As I look out my window it’s overcast, a grey day. To me, such days always feel a little less happy, perhaps a little more reflective. And so I think today is an overcast day for Australia, with the passing Australia’s 21st Prime Minister (Edward) Gough Whitlam, aged 98.
Much has been said and will continue to be about Gough Whitlam by others far more informed than I. What I observe however is the consistency of collective reflections by family, friends, colleagues, political adversaries and commentators. There’s not that enduring divide beyond death as often witnessed with the passing of prominent political figures. Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, the two that spring to mind.
Reaction to the Whitlam Government’s dismissal in 1975, as a defining event in Australian politics, certainly attracts polarised opinions, however reflections upon the achievements of Gough Whitlam in his short period of government are today generously acknowledged.
One of the aims we expect or assume of those entering public life is that they do so for the right reason. To improve the lives of people. To give children a better life than those of their parents, to make each day more safe, prosperous, healthy, tolerant, harmonious and dignified.
The Whitlam Government only held office for three years, 1972-1975. Compare its list of achievements to governments of recent times, not only for their quantity but also their significance and you soon appreciate how franetic those years must have been.
The list includes; universal healthcare through Medibank (later becoming Medicare), free university education, introducing needs-based school funding, reforming laws for indigenous people, establishing diplomatic relations with China, withdrawing troops from Vietnam, abolishing conscription, reforming family law, boosting the arts, indexing pensions, passing the Racial Discrimination Act, introducing an Australian honours system and a new national anthem.
Perhaps he sensed the need for urgency, to advance a pent up agenda, it really was time.
Many of these are now so woven into the fabric of Australia, so deeply entrenched, subsequent governments tread extremely carefully when considering changes in these areas, so dear are they held in the hearts of Australians.
Yes today is a grey day, a sad day, but one in which our pause for reflection shines light on Gough Whitlam’s enduring legacy and contribution. Australians live and benefit from the reforms given catalyst in those three short years and a life time of public service.