Whilst Australia and the international community were mourning the loss of one of Australia’s great Prime Ministers, I was in the middle of a research task investigating the impact that this man had on Australian politics. It was an extremely significant impact. Gough Whitlam challenged the agenda of the federal government in many ways, but in particular funding education to make it accessible to the masses, regardless of gender, race or economic situation.
Starting with Sir Robert Menzies as Prime Minister the Liberal government focussed on establishing Australia as a strong economic force in the world. With market stability and coming off the back of an economic boom, there was not a large enough investment made to help the education system flourish. Free primary and secondary education theoretically opened school level education to the masses, however a lack of funding to boost remote schools or schools in disadvantaged areas meant opportunities were not equal.
After school, students hoping to continue their education faced large university fees and parents acted as the only financial support. This facilitated class divides, isolating kids from disadvantaged areas.
It is this that Gough Whitlam aimed to revolutionise. From the very beginning Gough Whitlam was seen as a source of hope. Leading the labor party to victory in 1962 with a rousing campaign titled ‘It’s Time’. And time it was after 23 years of the party in opposition.
The Labor Party policy speech Whitlam delivered at the Blacktown Civic Centre was a powerful message to the voters, making many promises in regards to education, addressing it as one of the main agendas of his government. So often, and especially today in Australia’s political landscape, it is easy to become disillusioned with the political process as promises are never kept. However all but one of Whitlam’s education policies were enacted, all within the 3 years of his government. He said:
‘Under a Labor Government, Commonwealth spending on schools and teacher training will be the fastest expanding sector of Budget expenditure. This must be done, not just because the basic resource of this nation is the skills of its people, but because education is the key to equal opportunity… We will abolish fees at universities and colleges of advanced education. We believe that a student’s merit rather than a parent’s wealth should decide who should benefit from the community’s vast financial commitment to tertiary education. And more, it’s time to strike a blow for the ideal that education should be free. Under the Liberals this basic principle has been massively eroded. We will re-assert that principle at the commanding heights of education, at the level of the university itself.’ (Whitlam, “It’s Time for Leadership”)
Gough Whitlam saw the value of an educated population in securing Australia’s future. Whilst there was a short-term economic loss, he saw a long-term investment into jobs and economic security. Something I tend to agree on. These sentiments expressed in 1962 echo in our ears today as we watch the Abbott government.
In May 2014 during the federal budget, the Abbott Government announced university cuts through the deregulation of fees, course funding cuts and the application of interest rates to student debts. This once again will open the university system to an unequal playing field with students deterred by the enormous long-term debts they might incur. Rather than an investment in the education system, Abbott has shunned the Whitlam model, causing universities to have to invest in themselves.
The Australian public supports government funding of education. If they didn’t Whitlam wouldn’t have won his spot as Prime Minister in the early 60s from a comfortable Liberal government. Currently the Abbott government wouldn’t be facing so much criticism, nor would they have left it out of their policy promises during the 2013 election, if there wasn’t still that support.
Crowds gathered not only inside Sydney’s Town Hall, but standing outside, watching from an erected screen in Cabramatta and in homes around Australia at the beginning of November this to remember the life and achievements of Gough Whitlam after his death. I too sat on my lounge watching as notable Australians – Cate Blanchett and Noel Pearson – both delivered eulogies reflecting how Whitlam impacted on their lives. It was through education and the equal opportunities created.
Aptly this is how Gough Whitlam is remembered. For the numerous achievements he made in just three years. For a man that seemed to be defined by his exit from office, his legacy will be his achievements, particularly in education.
Gough Whitlam “It’s Time for Leadership.” Australian Labor Party Policy Speech. November 13, 1972. http://whitlamdismissal.com/downloads/72-11-13_whitlam-policy-speech_moad.pdf