Senate debates

Monday, 27 October 2014


Whitlam, the Hon. Edward Gough, AO, QC

1:26 pm

Photo of Janet RiceJanet Rice (Victoria, Australian Greens) Share this | Hansard source

I am rising today to add a few words to the many heartfelt and important contributions that have been made to celebrate and remember the life of Gough Whitlam, because I feel that he made a massive difference to my life and a massive difference to the lives of all Australians.

In 1972, I was 12 and just beginning to take an interest in political life. I did not grow up in a political household, but I remember that the 1972 election was I think the only election at which my father voted Labor. He certainly had not before then; I am not sure whether he ever did afterwards. There was a sense that here was a big change and a change that was needed in Australia.

To me, as a young person then, the achievements of the Whitlam government opened up possibilities. They gave me a sense of the potential of politics and the potential of politics to change lives and to really make a difference. I think about those three years of government and how important they were in Australia to find our feet as a modern nation and, as people have been saying today, establishing ourselves as a progressive, independent, tolerant, equitable and diverse Australia. To me, the critical thing, which I certainly realised at that time, was the abolishing of university fees. I was the middle child of five and there was a sense that we would all be able to go to university. I had the sense that the world was my oyster, that there was opportunity, that there were no barriers in the way and that I was going to be able to achieve my potential. I think that multiplied across the whole community of people my age—realising that potential and what a difference to our Australia that made.

In relation to the achievements of the Whitlam government, their support for universal health care is another area which radically changed so many people's lives. When you visit countries that do not have universal health care, you think of the potential that is wasted there. The potential that opens up because people know that they have access to health care to be able to achieve their potential is so significant. The ability to access quality health care and quality education enables us to all achieve our potential. Before 1972 we did not have equal pay for women—it just was not on the agenda—and we did not have good quality support and funding for child care. They are fundamental differences to what it means to be an Australian post-1972 compared to what it meant before.

I remember in 1975, at the time of the dismissal, that sense of shock. I was 15 at the time and, again, not particularly politicised, but I remember that sense of shock, that sense of loss and that sense of confusion. I remember thinking that this was not right, that these changes that had been ushered in in 1972 were now under threat. I remember a sense, at that stage, that they really were things that were worth fighting for.

I went on to work in the environment movement. I think back over the years and recognise the importance of those three years in government, of establishing the architecture that those of us who were campaigning for environmental protection depended upon: the ratifying of the World Heritage Convention, the creation of the Australian Heritage Commission and Register of the National Estate, the introduction of national environmental protection legislation and establishing a National Parks and Wildlife Conservation Act. All of this was national infrastructure and it set the environment as a national priority. The environment took its place with society and the economy as one of the three points on the triangle that good government is based upon.

Being involved in the environment movement and environmental protection, having been successfully part of the campaign to protect the Franklin River—which was only possible because of the federal role available through us having signed the World Heritage Convention—built that sense of the environment being of national importance and something that was significant and something that Australians across the country could be working for together. It was also because of connections, seeing the Australian environment as part of the global environment and something that we needed to focus on. It was not parochial; it was important. It was fundamental.

I recall travelling overseas for the first time in 1986. I had worked on environmental campaigns for three years since 1983 and a number of years before then. I was so proud to be an Australian, so proud of Australia being a leader in environmental and humanitarian and other social justice agendas. It is not a pride I have any more. At that stage there was such an important contribution, because of the legacy of those three years of the Whitlam government. It is something we need to be still fighting hard for.

Drawing upon the legacy of the Whitlam government, drawing upon the legacy of Gough Whitlam and his contribution to Australia, will enable us to bring those three agendas—social justice, environment and economic—together and create and continue to build a prosperous, healthy, equitable and sustainable Australia. I pass on my great sympathy to Gough's family and friends and to all Australians, because we have all been touched by his legacy.


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