Australia's Prime Minister elected 1972, in
an election that marked the beginning of a new era in Australian history
and awakened "a rare feeling of national self-respect."
Labor's three stated aims were to promote equality, to involve the
people in decision-making processes and to liberate the talents and
uplift the horizons of the Australian people. Whitlam's term as prime
minister ended in 1975 when he was dismissed by the Governor-General-his
dismissal is one of the most controversial issues in Australia's
history. It ended three years of extensive social and cultural reform.
Edward Gough Whitlam was born on 11 July
1916 in Kew, Melbourne of affluent parents. After graduating from the
University of Sydney he became a practicing lawyer, joining the Royal
Australian Air Force (R.A.A.F.) in December 1941. In 1942 he married
Margaret Dovey with whom he had four children. He joined the Labor Party
After standing unsuccessfully for a local
and a state election, he won the Federal seat of Werriwa in 1952. The
talents of this newcomer were soon recognised and he became Labor's
deputy leader in 1960 under Calwell. Whitlam challenged Calwell for the
leadership in 1963 but did not succeed until Calwell lost the election
to Holt in 1966. Once leader, Whitlam set about democratising Party
procedures and uniting the left and right factions.
Labor's dynamic "It's Time"
election campaign against a divided Coalition resulted in an easy win.
The election was only for the House of Representatives-and the Senate
was still hostile. Before the election euphoria had died down, Whitlam
flew to Canberra, where he and his deputy Lance Barnard were sworn in as
a two-man Cabinet. Within two weeks conscription was abolished, draft
resisters were released from jail and troops withdrawn from Vietnam, the
British New Year's Honour list was abolished, tariffs on imported goods
drastically reduced and the Australian dollar revalued.
In foreign affairs, the People's Republic
of China was recognised and steps were taken to grant Papua New Guinea
its independence. Visits by racially selected sporting teams were banned
and the Government took a tough line on South Africa and Rhodesia (now
Whitlam was less subservient than Holt to
foreign policy directions from the USA. He was reluctant to support the
struggle for independence of the tiny Portuguese Colony of East Timor,
even when Indonesia used the turmoil in Lisbon to annex East Timor.
Whitlam's election commitments were far
reaching and diversified, promising improvement and extension of social
services, equality for all citizens, an independent foreign policy and
the end to Australia's cultural cringe. Aborigines were given assistance
and land rights were granted in the Northern Territory. In education,
preschool education was boosted, university fees abolished, spending on
teacher training increased and the Tertiary Education Assistance Scheme
(TEAS, now called Austudy) was introduced. Women were awarded equal pay
for equal work and maternity leave provided. Four weeks annual leave was
granted for public servants and the private sector followed suit. Race
was no longer a criterion for immigration. The Australia Council and
Australian Film and Television School were founded for development and
promotion of the arts. Under eighteen voting was introduced and a
universal health insurance scheme, Medibank, would ensure that all
Australians had access to health services.
In all, there were 507 pieces of
legislation enacted. Many of Australia's present institutions began in
the Whitlam era: Women's Electoral Lobby; the Australian Heritage
Commission; Law Reform Commission; National Sewerage Program; Industries
Assistance Commission; Australian National Railways Commission; FM and
community radio licensing; and the Prices Justification Tribunal.
Money and skilful administration were
needed to implement these bold reforms. The Government pressed ahead
with its social reforms regardless of the effects on inflation. The
world economy deteriorated, with the oil crisis of late 1973 adding to
the inflationary spiral. Unemployment began to climb.
It has been said that Whitlam was trying
to do too much too quickly. The Senate forced a double dissolution in
April 1974 over vital supply bills (to cover government expenditure
between July and November). The result was a Labor victory in the May
election but with a reduced minority and still no control of the Senate.
In August 1974 Whitlam held a joint sitting of both houses, the first of
its kind in Australia, to pass six bills previously rejected by the
After the 1974 elections the economy
began to deteriorate. Two major scandals rocked the government. In
December 1974 treasurer Jim Cairns appointed Junie Morosi as his Office
Coordinator in spite of her lack of public service background. The press
were relentless in their attacks and Morosi did not take up the
appointment. Three weeks later she took up a public relations job on
Cairn's staff, raising questions about improper relationships.
By far the most serious scandal was the
Loans affair. The Minister for Minerals and Energy, Rex Connor, embarked
on a scheme "to buy back the farm," curtailing foreign
ownership of Australia's mining industry. Instead of proceeding through
the regular channel of the Loans Council, Connor tried to raise the
money through Middle-Eastern financier Tirath Khemlani. When it became
obvious that Khemlani could not finance the deal the commission was
revoked. Despite denials from Whitlam that the matter was closed, both
Jim Cairns and Rex Connor went on trying to raise money.
With ministerial sackings and the Loans
affair, the Government was in trouble by October 1975. Whitlam's
reputation as "the tourist prime minister" did not do him
good. He was overseas when three major disasters occurred-the Darwin
Cyclone, the Brisbane Floods and the Hobart Bridge collapse.
When Malcolm Fraser refused to pass the
supply bills in the Senate until a House of Representatives election was
called, Whitlam refused and an impasse began. Governor-General John Kerr
intervened and sent for Whitlam. On hearing that Whitlam did not intend
to hold an election for the House of Representatives, Kerr handed
Whitlam his letter of dismissal on 11 November 1975. Fraser was asked to
form a government.
The nation was shocked. But the people
did not "maintain their rage" until polling day. Whitlam
remained leader of the ALP but after losing the 1977 elections he stood
down as leader and resigned from Parliament in July 1978. He was
appointed Ambassador to UNESCO in 1983 and has since been a supporter of