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Tuesday, 28 October 2014
Page: 12172

Ms O'DWYER (Higgins) (09:11): There are but a few faces that represent an era. Yet we can certainly say that Gough Whitlam's name, voice and face bring to mind a political epoch. His features themselves can conjure memories of turbulent times—times of great aspiration and times of great controversy. He was and remains synonymous with dramatic national transformation.

Gough Whitlam was nothing if not a passionate, driven and energetic man. He implemented reforms in almost every field of government endeavour ranging from foreign policy to education. The frenetic pace at which he led this change left many gasping for breath. But his convictions led him to leave no stone unturned. Indeed, some stones he hurled metaphorically into the next paddock. Whether or not one agrees with his policies, his vision and sheer grit are characteristics worthy of our deepest respect.

I believe all sides of politics will concur, regardless of our own political inclinations, that last Tuesday we lost a great Australian. Whitlam did leave many valuable legacies, driven by passion, ideals and character. He had a strong relationship with his wife of almost 70 years who herself was an inspiration to the women of her time and an advocate for women's rights. It was from the publicly witnessed strength of such a strong relationship that he could make on marital laws so much more humane through the passing of the first no-fault divorce procedure in 1975.

The Whitlam government fought for equal pay for women and the establishment of an inquiry to lay the basis for lands right for Indigenous Australians. He also brought in the first cuts to tariffs led by the inspirational modest member Bert Kelly. So there are certainly policies to celebrate.

Whitlam also made a significant contribution to Australia's identity. He had a confidence in Australia and brought with it the idea that Australia has the power to determine its own ideals and that, even as a small country, we can still have big ideas and aspirations. Indeed, with his exciting political dash, he had the capacity to make Australians feel part of something much bigger.

However, as Greg Sheridan pointed out in The Australian, there are misperceptions surrounding Gough Whitlam's prime ministership. Greg cautions that we do not turn Whitlam into some form of political god, because many of his actions were a continuation of sensible trends. For instance, he is often credited with being responsible for the removal of Australian troops from Vietnam; yet most of the troops had already been repatriated by the previous coalition government.

Many have spoken of Gough's brilliant foreign policy legacy, in particular his engagement with China. He did recognise the new government of China after the revolution, and the Chinese government itself has, on his passing, recognised him as the father of Chinese-Australian relations. Yet he was not without flaws in consideration of other peoples and nations. For example, he recognised the sovereignty of the Soviet Union over the Baltic states without taking into account their right to self-determination. Furthermore, he was decidedly unwelcoming to Vietnamese immigrants, even when they had been very helpful to Australians in Vietnam. Nevertheless, Whitlam was a great Australian.

His legacy is enormous but he has also left us with lessons which we must not forget. All can agree that Whitlam was responsible for one of the most rapid periods of legislative change in Australian history. However, his approach, that government is the solution to every problem, is not one that fits well with many Australians. Big government often diminishes its citizens—their choices and their opportunities. Whilst Prime Minister Whitlam was enacting rapid social change, it is my view that the economy was neglected and indeed mismanaged. Government spending increased by 40 per cent, tax rates soared and in one year unemployment doubled. In one short year, between 1974 and 1975, the Whitlam government managed to completely lose control of the budget. According to the economics editor of The AFR, Alan Mitchell, it took '20 years and four prime ministers to get it back under control'.

This was his ultimate legacy to the Labor Party and the legacy that, sadly, has been repeated by Labor prime ministers since his prime ministership—for then, as now, we cannot spend beyond our means, even when implementing a dramatic reform agenda. There seemed to be a concept at the heart of his government that inflation, which reached double digits, and prudent budget administration could be handled after other reforms had been achieved. We have since learnt the important lesson that vision must come hand in hand with economic management. If we do not plan to pay for our changes, the ultimate payment is extracted from our children and their children in an uncontrolled and unplanned manner. Real leadership involves responsible choices. A great leader has a vision and an economic plan for the nation. Without these two essential ingredients a national leader can do more harm than good.

It is also true that Whitlam's management of his government was chaotic. Unable to control his own ministers, the government's inability to finance its big spending program revealed itself to the public in the Khemlani loans affair, which involved a $4 billion loan from the Middle East from undisclosed sources, meaning a bypassing of the Loan Council. The Minister for Minerals and Energy, Connor, was sacked along with the Treasurer over this loans scandal. Perhaps these economic problems and scandals contributed to the souring of his relationship with the Australian public, as evidenced by Whitlam's landslide loss at the election in 1975.

In remembering Whitlam, we remember a period of legislative change the like of which Australia has never seen before, economic problems of the Whitlam government's own making but also an increase in tolerance. Whitlam will be remembered as significantly shaping the Australian that we love today. He used the power that he had as an agent of change and reminded us all of our national identity and how proud we should be to call ourselves Australian. He was a man of great courage and vigour, so regardless of whether or not we agree with his policies it is no sin to feel saddened by his passing and blessed to have lived in the same epoch as such a man.