Standing up for Canberra

My tribute to Gough Whitlam

If it was not for Gough Whitlam, I do not believe I would be standing here today representing the people of Canberra.

As I said in my first speech, Gough Whitlam's reforms to secondary and tertiary education allowed my sisters and me to escape a cycle of disadvantage—to break the tradition of three generations of single mothers who were denied choice, options and equality of opportunity due to their lack of education and the resulting poverty. In 1969, Gough said:
Poverty is a national waste as well as 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.

Education is the great transformer—'the great instrument for the promotion of equality'—and my and my sisters' education gave us the foundation to think big and to dream big.

It liberated us from potentially timid lives. And there are thousands and thousands more like us, particularly those who went to state and systemic Catholic schools.

I was nine when Gough was elected.

He was dismissed in my last year of primary school and his legacy was the backdrop of my secondary education.

My teachers were rabid Whitlamites, and the passion that surrounded the discussion of his government and the Dismissal in the classroom aroused an enduring love of politics and public policy.

Gough believed: 'Of all the objectives of my government, none had a higher priority than the encouragement of the arts—the preservation and enrichment of our cultural heritage.

Our other objectives are all means to an end.

The enjoyment of the arts is an end in itself.' Gough painted a vivid policy canvas 'to promote a standard of excellence in the arts' and, most importantly, 'help establish and express an Australian identity through the arts'.

His bankrolling of Australian culture, and the resulting 'unparalleled burst of creativity in this nation', meant that for the first time we studied Australian history, Australian literature, Australian film, Australian art and Australian politics.

For the first time, we were reading works that told our story, with our own subtexts, in our own language.

For the first time, we were watching films that reflected our landscape and echoed our sounds, and that studied our vivid and all too forensic light, not the subdued and golden hews of the Northern Hemisphere.

Gough invoked a pride in our own narrative and outlook, and gave us the confidence to believe we were no longer just second-rate Europeans.

Given Australia's achievements in every facet of creative life over the last 40 years, it is really hard to imagine how liberating it felt at the time.

But it was a coming of age for our country and an end, finally, of the cultural cringe.

As a young woman with aspirations, Gough helped tend the flower of the women's movement in the seventies and provided the infrastructure for me and thousands and thousands of other women to achieve our potential.

One day in my English class, my teacher asked us: what had been the most important liberator of women in history?

She then wrote two words on the blackboard: 'the pill'.

That is because, until Gough, oral contraception was only available to the wealthy.

By getting rid of the sales tax on the pill and making it available through the PBS, he gave women easily accessible and affordable control over their own fertility, which is the absolute fundamental to female empowerment.

Some regard the Whitlam government as anti Defence, but I suggest he did more to underwrite the defence of Australia and defence policy than many hawks. Gough regarded conscription as:

… an impediment to achieving the forces Australia needs. It is an alibi for failing to give proper conditions to regular soldiers … By abolishing it, Australia will achieve a better army, a better-paid army—and a better, united society.

In the aftermath of the Vietnam War, when we could have so easily turned away from the US, he held on to the US alliance and helped give birth to an understanding that Australia could defend itself.

He created a bipartisan consensus on defence policy, which endures today, a belief that we can create an independent capability for our own defence, an action that reinforces rather than weakens the US alliance.

He initiated large-scale cooperation with Indonesia. He launched the Department of Defence.

He amalgamated five departments.

He gave birth to the term 'Australian Defence Force' and was part of the movement to establish the Australian Defence Force Academy.

He appointed a military ombudsman and created a new charter for the Citizen Military Forces.

He 'moved steadily and firmly' towards the aim that Australia should have the defence forces she needs: 'finely equipped, highly professional, highly mobile and highly respected'.

That respect also extended to the Public Service, which he radically transformed through equal pay, through maternity leave, through annual leave and through decent pay and conditions.

Gough came from a privileged background.

His father was the Deputy Crown Solicitor, and he attended Telopea Park School and Canberra Grammar.

In fact, he is the only Prime Minister to have grown up here in our great national capital.

But he used his privilege to eliminate inequalities that were 'riveted on a child for a lifetime'.

He unleashed a confidence among Australians about their nation, about their place in their world, about what they could achieve, which I believe had been denied them since Federation.

He reimagined and redefined us locally, nationally and internationally.

Since his passing, I have received many heartfelt messages from Canberrans and friends on his legacy.

One of my oldest high school friends wrote:

Thanks to him, my sister was able to study medicine, my mother got a degree in psychology, I got my own degree, my son has been able to get medical attention from the day he was born due to a public healthcare system ... the list goes on.

Had we continued to live in America I wonder where we would be.

When my parents came to Australia in 1971 and Gough came to power, they thought they had reached Nirvana!

As I am a member of parliament, his death has made me pause to reflect on why I am here.

When hearing the news of his passing, my mum left a teary message on my phone saying I had to remember his legacy and to use my time in this place to make a difference, to improve people's lives, as Gough did.

Despite the turbulence of his government, his life has encouraged us to challenge people, to inspire people and—as the member for Wentworth so eloquently put it—to not let the petty hatreds consume us.

Most of all, he encouraged us to be ambitious about what we can achieve in life.

And for so, so many of us, he gave us the foundations to be optimistic as Australians, to be confident as Australians, to think big, to dream big. Thank you, Gough. Vale.