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Tuesday, 28 October 2014
Page: 12191

Mr TEHAN (Wannon) (10:32): Gough Whitlam's death marks the passing of a truly remarkable era. It is funny that, as a young boy when the Whitlam government came into power, I cannot remember a lot about the debate that took place—the fierce policy debates, the fierce questioning of the economic management, the fierce questioning of some of the social programs that were put through this parliament. But the impact of what was occurring was obviously significant because, as a young boy at primary school and in junior primary school, I can still remember having discussions—fairly juvenile discussions, I must say, but discussions—about what was happening in Australia. It does show how remarkable those times must have been because it was reaching down into grade 1 and grade 2 of primary schools across the nation. I am sure that our discussions in the playground or in the classroom were similar to what was occurring around the nation. Obviously there was fierce discussion taking place across the dinner tables at teatime across the nation as to what was happening to the country. And there were remarkable things that were happening.

I think that it is worth recognising the spirit in which this discussion has occurred in this place because it has been incredibly fitting, I think, that both sides have been able to recognise both the successes and some of the shortcomings of someone who was a truly remarkable Australian.

The thing that has struck me most in listening to the eulogies and reading the tributes to Gough is his public service. He was committed to public service like few others have been in this parliament. He volunteered for the RAAF, or the RAF as it was then. He was someone who demonstrated that his public service knew no bounds, because he was prepared ultimately to put his life on the line for our nation. I think anyone who is prepared to do that, for that fact alone, deserves our recognition.

But it was not only that commitment. He then committed to a very long stint in this parliament, ultimately becoming the 21st Prime Minister of this nation. And given everything that he went through, the trials and tribulations, not only in his remarkable transformation of the Labor Party with its internal brawling, he was able to achieve that much-needed reform and then take over the prime ministership. It would only be fair to say that he was Prime Minister during a time of considerable change, but also a time of considerable debate and conflict, ultimately ending with the dismissal. There would be many people who would take their bat and ball and go home after enduring all that, but Gough Whitlam did not. He decided that he would continue to serve the public and became ambassador to UNESCO.

He also never gave up on his commitment and contribution to the Labor Party. As we heard during the eulogies on the day when we first marked his death, his commitment to turn up after he had retired from politics, to attend branch meetings and party functions, became legendary. He did so even in the electorate of Wannon. In 1990 he turned up to Portland and addressed the south-west Labor club down there, of course with much fanfare. He had visited the electorate of Wannon previously in the late 1960s. He visited Warrnambool and Portland then when the then member for Wannon, who would also go on to become Prime Minister, was the education minister. I note there was a hiatus between the late 1960s and the 1990s when he did not come to Wannon—and I imagine there is probably a very good reason for that—but even the conflict and the turmoil that took place between the former member for Wannon and Gough Whitlam, even those scores, were settled after a period of time. Very interestingly, they became what I think you would call political friends after a considerable amount of time, which also goes to show the calibre of the individual that Gough Whitlam was. I think there would be many people who, having endured what he endured and been through what he went through—and this is not saying whether what occurred with the dismissal was right or wrong, but it would have been incredibly easy for him to dismiss Malcolm Fraser and say that he would never have anything to do with him again. Yet he was prepared, after a period of time, to embrace him and to work together with him on areas where they thought there was a mutual interest. That is truly remarkable.

One thing that I would like to go into in a little bit of detail here is a lasting reform commitment, an economic reform commitment, that Gough Whitlam left. There are not many lasting economic legacies that he did leave. Unfortunately we saw government expenditure increase at rapid rates, probably at rates we have not seen until Kevin Rudd was Prime Minister after the GFC. We saw budget deficits increasing; we saw the size of government increase remarkably. We are still grappling with those issues now. But one of the things he did do upon coming to power was to cut the level of protection in Australia by 25 per cent. He cut tariffs by 25 per cent. This was remarkable, because until he did that the consensus, almost on both sides of politics, was very much that protectionism was good and healthy for our country. Gough later recognised that Bert Kelly—the modest member—had had a big impact in the decision that he ultimately made. He came in and decided that he was going to cut tariffs by 25 per cent and basically did it overnight. He also raised the dollar at that time.

That legacy, which both sides of government have taken onboard, has made us a wealthier and more prosperous nation. He knew that ultimately we had to open ourselves up to the world and open ourselves up to our region. In a way, he foresaw the impact that globalisation was going to have on our nation, and if we were not prepared and ready for it then we would be all the poorer for it. This was a brave and gutsy decision because he knew that not only would he get some criticism from our side but also, ultimately, he was going to get a lot of criticism from his own party and from the union movement, but he knew that it was the right step to take.

As we have seen, that legacy has been embraced. We saw it with the floating of the dollar, we saw it with further tariff reductions during the eighties and the nineties, and we are seeing it even now with the government's free trade agendas with South Korea, Japan and, potentially, China. It would be incredibly fitting if, in the year that Gough died and we remembered what he did to begin our modern relationship with China, we could mark the year of his death with a free trade agreement with China.

It would bookend the period remarkably. I, for one, hope that the government can achieve that because in a foreign policy sense, once again, his bravery—and we heard from the previous speaker about what TheSydney Morning Herald had to say about him travelling to China—in taking criticism from both sides and forging that path to begin the modern relationship with China is something which was truly remarkable. It showed that when he knew he thought he was doing the right thing, he had the bravery to do it. I think there are a lot of us here who could reflect on—what some have called a crash or a crash-through approach—a real firmness of conviction and a real bravery in being able to follow your convictions. Ultimately, those who have been through this place and are judged and judged well are those who have had convictions and have been prepared, through the way that they have acted in this place, to ensure that those convictions have guided what they have done. His legacy in that area stands as a tribute to him.

I will conclude there. If I could pass on my empathy and my sympathies to his family. His has been a life well lived. I hope that the passing of time will enable his family to get over the suffering and the hurt that they are feeling, and that they will be able to reflect on a remarkable life.