I too rise to offer my condolences to the family of Edward Gough Whitlam. There is no doubt that the contribution of the late Hon. Edward Gough Whitlam to our nation has been extraordinary, especially given his short time in government. It is a lasting legacy that has stood the test of time and shaped public policy in Australia, even to this day. It is difficult to imagine what our policy landscape would look like had Mr Whitlam not achieved what he did—in education, health care, Aboriginal rights, foreign affairs and a variety of other areas. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine how much more he could have achieved had the people of Australia granted his government another term.
Because so much has already been said by other senators in this place and by members in the other place, many of whom knew Gough personally, I will keep my comments fairly brief. For me, it was a great honour to even have met Gough and, like many others, I remember him with great respect and thanks. I remember sitting around the family table when Gough’s government was dismissed. I come from a fairly strong Labor family. I remember to this day the anger of my mother and father at what had happened. My cousin’s partner decided later on to run for the Labor Party. I remember the dismissal and the impact the dismissal had in our family. As a young teenager at the time, it was the moment I decided I would start doing what I could to support the Labor Party. Indeed, that is when I first started letterboxing in the local area, where my cousin’s partner was running for state parliament—and he was successful.
In this chamber and in the other chamber, there have been many tributes and many stories told of a great man. I want to focus on a few achievements that are of particular importance to me. Those achievements were in the advancement of women’s rights. Prior to 1972, in a lot of ways women were treated as second-class citizens. We still have a long way to go in women’s equality, but the three years of the Whitlam government went a long way towards addressing this imbalance. To help advance the agenda for women, Gough appointed Elizabeth Reid as the womens adviser. Gough’s wife, Margaret, remarked that Ms Reid must be the ‘bravest woman in Australia’. She said of Ms Reid’s job title: ‘How many male advisers are there? It’s a weighted battle, but at least we’re in it.’ Gough pursued equal pay for women by reopening an equal pay case at the Commonwealth Conciliation and Arbitration Commission. There is still a significant gender pay gap that needs to be closed, but part of Gough’s great legacy as Prime Minister was to ensure that women could not be paid less than men for doing the same job, as many were. In a 1972 decision the commission extended the adult minimum wage to women, which led to a 30 per cent rise in women’s wages.
The Family Law Act of 1975 provided for no-fault divorce, meaning that women—and men—no longer had to prove desertion, cruelty or adultery. This allowed separated couples to have greater financial and legal independence and made it easier for women to escape family violence. The Whitlam government also established the supporting mothers benefit, which helped lift many single mothers out of poverty. The Whitlam government increased funding for a range of health and welfare centres providing services for women, including family planning services and women’s refuges. This helped many, many women gain much greater control of their own lives. Also helping women to gain greater control of their lives was the Maternity Leave (Commonwealth Employees) Act of 1973, which gave 64,000 women working in the Commonwealth Public Service access to 12 days paid leave and 12 months unpaid leave after having a child.
While I have focused on the Whitlam government’s advancement of women’s rights, I would also like to recognise their work in advancing the rights of people with disability—and Senator McLucas has just mentioned this. It was Gough who first tried to pursue the idea of a national disability insurance scheme. He outlined his vision for equal rights for people with disability in a 1974 policy speech as follows:
We are determined to place the security, the welfare, of those who suffer incapacity through accident or sickness on a sure and certain basis—on the basis of confidence and freedom from financial anxiety for themselves and their families. Australians should not have to live in doubt or anxiety lest injury or sickness reduce them to poverty. We want to reduce hardships imposed by one of the great factors for inequality in society—inequality of luck.
A great measure of how ahead of his time Mr Whitlam and his government were is that it took almost 40 years for this scheme to be fully realised. It is a reform which is decades overdue—but better late than never, I say.
I extend my sincere condolences to the Whitlam family and friends and especially to Senator John Faulkner, who was such a long-time friend and close ally of Mr Whitlam. Your loss is also Australia’s loss, and Australia mourns with you.
I have mentioned women and people with disability as just two examples which illustrate how Prime Minister Gough Whitlam pioneered policies which advanced the causes of the disadvantaged in our society. Through these policies—through universal health care, free education, and land rights for Indigenous Australians—he shaped Australia to make it a fairer, more equitable and more caring place: a country with a social safety net that remains the envy of the world. He redefined our country and changed the lives of a generation. Edward Gough Whitlam, Australia’s 21st Prime Minister, a grateful nation salutes you.