The Whitlam Government introduced landmark reforms and paved the way for a more progressive Australia. Vittorio Trevitt tells us the UK perspective…
The concept of change is central to the identity of the progressive Left, which believes in the power of the state to improve people’s lives and create a more equal society. Over the past century or so, governments of the Left have been instigators of radical social change, the 1945-51 Labour Government that established the Welfare State here in Britain being a shining example. Australian readers will also be familiar with the remarkable achievements of another period of change – the years 1972-1975. These were years when you had a government that brought about social change on a grand scale, and one that progressives here in austerity-weary Europe can look to for inspiration even today. I refer, of course, to the Australian Labor government of Gough Whitlam.
Whitlam’s government, the first centre-left government in Australia since 1949, embarked upon an ambitious programme of reform that touched upon virtually every aspect of Australian life during its time in office from 1972-75, and remains a model to progressives today of the kind of change that the Left can accomplish. Under Whitlam, the Australian welfare state was significantly expanded, with substantial increases in welfare payments, new benefits for orphans, handicapped children, single mothers, and homeless people, and liberalised access to a number of means-tested benefits. Improvements were also made in the provision of services and amenities in deprived areas, while funds were provided for low-income housing and childcare centres.
In health, new hospital facilities were constructed in previously underserved areas, free dental care for children was provided, and a universal public health care system was established. In education, opportunities were widened through policies like free university tuition and financial support for tertiary students, while greater funds were provided for school building construction.
The first legislation in Australian history aimed at safeguarding the environment was passed, while a range of liberal reforms were enacted. Amongst these included the lowering of the voting age to 18, the abolition of conscription, non-discriminatory immigration rules, a legal aid system, bans on sexual and racial discrimination, and new land rights for Aborigines. Whitlam’s government also made profound changes to the rights of Australian women, establishing the principle of no-fault divorce, equal pay and paid maternity leave in the public service, and extending the adult minimum wage to Australian women.
Whitlam’s government also managed the country’s finances efficiently, with the government having zero net debt during its time in office, demonstrating the extent to which a radical programme of change and sound public finances can go hand in hand.
The lesson that progressives can learn from Whitlam is that a progressive party can achieve much in the way of social change when it is united, has a strong sense of direction, and a comprehensive plan of reform. The record of the Whitlam Government is therefore not only one that progressives can aspire to, but is a true representation of the importance of progressive social change.