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Tuesday, 28 October 2014
Page: 12189


Ms BURKE (Chisholm) (10:22): It is indeed an honour to speak on the condolence motion for Edward Gough Whitlam, the 21st Prime Minister of Australia. Throughout the course of this debate—and yet again from the member for Gippsland—it has been wonderful to hear many personal reflections about the impact that Gough Whitlam had on people's lives and how he shaped their views, beliefs and actions, on either side of the divide.

In my office sits a photograph of my baby brother—Paul will always be the baby brother!—Paul's graduation day. He graduated from Monash University, the same university that I, my sisters, Nina and Sophie, and my other brother, Tony, all graduated from—all five Burkes. The day Paul graduated, my brother Tony—who is not one for getting publicity—contacted the local paper and the Herald Sun and wanted to make comment on this momentous achievement: five children from the one family all graduating from the one university. But what he really wanted to tell was the story of how we got there and why we got there and to praise the fact that, if it had not been for Gough Whitlam, these five siblings would never have made it to university. I suspect my elder brother and sister would have, as they had gone through school on full scholarship, but my parents would have been left with the choice of which child then would not get to go. It was a choice my grandparents made in respect of my father, who never got to go to university.

So this was a momentous day for us, and both papers came down and took the photo, and the Herald Sun actually ran the story. It was not just about us completing university; it was the trail that had been blazed for us to get there. This was an absolutely magnificent day for my family—most particularly for my mother, who struggled through all those years to get us to university. As I have said in this place before, one of the proudest days our family had was seeing my mother graduate many years later as a mature-age student, something again not possible without the intervention of Gough Whitlam.

I know I am not alone in this place in my appreciation of Gough for the advantages I received in life because of his vision. Many of us here are of the generation which benefited most from Gough's reforms to our education—an education my parents dreamed of for their five children but could never have afforded otherwise, an education my father-in-law's parents dreamed of for him but that they could not have afforded. He sat his matriculation twice, not because he had not passed brilliantly the first time but because he had not passed brilliantly enough to get a full scholarship. His school allowed him to resit his matriculation so he would get a full scholarship to go on and complete his medical degree at Melbourne university. I think, if he had not had parents who were that savvy, the outer eastern suburbs of Melbourne would have missed out on a phenomenal practitioner. There was no way that the tram conductor's kid was going to get to university and do medicine! But he got there the hard way. It is something Gough took away in ensuring that all the next generations did not have to blaze that trail. The essence and principle of Gough's visions have endured. When cost is not a barrier to education, all Australians are able to access the educational opportunities that are their right—a right this government is trying to rip away as I speak. But it is not a time for partisan politics in these remarks.

Gough Whitlam viewed Australia not just through the narrow prism of an economy; he also saw Australia as a society and, in every way, he worked to improve our society as a whole to make sure that people are not excluded and that, as much as possible, everyone is given an equal chance—an equal chance, not an equal choice; a chance to strive based on your ability, not your parents' income. To quote the man himself:

Poverty is a national waste as well as an individual waste. We are all diminished when any of us are denied proper education. The nation is the poorer—a poorer economy, a poorer civilisation, because of this human and national waste.

Hear, hear, I say. It is funny how some things change but many do not. And it is a waste if we cannot ensure that everyone has access to a proper education. Gough was enormously successful in reducing this divide and in reducing the poverty in our nation as a whole.

In fact, it is hard to name a Prime Minister who has managed to achieve such a long list of lasting social changes as Gough Whitlam. As many people have remarked since his passing last week, the Whitlam legacy very much defined what we understand to be modern Australia. Even those people whose political ideology drives them to seek to destroy everything Gough Whitlam established are the first to say that no Prime Minister has changed Australia more, and it is true. Gough Whitlam made this country fairer. He broadened our horizons, made us braver and reshaped our view of ourselves and all we can achieve.

The appreciation the Australian community has not only of the Whitlam legacy but of Gough Whitlam the man has been amazing to witness. The sheer outpouring of emotion by the country when Gough died says far more about the depths of gratitude and awareness of his great contribution than any speech ever can. Indeed, my older Labor Party branch members in Chisholm, many of them who are still fighting on today will tell you they joined the party because of Gough. It is what you hear reverberate time and time again: 'I joined in 1970 because of Gough. I joined because of the Vietnam War and what Gough did.' And they are loyal to the party to this day. The fact that even today, in the modern political environment, we are still wrangling over so much that was central to the Whitlam reforms says even more about just how much Gough Whitlam had to fight to achieve change.

Gough Whitlam fought to achieve universal health care. He fought hard. It took six blocked bills, a double dissolution election and a joint sitting of the parliament to establish Medibank. Now, four decades later, all Australians enjoy access to Medicare, even though it remains under attack by the same ideology that fought so hard to prevent its establishment in the first place. It is the rock bed of what we consider to be almost an inalienable right in Australia, Medicare.

I think one of the reasons Gough Whitlam's passing has so captured the imaginations and hearts of so many Australians is how contemporary so many of Gough's reforms remain. Gough Whitlam ended conscription and completed Australia's withdrawal from the Vietnam War. He scrapped knights and dames, and introduced the Australian honours system. He established no-fault divorce. Gough removed sales tax from contraception and added the pill to the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme, abolished the death penalty for federal crime, supported the case for equal pay for women, reduced the voting age to 18 from 21 and changed our national anthem from God Save the Queen to Advance Australia Fair—all things we are still debating in this modern era, although hopefully not the national anthem. But, while it is hard to find people who can recall and sing the second verse of the national anthem, it is now a far better reflection of the values of modern Australia which were awakened by Gough.

We also owe a debt of gratitude to Gough for the strength of our multicultural society. It was Gough Whitlam who took the first step in recognising Aboriginal land rights and addressing the profound inequality and discrimination experienced by Indigenous Australians—a lasting legacy to this day. Gough Whitlam saw past the fear of the other and reached out to the communist government of China, beginning our relationship with our most important contemporary trading partner. Again, he did this in spite of fierce opposition. The Sydney Morning Herald editorial at the time of Gough's first visit to China lambasted him:

If … Whitlam thinks that this wholesale selling out of friends to gain a despot's smile is diplomacy, then Heaven protect this country if he ever directs its foreign policy.

As the representative of an electorate that is home to more than 20,000 people of Chinese heritage, a multicultural community where half of everybody's parents were born overseas, I would like to pay particular thanks to Gough for his commitment to our multiculturalism. We are a better community and a better country because of it. Opening ties with China was visionary, and I do not think you will find anybody lambasting it as the editorial of the paper did back then.

In life, Gough Whitlam was a guiding light to his party and country for both his success and his failure. He showed the Labor Party and Australia what we can achieve if we are true to our values and our principles and maintain the courage and the rage to pursue policies of fairness and equality no matter how strong the opposition. He also showed us strength in the face of the greatest act of political bastardry that this country has ever seen. In 1997 Gough Whitlam remarked, 'I have more influence now than when I had the power.' And, in death, I imagine that Gough Whitlam's legacy and his influence will continue to grow. And so it should.

Gough Whitlam will always be a giant of Australian history, a giant of the Labor Party and a giant in our hearts. Vale, Gough Whitlam. May he rest in peace.