country Party government.
The Whitlam government was the necessary rupture with that strained past. It had a reformist vision whose origins lay in Whitlam’s own wartime experience. In the developing institutions of international law, it saw the mechanism for the peaceful resolution of conflict, for equity and democratic rights.
You can read a longer version of this article and others from the Griffith Review’s latest edition on the enduring legacies of war here.
Chapter 1 - Gough Whitlam: a short biography
This biographical essay, by Jenny Hocking and Clare Land, was adapted from the National Archives' Australia's Prime Ministers website (primeministers.naa.gov.au) with additional material from Jenny Hocking's Gough Whitlam: a moment in history (Melbourne University Press, 2008), and Gough Whitlam: his time (Melbourne University Press, 2012).
Edward Gough Whitlam was born in the Melbourne suburb of Kew on 11 July 1916. He was the elder of two children of Martha (Maddocks) and Harry Frederick Ernest (Fred) Whitlam. He was born in his parents' house, which had been built for them by Martha's father, a master builder. Fred Whitlam's father, Henry Hugh Gough Whitlam, was a market gardener.
Fred Whitlam worked in the public service for most of his life, beginning in the Department of Lands and Survey in the Victorian Public Service in 1901, having topped the Victorian Public Service exam the year he finished school. When the Labor government of Andrew Fisher established the Commonwealth Land Tax Office in 1911, Fred Whitlam joined the Commonwealth Public Service and worked in the tax office while studying at night school – graduating first in accounting and then law. In 1913 Fred was promoted to work in the office of the Crown Solicitor in the Attorney-General's Department, headed by its inaugural Secretary, Sir Robert Garran, under William Morris (Billy) Hughes, the Attorney-General in the Fisher government. He graduated LLB from the University of Melbourne the following year.
In 1918 Fred Whitlam was promoted to senior clerk and the family moved to Sydney, where they lived in the north shore suburbs of Mosman and then Turramurra. Gough Whitlam went to school at Mowbray House kindergarten and then Knox Grammar School. Two years later, Fred Whitlam was admitted as a barrister and solicitor of the High Court of Australia on the motion of Sir Robert Garran and, in 1921, he was appointed Deputy Crown Solicitor for the Commonwealth. It was a remarkable rise for a scholarship boy whose law degree had been awarded 14 years after he had finished school, after years of study at night school. Fred Whitlam's background and experience emphasised the importance of education, books, self-advancement and opportunity that would become the hallmarks of Gough Whitlam's politics.
Gough Whitlam was 10 years old when, in 1927, his father was transferred to Canberra as assistant Crown Solicitor, part of the influx of public servants into the new national capital. He arrived in time to see the opening of the new federal parliament in May 1927. Gough, his sister Freda and mother Martha joined Fred Whitlam in Canberra the following year, and the family settled in the Canberra suburb of 'Blandfordia', now Forrest. For the next four years the Whitlams shared their house with Fred's brother George, a senior officer in the Prime Minister's department and a determined, austere Baptist. Every Sunday 'Uncle George' would walk Gough and Freda to the Baptist Sunday School until Gough's questioning, and in particular his persistent querying that the world could have been created in just seven days, marked him as a dangerously persuasive influence. In 1936 Fred Whitlam was promoted to Commonwealth Crown Solicitor when Robert Menzies was Attorney-General in the United Australia Party (UAP) government of Joseph Lyons.
Gough Whitlam attended the local Telopea Park School from 1928, where he edited the school magazine, Telopea, and in 1931 completed his Intermediate Certificate. At his father's insistence and his own reluctance Gough, who was a highly intelligent, energetic and cheeky student, moved to Canberra Grammar School. There he edited the school magazine, The Canberran, and at the end of 1932 he completed his Leaving Certificate at the age of 16. However, his father considered Gough too young to go to university and insisted he return to Canberra Grammar the following year. Whitlam sat the Leaving Certificate exam again in 1933 and was awarded a scholarship to study classics at the University of Sydney. Both his father and his mother's uncle James Steele, Headmaster of Melbourne's Carey Baptist Grammar School, considered Gough should also take Ancient Greek to later continue it at the University of Sydney, so he returned to Canberra Grammar again in 1934. By the end of 1934 Gough had a very thorough grounding in English, history, languages and classics, and entertained thoughts of becoming an academic specialising in classics.
Gough Whitlam enrolled at the University of Sydney in 1935 and moved into St Paul's College. He completed an arts degree in 1937, majoring in classics for which one of his memorable teachers was the charismatic future conservative politician Enoch Powell. He began a law degree the following year. His sport was rowing, and he was heavily involved in debating and the St Paul's College Revue. Whitlam edited his college journal, The Pauline, from 1938 to 1941; the undergraduate students' magazine, Hermes, from 1938 to 1941; and became co-editor of the Sydney University Law Society journal, Blackacre, in 1939. Whitlam's first appearance as prime minister came in 1940, when he played the British leader Neville Chamberlain in the St Paul's College Revue. He also became involved in the highly popular revues of the Sydney University Dramatic Society, where Margaret Dovey, a champion swimmer and social work student, was a prominent member.
At war, 1941–45
In September 1939 Prime Minister Robert Menzies joined Britain in declaring war on Germany. The following month Gough Whitlam joined the Sydney University Regiment, a formal unit of the Army Reserve, training first with a rifle company and then a support company. On 7 December 1941 Japanese aeroplanes attacked the US naval base at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii and the following day Gough Whitlam registered at the Woolloomooloo Recruiting Centre for active service with the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF). He was called up in June 1942, six weeks after he and Margaret Dovey were married on 22 April at St Michael's Anglican Church in Sydney. Whitlam trained as an airforce navigator and after 15 months of training was stationed with RAAF Squadron No. 13 throughout the war, at Gove on the eastern Arnhem Land coast of the Northern Territory, as well as Cooktown in north Queensland, and with forays into Merauke and Morotai in the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia). His squadron protected convoys off northern Australia, and later moved further north to undertake bombing raids on enemy supply camps in the islands of the Philippines. By the end of the war Whitlam was navigator on the only Empire aircraft assigned to the RAAF Pacific Echelon at General Douglas MacArthur's headquarters at Leyte and Manila, flying members of MacArthur's staff between the Philippines and Australia.
Whitlam's sons Antony and Nicholas were born during his period of service, in 1944 and 1945, respectively.
During the 1943 election campaign, when Whitlam was home on leave in Sydney, he and Margaret attended an election rally addressed by Labor member for East Sydney, Eddie Ward, and the Minister for Information, Arthur Calwell. Whitlam was a great admirer of war-time Labor Prime Minister John Curtin and considered the Curtin government 'the greatest of all Australian governments'. Back at Gove he handed out Labor Party campaign material to his squadron. The Curtin Labor government was returned in August 1943 and the following year held a referendum to grant the Commonwealth post-war reconstruction powers to enable national rebuilding for a period of five years after the war. Whitlam campaigned strongly for the 1944 Referendum on Post-War Reconstruction and Democratic Rights, firmly supporting the cause of temporarily extending the war-time Commonwealth powers for a further five years after the end of hostilities in order to meet the needs of post-war reconstruction and resettlement of returning servicemen and women. The referendum, held on 19 August 1944, was unsuccessful although the vote from those serving in the defence forces was in favour. Whitlam was devastated by the defeat of the 1944 referendum and highly critical of leader of the opposition Robert Menzies' campaign against it. 'The campaign had an immediate and lasting effect upon my attitudes and career. I was alienated by Menzies' opportunistic and cynical conduct. I was committed to expand Commonwealth responsibilities.'
Shortly after the death of John Curtin on 5 July 1945, Gough Whitlam joined the Darlinghurst branch of the Labor Party on 8 August 1945, while on his final period of leave from the RAAF. Whitlam ended his four years of active service with the rank of Flight Lieutenant navigator on 17 October 1945. He resumed his law studies the following year at the age of 29, completing his law degree at the University of Sydney in 1946. Whitlam was admitted to the New South Wales Bar in 1947 on the motion of his father-in-law, Justice Wilfred (Bill) Dovey.
By 1947 Gough and Margaret had two small sons and were still living with Margaret's parents. With the help of a war service housing loan they built a house in Wangi Street, Cronulla – a new and developing beachside suburb in Sydney's south. Whitlam stood for the local government election for the Sutherland Shire Council in 1948, and for the Sutherland seat in the New South Wales parliament in 1950. The family did not own a car, and most of Whitlam's campaigning was door-to-door along unfinished streets in the rapidly growing southern suburbs. Although he was not successful in either election, the campaigns made him a well-known local figure.
Whitlam was energetically involved in a range of community activities – the suburban progress association, his children's school parents and friends association, and the Returned Servicemen's League. He was also something of a radio celebrity, winning successive rounds of the Australian National Quiz Championship in 1948 and 1949, and placing runner-up in 1950. The quiz was arranged to promote popular interest in the Chifley Labor government's security loans for post-war reconstruction. Broadcast live by the ABC, the quiz was avidly followed by many, including Prime Minister Ben Chifley who noticed the up-and-coming local Labor identity. The prizes for championship winners were security bonds. Whitlam's winnings totalled £1,000, and the family used the money to buy the block of land next to their house at Cronulla.
Whitlam's work as a young barrister with the New South Wales Royal Commission on Liquor Laws in 1951–52 brought him further public and political attention. The Chair of the Royal Commission Justice Victor Maxwell KC was assisted by Whitlam's father-in-law, Justice Wilfred Dovey KC, and Whitlam was appointed Dovey's junior. In this capacity Whitlam clashed repeatedly with Douglas Barwick, licensee of the Captain Cook Hotel, reputed sly-grog trader and brother of noted Sydney barrister Garfield Barwick KC, who would later become Attorney-General and Minister for External Affairs in the Menzies government. Whitlam's performance during the Royal Commission, particularly when he stood in for his father-in-law during a brief illness, was as useful as his involvement in local affairs in building his local prominence and political ambition.
With his modulated voice, university education and patrician appearance, Whitlam stood out from the traditional Labor candidate with a trade-union background. It led to the common, mistaken perception that he was a 'silvertail', yet his grandfather Henry Hugh Gough Whitlam had spent four years in Pentridge Prison for forgery from the age of 19, and his family background was one of public service and a strong belief in education and self-advancement. With this, as Gough Whitlam later remarked, 'in a single generation my family moved from one side of the law to the other'.
Member for Werriwa, 1952
In 1951 Whitlam gained Australian Labor Party (ALP) pre-selection for the federal seat of Werriwa, following the announcement by long-term member Bert Lazzarini that he would not contest the next election. However, with the sudden death of Lazzarini in October 1952, Whitlam stood as the ALP candidate for Werriwa in the resultant by-election on 29 November 1952. Werriwa (or Weereewaa) is the Ngunnawal name for Lake George, in the southwest extremity of the electorate. In 1901 the electorate centred on the rural city of Goulburn but 50 years later it covered the rapidly growing southeast and southwest Sydney suburbs and extended to Wollongong. Whitlam won the seat with a record majority at 66 per cent and celebrated by buying the family's first car and a hat – then essential to the politician's outfit.
On 17 February 1953 Whitlam first sat as a member of Australia's 20th parliament. He delivered his maiden parliamentary speech on 19 March, although by then he had already spoken three times. He first rose on the motion of condolence on the death of his school friend Brian Green, son of the Clerk of the Parliament Frank Green, and had also addressed questions to the Minister for Labour and National Service, Harold Holt, and the Minister for Commerce and Agriculture and Deputy Leader of the Country Party, John (Jack) McEwen, during Question Time. Although it was parliamentary convention for a maiden speech to be heard in silence, Whitlam's incisive criticisms of Commonwealth–state relations and the inadequacy of housing, health and education infrastructure in his electorate had McEwen interjecting and earning the Speaker's reprimand. Clyde Cameron, the South Australian ALP member for Hindmarsh, remarked that he had just heard the first speech of the next Labor Prime Minister – a rare moment of complete agreement between Cameron and Whitlam.
In a parliament dominated by the political command and oratory of Liberal Prime Minister Sir Robert Menzies, Whitlam was among the parliament's most articulate members. He took a bold stance on several contentious foreign policy matters, and in 1953 attacked French policies in Indo-China, arguing for self-determination for the Vietminh. In parliament on 12 August 1954, Whitlam urged the government to recognise communist China and to support its admission to the United Nations. Although this was in line with Labor Party policy, with the Cold War intensifying it was a radical and risky public stance for an ambitious party member. Just before the May 1954 election, the defection of Soviet Embassy officials Vladimir and Evdokia Petrov brought espionage activities and the threat of communism to the forefront of the election campaign. The result was a crushing defeat for the Labor Party under leader Dr HV Evatt.
Having lost the 1954 election and deeply divided over its attitude to communism, in 1955 the Labor Party split in the greatest and most damaging of its three major splits to that time. The dissident anti-communist break-away group later became the Democratic Labor Party and its supporters would divide the Labor vote, keeping the ALP in opposition for nearly two decades. Whitlam was among those considered an 'Evatt man', but he also suffered a periodic rumour campaign fuelled from both within and outside the ALP that he was at heart a Liberal whose Labor credentials were superficial. There were even attempts made to persuade Whitlam to 'do a Billy Hughes' and join the Liberal Party, most notably in 1966 when Whitlam was facing the possibility of expulsion from the ALP over his efforts to change the party's policy on federal aid to non-government schools. The Queensland Liberal member for Herbert, John Murray, approached Whitlam in an effort to persuade him to join the Liberal Party. Whitlam was 'appalled and affronted' at the implied treachery and treated the clumsy approach with disdain. Whitlam was a diligent local member and considered a 'good bloke' by those he represented in Werriwa, and he retained his constituents' support despite the escalating divisions in the Labor Party. The support of Margaret Whitlam, who was a constant presence in the electorate, dealing with the needs of constituents during his absences and attending the endless party functions by his side, was indispensable to Whitlam's growing popularity over this time.
In 1955, Whitlam's electorate of Werriwa – the most populous in New South Wales – was divided following a redistribution. The southeastern section was renamed Hughes after former Prime Minister WM (Billy) Hughes, who had died in 1952 after 51 years in federal parliament. The western section, covering the Sydney suburbs of Liverpool, Cabramatta and Fairfield, retained the name Werriwa and remained Gough Whitlam's electorate, now with very different boundaries. The redistribution had a significant impact on Margaret and their growing family. With four young children following the births of Stephen (1950) and Catherine (1954), the family moved from their much loved Cronulla house to make their home further inland in Cabramatta, within the new boundaries of Werriwa. Once again Margaret and Gough Whitlam began the hard work of getting to know people, and getting known, in the new neighbourhood.
The Menzies government set up the broad-ranging cross-party Joint Parliamentary Committee on Constitutional Review in 1955. Whitlam was one of the six Labor Party members on the committee, which produced its first report in 1959. Although the Menzies government scarcely responded to the committee's 17 detailed recommendations, Whitlam's experience on the Constitutional Review Committee was highly significant for the development of his political thinking. The hearings, deliberations and recommendations of this committee demonstrated to him the possibilities, as well as the limitations, of the Constitution for achieving political reform. More significantly, it helped transform Whitlam's view of the constitutional difficulties facing the Labor Party as the party of reform. Whitlam had until then shared the widespread pessimism in the party that the Constitution worked against the implementation of Labor policy while enabling conservative policy. From his membership of the committee however, Whitlam emerged with a stronger, more optimistic view of the possibilities for implementing Labor policy within the Constitution, in particular through the use of 'tied grants' of federal funds to the states under section 96 as a means of effectively expanding federal power into those areas. He later described his membership of the Joint Parliamentary Committee on Constitutional Review as one of the greatest influences of his political life.
Deputy Labor Leader, 1960–67
In 1959 Whitlam was elected to the Caucus executive, under Labor leader Dr HV Evatt, the first of Whitlam's major positions within the parliamentary party. Following Evatt's resignation on 9 February 1960 to become Chief Justice of the New South Wales Supreme Court, Arthur Calwell was elected leader of the federal parliamentary Australian Labor Party on 7 March. Gough Whitlam then won a tight ballot for the deputy leadership against repeat-contender Eddie Ward, of the ALP's left. It was an unexpected victory for Whitlam and a turning point for the Labor Party in its search for renewal.
As Deputy Leader Whitlam appointed John Menadue, a young Treasury official with a strong background in both the Labor Party and the Fabian Society, as his private secretary, establishing a significant and enduring relationship. Whitlam set about developing a more workable structure for the party, looking forward to its next term of government, not back to its last, which was already more than a decade ago. At the election in December 1961, Labor lost by only one seat as the Menzies government held on to the tightly fought Queensland seat of Moreton with the help of Communist Party voters' second preferences. In August 1962 as acting Leader of the Opposition during Calwell's brief hospitalisation, Whitlam clashed with Country Party leader John McEwen. Describing the government's responses to Britain's move into the European Common Market as 'shabby', Whitlam said 'a more global and less selfish attitude' would have provided a better long-term outcome for Australian farmers and businesses. Whitlam was appointed Queen's Counsel in 1963, and had curtailed his legal work once he became Deputy Leader.
In March 1963 when the Labor Party's decision-making body – the Federal Conference – met at Canberra's Hotel Kingston, Whitlam and Arthur Calwell were involved in an inadvertent demonstration of the need for party reform. The two men had walked over to the hotel late one evening to hear the decision reached by the 36 conference delegates regarding party policy on the government's plan to allow the United States to build a communications base at North West Cape in Western Australia. The meeting had not yet finished and, as the party leaders were not members of the Federal Conference, Calwell and Whitlam waited outside the hotel to be informed of the conference decision on party policy. Among the journalists also gathered was the Daily Telegraph's Alan Reid, who quickly sent for a photographer and produced the telling image of the leaders of the ALP's parliamentary wing waiting for the party's organisational delegates – the '36 faceless men' – to determine party policy.
When Menzies called a snap election in November 1963, he made much of Labor's difficulty in forming a policy on the US base and of the '36 faceless men' caricature. After Labor lost ground in the election, Whitlam presented the New South Wales ALP executive with a stinging critique of his party's 'failure to devise modern, relevant and acceptable methods of formulating and publicising policy' and demanded reforms to the membership base, policies, party machinery and processes.
In January 1966, after 16 continuous years as Prime Minister, Sir Robert Menzies retired and Harold Holt succeeded him as Liberal leader and Prime Minister. The main issue at the federal election in November 1966 was the war in Vietnam, with demonstrations against Australia's involvement plaguing the Coalition campaign. The month before the election, Whitlam visited Vietnam and toured the 1st Australian Task Force area in Phuoc Tuy Province. At that time there was division within the ALP regarding its position on Vietnam, and on the wisdom of Calwell's insistence on campaigning in the 1966 election on the issue of Australia's involvement there, rather than on local issues.
As well as being heavily involved in these party and political developments, Whitlam served on the House of Representatives Standing Orders Committee from 1960 to 1974, and the joint select committee on a new parliament house from 1965 to 1970.
Leader of the Australian Labor Party, 1967–72
Following the Labor Party's third and worst election loss under Arthur Calwell at the 1966 election, Calwell reluctantly stood aside although he remained in parliament until 1972. Gough Whitlam was elected Leader of the Australian Labor Party on 8 February 1967, with Tasmanian member for Bass, Lance Barnard, as his Deputy Leader. Barnard was one of Whitlam's closest friends and an invaluable political ally. Their partnership would become one of the most significant relationships both in the Labor Party and in government. Whitlam was now in the right place to complete the internal party and policy reforms he had begun, and without which he believed the ALP could not hope to regain office. His grasp of policy and the need for reform within the ALP was extensive and had developed over a decade. He referred to his long-planned changes to the party, and modernising of the party platform, as 'the Program'. His private secretary John Menadue coined the mantra 'party, policy, people' – 'This year the party; next year the policy; 1969 the people.'
As Labor leader Whitlam was the initiator and driving force behind a systematic revision of party structure, processes and policy, directed towards achieving government with a clear mandate for change in the post-Menzies era. His commitment to change led to major battles within the party, particularly over the questions of federal aid to non-government schools and ending the White Australia Policy, and at times threatened his leadership. With Labor's first full-time national secretary, Cyril Wyndham, Whitlam devised reforms targeting both the structure and policy-making processes of the party. Key goals included representation of the parliamentary party leadership on the Federal Conference and the Federal Executive, direct representation for ordinary members and reducing the power of paid officials. Despite the opposition of the Victorian ALP state executive and die-hard party traditionalists, a compromise arrangement was achieved at the party's Federal Conference in Adelaide in 1967, effecting major changes.
In the overhaul of policies to create a new and relevant platform, the emphasis was on urban development, international relations, Indigenous affairs, housing and education. Foreign affairs – the independence of Papua New Guinea and relations with China, Vietnam and Indonesia – health, defence, electoral reform, education, land rights and an end to the White Australia Policy were major targets. In 1968 the Labor Opposition and the Democratic Labor Party in the Senate secured the appointment of a select committee on health costs. The government's partial measures in response to the Nimmo Report into health insurance, and doctors' opposition to its recommendations, made Labor's alternative national health insurance program (called Medibank, later Medicare) attractive to electors.
Following the death of Harold Holt in December 1967, Country Party leader John McEwan was appointed Prime Minister until John Gorton became Leader of the Liberal Party and Prime Minister in January 1968. Gorton would be replaced by William McMahon in March 1971, following a dramatic loss of confidence in him by his own party. Whitlam faced his own battles within the Labor Party when he abruptly resigned as leader in 1968 in response to the ALP Federal Executive's pursuit of Tasmanian right-wing Labor identity Brian Harradine. He was appalled at the 'needless turmoil' and disruption engendered by the executive's clumsy efforts to force Harradine off the Tasmanian delegation. Whitlam's sudden, defiant resignation shocked everyone, possibly even Whitlam himself. It was a desperate, reckless effort to regain party unity and control that had once again begun to unravel through the self-inflicted internecine conflict of the Harradine Affair.
The result of the subsequent leadership ballot was an even greater shock as Whitlam's old adversary Dr Jim Cairns came within six votes of the leadership, having run a powerful campaign around the theme, 'Whose party is this – ours or his?' Nevertheless, it was the outcome that mattered not the numbers and with his re-election as Leader of the Labor Party in 1968 Whitlam had finally reasserted himself over the endless party ruptures and derailments. From this great gamble came a tolerable degree of unity born of confrontation.
Whitlam toured Vietnam again that year in a show of support for the defence personnel involved in the war with which he personally and profoundly disagreed. In 1969 he visited Papua New Guinea to begin discussions for a possible timetable towards self-government and independence for the Territory. A more precise timetable was agreed on during his 1971 tour of Papua New Guinea, following a unanimous vote of the United Nations urging Australia to establish such a timetable for self-determination. In 1972 Whitlam visited the Aboriginal Tent Embassy, which had been established on the lawns opposite Parliament House, and there agreed to renounce the long-standing Menzies era policy of assimilation in favour of self-determination and to campaign for the federal recognition of land rights.
Whitlam had always believed it would take two election campaigns for the Labor Party to win office. So despite narrowly losing the 1969 election, at which the ALP won the majority of the two-party preferred national vote and came within four seats of government, the party was upbeat in its aftermath. Whitlam demonstrated in his speech to the parliament on 25 November 1969 – parliament's only sitting day between the 25 October 1969 election and 3 March 1970 – that in contrast to the Coalition's lazy and ineffectual government, the ALP had all the momentum.
In July 1971 Whitlam embarked on an overseas visit that was to prove to be of the greatest international and domestic significance when he led a Labor Party delegation to the People's Republic of China. The Labor Party delegation took place just days before the secret visit by US National Security Advisor Dr Henry Kissinger, and at a time when the newly formed McMahon government in Australia was still refusing to consider resuming diplomatic relations with China, deriding Whitlam as the 'Manchurian candidate'. The visit to China was politically perilous and highly successful, placing Whitlam on the world stage and at the forefront of changing security and geopolitical relations. The McMahon government looked out of date and its political fortunes never recovered.
Campaigning for the 1972 election with the highly successful slogan, 'It's time', Whitlam drew on the words of war-time Labor Prime Minister John Curtin when he declared as he opened his campaign launch:
Men and women of Australia! The decision we will make for our country on the second of December is a choice between the past and the future, between the habits of the past and the demands and opportunities of the future.
At the election on 2 December, voters responded to this declaration, electing the first Labor government in 23 years, with Gough Whitlam as Australia's 21st Prime Minister.
Gough Whitlam was Prime Minister from 1972 to 1975. He was the first Labor Prime Minister since 1949 and, with the return of the Whitlam government at the double dissolution election of May 1974, Whitlam became the first Labor leader to win consecutive terms. Labor's extensive reform plan, dubbed 'the Program', was immediately put into action by the first Whitlam Ministry, a 'duumvirate' – a government of two – made up of Whitlam and Lance Barnard. The Duumvirate operated for two weeks, 5–19 December, while the counting of seats continued, since the ALP Caucus could not meet to elect the ministry until the outcome in all seats had been determined.
Whitlam was anxious to remedy the quiescence of the Menzies era in Australia's role in international affairs and engagement with international organisations. The government fostered Australia's participation in international agreements with the signing, ratification and implementation of numerous international treaties. Australia once again became an active player in international organisations. Among the numerous significant conventions and covenants signed and ratified were the 1953 Covenant on the Political Rights of Women, the 1954 Convention Relating to the Status of Stateless Persons, the 1966 International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the 1966 International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, the 1972 UNESCO World Heritage Convention, and several International Labour Organization conventions including No. 107 – Indigenous and Tribal Populations.
One UN convention that Whitlam overlooked and which he endeavoured to get the Keating Labor government to ratify was the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. This had been adopted by the UN in 1948 and while Australia had signed it, the legislation to incorporate the convention into domestic law had not been enacted. In 'Dragging the chain', his Vincent Lingiari memorial lecture at the Northern Territory University in 1997, Whitlam declared that, 'If the Convention had been enacted in the 1950s, most of the harrowing events which were described in evidence to the Inquiry [into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families] would not have occurred.'
The Whitlam government initiated Australia's first federal legislation on human rights, land rights, no-fault divorce, childcare, supporting mothers' benefits, the environment, racial discrimination and heritage. The government ended residual symbolic ties to Britain, including the British system of honours and the British national anthem as Australia's national anthem, lowered the voting age to 18, introduced legislation to ensure electoral equity or 'one vote one value', greatly increased spending on education, removed fees for tertiary education and ended the death penalty for Commonwealth offences. Whitlam travelled more widely on prime ministerial visits than any of his predecessors, including to China, India, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, New Zealand, Japan, the Soviet Union and throughout Europe. His focus on the Asian region redressed the previous imbalance in Australian prime ministerial visits and confirmed his government's new national priorities.
The Whitlam government introduced reforms in almost every field and at a remarkable pace, which some found unsettling. Some policy areas, such as health, housing, education and regional development, had been largely the preserve of the states but now became part of federal policy-making in particular through the use of tied grants. The government became involved at every tier of education, increasing federal expenditure on education four-fold, establishing a Schools Commission to oversee the development of needs-based funding for all schools, and abolishing university and other tertiary education tuition fees.
Implementing 'the Program' made parliament an extraordinarily busy place. During Whitlam's term in office a record number of Bills was introduced and enacted, and at the same time a record number of Bills was rejected by a hostile Senate. In the three years 1973–75 the Senate rejected 93 Bills, more Bills than it had rejected over the entire preceding 71 years since Federation combined. Nevertheless, by Whitlam's own estimate, more than half his reform agenda was implemented. When the Senate refused to vote on the government's Supply Bills in October 1975, it triggered the events that led to the dismissal of the Whitlam government on 11 November 1975.
The Duumvirate: ministry of two
On 5 December 1972 Whitlam became Australia's 21st Prime Minister and the first Labor Prime Minister since 1949. Whitlam's first ministry was a mini-ministry, a duumvirate of just two, which was unique in Australian political history. With results in several seats still to be finalised, the ALP Caucus could not meet to elect the ministry and so Whitlam and his Deputy Lance Barnard were sworn in to all 27 portfolios, Whitlam holding 13 and Barnard 14. They immediately began implementing 'the Program', taking actions that could be made by regulation or by the executive. The Duumvirate made 40 significant decisions in its brief tenure, including overturning the McMahon government's position on the equal pay case for women then before the Conciliation and Arbitration Commission and re-opening its hearings, placing the contraceptive pill on the National Health Scheme, supporting sanctions against Rhodesia, excluding all racially selected sporting teams from Australia, releasing all draft resisters then in prison for refusing to fight in the Vietnam War, withdrawing remaining troops from Vietnam, ending conscription and recognising Communist China. The Duumvirate also announced the establishment of the interim committee of the Australian Schools Commission, chaired by Professor Peter Karmel, to identify inequalities in the education system and develop the framework for needs-based funding for all schools. None of these decisions required legislation and could be determined as a decision of government by the Duumvirate until the full ministry was sworn in.
Although it was a two-man ministry, it was technically a three-man government with all decisions formally made by the Federal Executive Council, which has a quorum of three including the Governor-General or their representative. Sir Paul Hasluck as Governor-General attended all meetings of the Federal Executive Council held by the Duumvirate.
The first year, 1973
The full 27 members of the second Whitlam Ministry were sworn in by the Governor-General at Yarralumla on 19 December 1972. Gough Whitlam became Prime Minister and Minister for Foreign Affairs; Lance Barnard was Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Defence as well as for the newly created department of the Navy, the Army, Air and Supply; Senator Lionel Murphy was Attorney- General and Minister for Customs and Excise; and Frank Crean was Treasurer.
On 15 December 1972, the Duumvirate had begun implementing ALP policy on land rights. It reversed the Coalition government's response to the Supreme Court of the Northern Territory's decision in the Gove land rights case (Milirrpum v Nabalco Pty Ltd  17 FLR 141), announcing the establishment of a Royal Commission to inquire into appropriate ways of recognising Aboriginal land rights in the Northern Territory. The findings of the Royal Commission, under Justice Edward Woodward, would lead to the drafting of the Aboriginal Land (Northern Territory) Bill 1975, the first federal land rights claims legislation in Australia, and the establishment of an elected National Aboriginal Consultative Committee. The government also established the first Department of Aboriginal Affairs in response to the 1967 referendum on constitutional change that gave the Commonwealth Parliament the power to make laws for Aboriginal people. Whitlam was the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs during the Duumvirate. Gordon Bryant, Jim Cavanagh and Les Johnson in turn held the portfolio after 19 December 1972.
As well as setting up new government departments – including those of Urban and Regional Development, Minerals and Energy, Media, and Aboriginal Affairs – the government amalgamated the various defence departments into a powerful single agency. Rather unexpectedly the core group of experienced and powerful senior departmental secretaries, 'the mandarins' appointed during the Menzies era, remained at the head of the most significant departments. Whitlam did not share the distrust of some in the government that, after 23 years working only within a conservative administration, these senior bureaucrats would not adapt well to the policy agenda of a new Labor government.
In April 1973 Whitlam was the first Prime Minister to appoint an adviser to the Prime Minister on women's affairs. Elizabeth Reid, a tutor in philosophy at the Australian National University and member of the Women's Electoral Lobby, was appointed to the role and ran her office from within the Prime Minister's department. Whitlam's personal awareness of women's issues, his conviction about the need for wholesale change and staunch public support for Reid were demonstrated repeatedly in his speeches, press conferences and in parliament. Whitlam accepted Reid's advice that all Cabinet submissions should be reviewed for their impact on women. Comprehensive changes were made in social welfare areas – a supporting mothers' benefit was introduced in 1973 to cover women who were not eligible for the widows' pension. In June the government introduced paid maternity leave for Commonwealth public servants, which included 12 weeks' full paid leave and 52 weeks' total maternity leave. The government also legislated to prevent discrimination against Commonwealth employees because of pregnancy and to ensure the protection of their employment and status during maternity leave.
Australia and New Zealand together lodged a historic application before the International Court of Justice in The Hague on 9 May 1973, calling on France to cease its atmospheric nuclear testing in the Pacific. The case centred on the issue of radioactive fallout, and was the first such use of international environmental law and a high point in Australian–New Zealand relations. The Australian legal team, led by Attorney-General Lionel Murphy, was successful at the International Court of Justice's preliminary hearing in June in securing an interim order restraining France from any further tests for the duration of the case. France then announced that it would no longer recognise the Court's compulsory jurisdiction. Nevertheless, the case resulted in the voluntary cessation of French atmospheric tests and continued testing underground. The final outcome on 20 December 1974 confirmed France's decision to end its atmospheric testing, which had rendered the case moot and paved the way for future use of the International Court of Justice on environmental grounds.
On 25 July 1973 the Australian Legal Aid Office was established, with offices in each state capital. Legislation was passed in August 1973 to establish the National Film and Television School in Sydney and in November, the Prime Minister unveiled a plaque launching the construction of a national gallery in Canberra. Two months earlier, the Australian National Gallery (later the National Gallery of Australia), under acting director James Mollison, had announced the purchase of Blue Poles by US artist Jackson Pollock. At a cost of $1.3 million, this was the highest price paid for a contemporary American painting, and the acquisition caused great controversy in and out of parliament. Derided by his parliamentary opponents as 'a foreign painting of accidental value', Whitlam expounded the merits of Blue Poles and defended its purchase in a press conference on 25 September 1973, describing it as 'a masterpiece' from 'one of the great figures in modern American art'. Blue Poles is now widely regarded as one of the greatest works of abstract expressionism anywhere in the world, one of Pollock's most important paintings and a key masterpiece in the story of 20th century art. It is also valued as highly as $100 million.
On 19 October 1973 during a Royal visit, Queen Elizabeth II signed her assent in person to the Royal Style and Titles Act 1973, which gave her a new, more precise title for her Australian duties. The Act removed the reference to the United Kingdom and the monarch's role as Head of the Church of England from her official Australian title; she would henceforth be referred to as 'Queen of Australia'. In related changes emphasising Australia's independence from Britain and the end of vestigial colonial ties, the Whitlam government created the Australian honours system, ending the use of the British Imperial honours and knighthoods in Australia, and announced a plebiscite for an Australian national anthem to replace the British national anthem 'God save the Queen', then still Australia's national anthem.
After a visit to Indonesia and South-East Asia with Margaret in September 1973, on 31 October Whitlam became the first Australian Prime Minister to visit the People's Republic of China. The restitution of relations with China had been one of Whitlam's highest priorities and had been set in train within days of his election victory. Australia had re-opened its embassy in Peking in January 1973, resuming diplomatic relations with the People's Republic of China after 24 years. On his return from China, Whitlam reluctantly handed over the Foreign Affairs portfolio to Don Willesee, recognising that his responsibilities as Prime Minister were increasingly demanding.
In December 1973 the government established the Australian Development Assistance Agency to manage overseas aid programs, and the permanent Schools Commission to implement the needs-based schools funding program. The government also lowered the voting age to 18 and introduced legislation to equalise electorate size in order to ensure electoral equity or 'one vote one value'.
At the end of his first year as Prime Minister, Whitlam delivered a lengthy and detailed statement to the parliament setting out the extensive reforms enacted during the government's first year. 'Whitlam Government's first year's achievements: ministerial statement' is recorded in Hansard and listed among its many activities are 253 Bills introduced, with 203 Acts passed and 13 Bills rejected in the Senate, 39 reports tabled, and 19 treaties and agreements entered into. The official Christmas card from The Lodge that year featured an unusual, striking, secular image – Blue Poles.
The second year, 1974
Under the energetic Minister for Urban and Regional Development, Tom Uren, regional development had been a major focus of the government during its first year. The reform program for regional development produced results through the use of direct grants to local government bodies around Australia to target regional service delivery. Grant programs included flood mitigation, urban renewal, leisure and tourist facilities, and building sewerage systems in unserviced urban areas. Under the Department of Urban and Regional Development, the Albury–Wodonga Development Corporation was established on 21 May 1974. In a push for decentralisation and regional development, it was intended to be a model for similar schemes elsewhere.
Regional funding programs provided direct funding for community health centres and regionalbased hospitals. By specifying the purpose of financial grants to the states under section 96 of the Constitution, the government financed a national highway system and a standard-gauge railway line linking Perth, Adelaide, Sydney and Alice Springs. Brisbane's city railway system was extended and electrified.
Throughout 1974 the Opposition majority in the Senate was a major obstacle to the passage of government Bills. The Senate's rejection of six Bills for a second time provided the necessary trigger for Whitlam to call a double dissolution election on 18 May 1974, under section 57 of the Constitution. It was an enormously risky decision to go to an early election barely half-way through its first term. However, strategically the timing of the 1974 double dissolution election allowed Whitlam to campaign on the theme of the government's repeated obstruction by the Opposition in the Senate, to argue for a 'fair go' from the Opposition and for the reiteration of the electorate's mandate to implement its program.
Second election victory, 18 May 1974
On 18 May 1974 Gough Whitlam again made history with the return of the government at the double dissolution election, at which 18-year-olds voted for the first time. Whitlam was the first leader of the ALP to be elected to office at successive elections. Labor was returned on 18 May 1974 with 49.3 per cent of the national vote and a slightly reduced majority in the House of Representatives (representing a fall of just 0.29 per cent in the ALP national popular vote). Its Senate vote increased by 5 per cent and the ALP gained three Senate seats, leaving the Government and Opposition equal on 29 seats each in the Senate, with two Independents.
It was a historic occasion, the first time the full provisions of section 57 of the Constitution were applied – the double dissolution election followed by a Joint Sitting of both houses of parliament. After the Opposition-dominated Senate had rejected, for a third time, the Bills that had triggered the double dissolution, Whitlam announced a Joint Sitting of both houses of parliament was to be held on 6 August 1974. This was also the first official duty of Sir John Kerr, the newly appointed Governor-General, who presided over proceedings for the Joint Sitting held in the House of Representatives. There the six Bills that had formed the trigger for the 1974 double dissolution election were again considered, with both houses sitting as one and voting again on the Bills. All six of these 'trigger' Bills were finally passed at this historic Joint Sitting. These included the legislation that created Medibank (later Medicare) and electoral legislation introducing 'one vote one value' in electorate size, and introducing Senate representation for the Northern Territory and Australian Capital Territory, which were each granted two Senate seats.
The new Whitlam ministry was elected at a meeting of the party's Caucus on 10 June 1974 and in a shock result Whitlam's great friend and indispensable colleague Lance Barnard was defeated as Deputy Leader by Dr Jim Cairns, who became Deputy Prime Minister. It would prove to be a devastating personal and political loss for Whitlam, the end of a successful constructive political partnership and, to Whitlam, 'the most unfair and unwise decision Caucus ever made in my time'. Barnard's guidance, experience and tactical skills would be greatly missed over the next 18 months.
After national polling in an indicative plebiscite, on 8 April 1974 'Advance Australia fair' replaced 'God save the Queen' as Australia's national anthem, and in June the government appointed a national advisory committee for the United Nations' proposed International Women's Year in 1975. Margaret Whitlam chaired the committee and Elizabeth Reid headed the committee's secretariat.
Two significant Royal Commissions were announced in August 1974. The Royal Commission into Human Relationships, chaired by Justice Elizabeth Evatt, was the first time the Australian Government had sought to hear evidence relating to Australians' experiences of rape, domestic violence, abortion and homophobia. The commission would take evidence and gather information to inform policy development and implementation at a time when homosexuality was still illegal, abortion was criminalised and family law entirely inadequate. The Royal Commission into Intelligence and Security, under Justice Robert Marsden Hope, was inspired by concerns regarding the activities and accountability of the Australian Security and Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) following the leaking of an internal ASIO dossier on the Deputy Prime Minister, Dr Jim Cairns, published in The Bulletin magazine. The commission recommended measures to improve transparency and to establish clear lines of accountability for the Australian intelligence community.
In September 1974 during an official trip to the United States to meet the new President Gerald Ford, Whitlam again made history when he delivered a special address to the General Assembly of the United Nations. He was the first Australian Prime Minister to have been invited to do so.
The Trade Practices Commission was established on 1 October, and the Australian Law Reform Commission was formally established on 1 January 1975. The Australian National Parks and Wildlife Service was established in 1974 as part of the Department of Environment and Conservation.
After Cyclone Tracy destroyed much of Darwin on Christmas eve 1974, Whitlam returned from a five-week 15-nation trip to Europe and inspected the devastation. Leaving emergency arrangements with his Deputy Jim Cairns, Whitlam then resumed his travels to the dismay of many, including some of his closest advisors who viewed this decision as both insensitive and wrong-headed.
The last year, 1975
The Whitlam government continued its rapid pace of change. The Order of Australia was announced on Australia Day 1975 and established on 14 February, replacing the British honours system. Knights and dames would no longer be part of the Australian honours system. However, the following year Whitlam's successor, Liberal Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser, reintroduced knights and dames under the Australian honours system, awarding just two – Sir John Kerr, the Governor-General, and Sir Robert Menzies, the former Liberal Prime Minister.
In March the Australian Film Commission and the Australia Council were established, and in April the Consumer Affairs Commission commenced operation. In June legislation establishing the Australian Heritage Commission was assented to, giving effect to the UNESCO World Heritage Convention to identify and conserve Australia's natural and cultural heritage. On announcing the commission Whitlam said, 'The Australian government should see itself as the curator not the liquidator of the National Estate'.
In May, with the establishment of the Technical and Further Education Commission, the Whitlam government was able to introduce reforms at every tier of education, including a national employment and training scheme, and the abolition of university and college tuition fees came into effect.
Whitlam's Attorney-General, Senator Lionel Murphy, was appointed to the High Court of Australia in February 1975 and Keppel Enderby, Member for the Australian Capital Territory, replaced him as Attorney-General. A critical constitutional convention was breached when the New South Wales Liberal–Country Party government refused to replace Murphy with the Labor Party's nominee for the Senate. Instead, the Liberal Premier's own selection – the unaffiliated Cleaver Bunton, a long-serving mayor of Albury and sports commentator – took up the vacancy in ALP numbers in the Senate, dramatically altering the balance of power.
Murphy left a significant legacy of legal reforms as Attorney-General including the Trade Practices Act, Family Law Act, Law Reform Commission, legal aid, Racial Discrimination Act and the case against French nuclear testing at the International Court of Justice. A major legislative reform was the Family Law Act 1975, creating the first no-fault divorce procedure in the world based on 12 months' separation and providing for a national Family Court of Australia (established in 1976). In June the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 also became law, ratifying the UN convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination that, although signed by Australia, had remained unratified for nine years. The Racial Discrimination Act would later be critical to the success of 'Mabo no. 1', against the Queensland government's attempt to retrospectively abolish native title rights through the Queensland Coast Islands Declaratory Act, which was held to be invalid as it contravened the Racial Discrimination Act.
Whitlam's travel in 1975 included a visit to Townsville in April for meetings with Indonesian President Suharto on the situation in Portuguese East Timor, rapidly descending into civil war. There, according to a confidential US Department of State cable, Whitlam 'made clear the Australian view that the Timorese should be allowed to exercise the right of self-determination. Suharto assured Whitlam that Indonesia had no expansionist plans.'
One of the most sweeping of the Whitlam government's domestic reforms during 1975 was the establishment of Medibank, enabled by the Health Insurance Act 1973, which was passed at the 1974 Joint Sitting of parliament. Medibank began operating on 1 July 1975, and incorporated many of the recommendations of the 1968 Nimmo Report. For the first time all Australians, regardless of their income, would be covered for health care through a universal system of health insurance funded by a compulsory 1.25 per cent surcharge on income tax. Previously, 17 per cent of Australians had been without any medical or hospital insurance at all, and Whitlam saw this as second only to education as a fundamental issue of equity and social justice.
Medibank had faced an extraordinarily bitter campaign against its introduction, with the Australian Medical Association unleashing a $2 million 'fighting fund' amid lurid claims of medical 'socialism' and that hospitals would be forced to perform abortions in order to receive federal funding. And yet within months Medibank had become one of the government's clear electoral winners and its introduction ran more smoothly than even Whitlam had dared to hope.
On 1 July 1975 two new communications agencies – Telecom and Australia Post – replaced one of the first departments established at Federation, the Postmaster-General's Department. Three major inquiries were appointed in 1975: a Royal Commission into Norfolk Island Affairs; an environmental Commission of Inquiry into Fraser Island, which would recommend an end to sand mining on the island; and the Ranger Uranium Environmental Inquiry, which later recommended that mining for uranium could go ahead at Ranger subject to strict environmental controls, Aboriginal title be granted to a substantial part of the Alligator Rivers Region, and a national park be created.
On 16 August 1975 Gough Whitlam travelled to the Northern Territory with Dr HC 'Nugget' Coombs and formally handed back to the Gurindji people at Wattie Creek title deeds to part of their traditional lands. This was the culmination of a decade of struggle in which the Gurindji had walked off Wave Hill Station, on strike for equal pay and claimed their traditional lands at Daguragu. In a historic first federal recognition of Indigenous land rights, Whitlam poured the red soil of Daguragu into the hands of Gurindji leader Vincent Lingiari, 'as proof, in Australian law, that these lands belong to the Gurindji people and … that we restore them to you and your children for ever'.
A month later, on 16 September 1975, Papua New Guinea celebrated independence from Australian administration, meeting the ambitious target of three years to independence set out between Whitlam and the new PNG Prime Minister (then Chief Minister) Michael Somare within the first weeks of government.
In October 1975 the first Commonwealth legislation to grant land rights to Indigenous people, the Aboriginal Land (Northern Territory) Bill, was introduced to parliament by the Whitlam government. The Bill lapsed with the double dissolution of 1975 and was, in an attenuated form, later revived by the Fraser government as the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976.
Throughout 1974 and 1975 rivalry among ministers and an increasingly dysfunctional relationship with Treasury caused significant difficulty for the government. Crisis came in the form of the Loans Affair. In 1974–75 the Minister for Minerals and Energy, Rex Connor, was authorised by an Executive Council meeting of 13 December 1974 to raise US$4 billion in foreign loans to fund the government's immense resources infrastructure and exploration plans. These plans were centred on the North West Shelf gas reserves and were to be managed by the newly established Pipeline Authority. Although the plan was eventually abandoned and despite his assurances to Whitlam and the parliament to the contrary, Connor continued secret negotiations through an international broker, Tirath Khemlani. However these efforts to locate loan funds proved unsuccessful and Connor was forced to resign on 14 October 1975, having been found to have misled Whitlam and the Parliament over his continued searches. In his own search for international funds, Treasurer Jim Cairns had been found in June to have misled parliament over the payment of a commission for any such loan raising for the government. Although both ministers were removed, the Loans Affair enabled new Liberal Party leader Malcolm Fraser later to justify the Opposition refusing to vote on the Budget Bills in the Senate. The aim was to force the government to an election while its electoral fortunes were in decline.
The New South Wales and Queensland conservative premiers had reduced government numbers in the Senate when they broke with convention and made non-Labor appointments to two seats vacated by Labor senators. The first of these had occurred with the appointment of Cleaver Bunton to replace Labor Senator Lionel Murphy, who had resigned to become a Justice of the High Court of Australia. Then, when Queensland Labor Senator Bert Milliner died in June 1975, the Country Party government of Joh Bjelke-Petersen nominated Albert Field to the vacancy. Although nominally a member of the ALP, Field was openly critical of Whitlam and vowed to use his position in the Senate to destroy the government, saying, 'I went there for one particular purpose, to see the downfall of the Government'. Field was expelled from the party for offering himself to Bjelke-Petersen against the official ALP candidate for the appointment and took up his Senate position as an Independent. With these non-Labor 'replacement' senators, the Labor Party had just lost two of its crucial Senate numbers, dramatically recasting the evenly split Senate elected in the May 1974 election barely 12 months earlier.
On 16 October 1975 the Opposition took the unprecedented step of refusing to allow its senators to vote on the government's Appropriation Bills then before the Senate. With its newly constructed majority, the Opposition senators voted for an amendment to the Budget Bills, returning them to the House of Representatives 'until the government agrees to submit itself to the judgment of the people'. The Opposition's tactic introduced a new term into the Australian political vernacular – 'blocking Supply' – or as Whitlam described it, 'the Senate has gone on strike'. As the Coalition senators refused to allow a vote on the government's Supply, the parliament was in unprecedented political deadlock and the government was without its Appropriation Bills.
Whitlam's strategy, agreed to by Caucus immediately after Supply was first blocked, was to push the Senate to vote on the Appropriation Bills before bringing forward the half-Senate election, which was then due at any time before July the following year. The Opposition was most determined to avoid a half-Senate election, fearing the government could take temporary control of the Senate with the new ACT and Northern Territory senators who would take up their places immediately after that election while the remaining senators would not take up their places until July 1976. It was this quirk of political algebra that made the prospect of the half-Senate election unusually potent both strategically and politically for Whitlam.
By 5 November Whitlam had made clear his decision to call a half-Senate election, to be held on 13 December 1975. He discussed the half-Senate election with the Governor-General, Sir John Kerr, in detail on 6 November after an Executive Council meeting. The paperwork was then sent to Kerr at Yarralumla in order to establish the date of the election and for the issuing of writs by state governors, and to finalise the wording of the formal letter from Whitlam to Kerr advising the half- Senate election.
In a telephone conversation on the morning of 11 November, Whitlam and Kerr agreed on the final wording of the announcement of the half-Senate election and arranged to meet at 1pm that afternoon. After the morning session of parliament, Whitlam visited Kerr at Yarralumla at their pre-arranged appointment to provide the formal letter announcing the half-Senate election, which they had agreed on that morning. In an unprecedented move the Governor-General refused to accept the Prime Minister's letter advising the election, instead handing him a letter of his own withdrawing his commission as Prime Minister and dismissing his entire government from office. Unknown to Whitlam, the Leader of the Opposition Malcolm Fraser was at Yarralumla as this was taking place, waiting with the Governor-General's Official Secretary in a room at the other end of the corridor. Kerr then immediately commissioned Fraser to form government and appointed him as Prime Minister. The Senate passed the Budget Bills later the same day. Many senators did not know that Whitlam had been dismissed and that the Budget they passed was for the appointed government of Malcolm Fraser. The House of Representatives reconvened one hour after the Dismissal with several members still unaware that Whitlam had been dismissed, and Whitlam himself unaware that Fraser was already Prime Minister. During this dramatic post-Dismissal sitting, Fraser lost five motions on the floor of the House, including the most significant of all parliamentary motions, the critical motion of no confidence, which he lost by 10 votes. At 3.15pm the House of Representatives passed a 'want of confidence' motion against Malcolm Fraser as head of government and called on the Governor-General to recommission the Whitlam government, which retained the confidence of the House. The Speaker of the House was despatched to Yarralumla with the motion, to inform Kerr of the decision of the House of Representatives to call on the Governor-General to commission Whitlam to again form government, and to seek the restoration of the Whitlam government to office. Kerr refused to see the Speaker, keeping him waiting for more than an hour, during which he prorogued both houses of parliament with Malcolm Fraser still in office.
The Dismissal sparked fierce public debate, which continues more than 40 years later. Whitlam contended that the 1975 Budget had been stalled not rejected, and that, as some Liberal senators later confirmed, they would soon have voted to end the Senate deadlock. He argued that the crisis was political not constitutional, that it would have been resolved by political means and, if not for Kerr's action, it would have been resolved in his government's favour with the half-Senate election in train. Fraser himself later acknowledged that had the Governor-General granted Whitlam the half-Senate election, Supply would have been passed, he would have resigned as leader and it would have spelt the end of his political career.
The Fraser government was returned at the double dissolution election of 13 December 1975, at which there was a 6.5 per cent swing against the Labor Party. Six former ministers in the Whitlam government lost their seats in the party's single greatest loss since Federation.
Gough Whitlam remained Leader of the Labor Party and Leader of the Opposition until 1977, despite his efforts to persuade Bill Hayden to take the mantle. He was an unhappy and vastly diminished figure. On 22 December 1977 he stood down as party leader after Labor's defeat in the federal election that month and was succeeded by Bill Hayden. Whitlam resigned from his parliamentary seat on 31 July 1978. He had been the member for Werriwa for 26 years and the Labor Party's longest-serving leader. Whitlam was made a Companion of the Order of Australia the same year.
Following his retirement from parliament, Whitlam became the first national visiting fellow at the Australian National University in 1978. He subsequently held visiting professorships at Harvard University in the United States in 1979 and at Australian universities. During his parliamentary career he had served many times on constitutional inquiries, including the Joint Parliamentary Committee on Constitutional Review in 1956–59 and the Federal–State Constitutional Convention in 1973–77. In 1985 he was appointed to Australia's Constitutional Commission.
In 1983 the Hawke government appointed Whitlam as Australian Ambassador to UNESCO in Paris. Margaret and Gough moved to Paris where they lived in the Australian Embassy complex designed by Harry Seidler, which had been commissioned by the Whitlam government. Whitlam's brief as Australia's Ambassador to UNESCO was to negotiate Australia's transfer from the western European group to the Asia and Pacific group, and he retained confidence in UNESCO despite criticism of the organisation by conservative British and US governments.
At UNESCO Whitlam also served on the Independent Commission on International Humanitarian Issues and the World Heritage Committee. After the High Court dismissed challenges to the external affairs power in the Queensland Koowarta Land Rights case in 1982 and in the Tasmanian Dams case in 1983, the constitutional door was open to implementing international agreements in Australian law. Whitlam remained a determined campaigner for Australia's adherence to UN human rights, environment and heritage instruments. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature made him a Member of Honour in 1988. In 1989 he chaired the General Assembly of the World Heritage Convention. At the end of his term as Ambassador to UNESCO, Whitlam was elected a member of the UNESCO Executive Board where he served from 1986 to 1989.
On their return to Australia in 1986 Gough and Margaret lived in their apartment in Sydney's Darling Point and continued to contribute to a range of political and cultural organisations. From 1986 to 1991 Whitlam was chair of the Australia–China Council, and from 1987 to 1990 he was chair of the Council of the National Gallery of Australia. In 1993 Whitlam was a member of the Australian Olympic Committee delegation to Africa, a corresponding member of the Academy of Athens and an honorary fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities. In 1994 he received the Redmond Barry Award from the Australian Library and Information Association. Gough and Margaret were also members of the 1995 Sydney bid team that canvassed and won support for the Olympic Games to be held in Sydney in 2000.
During the 1990s, Gough joined Margaret as co-leader of the international guided literary and music tours she had started working on in 1990, which had become highly successful and popular. The 10 tours Gough joined Margaret in leading fuelled one of Whitlam's books, My Italian Notebook (2002).
Whitlam published numerous books and articles, including his own account of the 1975 Dismissal, The Truth of the Matter (1979), his detailed documentation of his government, The Whitlam Government 1972–1975 (1985), and Abiding Interests (1997). He remained in great demand as a lecturer on political and constitutional issues, including the move for Australia to become a republic.
From 2000 Gough Whitlam was involved in the development of the Whitlam Institute at the University of Western Sydney, assisting with the transfer of archival and personal materials about a public life that spanned more than half a century. As well as providing a research centre, the Whitlam Institute promotes public policy research, public engagement and education. Among historic documents donated to the Whitlam Institute is a pamphlet from the 1952 election, when Whitlam first entered parliament; his 1983 Commission of Appointment as Australian Ambassador to UNESCO, signed by Governor-General Sir Ninian Stephen; and the original dismissal letter given to Whitlam by Sir John Kerr.
At the ALP National Conference in April 2007, Gough and Margaret Whitlam were made national life members of the party they had both belonged to for more than 60 years. Gough and Margaret remained active and sought-after speakers at national events. Both were in parliament in February 2008 for the Labor government's Apology to Australia's Indigenous Peoples, with former prime ministers Malcolm Fraser, Bob Hawke and Paul Keating.
Margaret Whitlam died on 17 March 2012. The family declined the Australian Government's offer of a state funeral. Gough Whitlam attended the moving service in St James Church in Sydney.
Gough Whitlam passed away on 21 October 2014. His eulogists were son Antony Whitlam, actor Cate Blanchett, lawyer Noel Pearson, speechwriter Graham Freudenberg, and his friend and colleague, Senator John Faulkner.
TOP OF PAGE