The recent passing of Gough Whitlam brought about nostalgia for his legacy as Prime Minister and his influence on Australian society. What has largely been neglected is the role his government – through the Royal Commission on Human Relationships – helped changed the way government dealt with homosexuality and begun the process of changing social attitudes. The Royal Commission on Human Relationships was set up by the Whitlam government with the support of the opposition in 1974. The terms of reference for the commission were ‘to inquire into and report upon the family, social, educational, legal and sexual aspects of male and female relationships’. (Interim Report, p6) The broad terms of reference allowed the Royal Commission to look at all aspects of society including the more controversial issues such as abortion, prostitution, incest and homosexuality. It would be the first time homosexuality was to be put on the national agenda and gave homosexual groups a chance to advocate for change.
‘What do you think?’ (Interim Report, p39) was to become the motto of the Royal Commission. By advertising through posters, pamphlets, radio and television, the aim was to reach out to the public and create a platform for the m to voice their concerns and advocate for change. Of the 1264 submission the Commission received a total of 36 submissions dealt homosexuality. The Royal Commission also conducted their own surveys to gauge public perceptions on various issues in society, including homosexuality. Through these submissions, interviews, and surveys, the Royal Commission came up with a variety of recommendations. Chief among the recommendations on homosexuality was – the decriminalisation of homosexuality, equal rights of same-sex partners living together, and anti-discrimination policy against homosexuals particularly in employment. (Final Report, p124) As well as education programs for students, teachers, parents and medical staff to help eliminate prejudice and discrimination within society. (Final Report, p88)
The problem for the Royal Commission was it became caught up with the dismissal of Gough Whitlam and ostracised by Malcolm Fraser. After the dismissal, the newly appointed Fraser government cut the Commissions time and funding. With the Final Report submitted just prior to the 1977 election, the report was politicised with the leaking of the report’s potentially more controversial recommendations. The media had a field day, lambasting the report. The legitimacy of the Royal Commission, its report and its recommendations were damaged in the eyes of the public. The report was seen to have encapsulated the progressive vision of the Whitlam government, something largely rejected by Australians following his dismissal. Meaning that the Royal Commission’s impact was reduced.
While the Royal Commission did not directly end discrimination or decriminalisation of homosexuality, it was to influence discussion that was to lead to these ends. The lasting legacy of the Royal Commission in terms of homosexuality was that it started discussions within government and the wider society. By being open to the public, the Royal Commission would come to represent the changing attitudes in Australian society. The overarching theme of the Royal Commissions recommendations, were the recognition that homosexuals were not the problem, but rather legislation and social attitudes towards homosexuality needed to change. This change in perception of homosexuals was monumental; an unprecedented acknowledgment that homosexuals were victims of problematic stigmatisation requiring social restructuring. The Royal commission was able to bring issues to the forefront that hadn’t been discussed previously by government, reflecting the social changes happening within Australia at the time. The Royal Commission was also able to normalise homosexuality as an issue. Furthermore, homosexuals led the discussion, rather than those without direct insight to the issues homosexuals faced. The end result was homosexual rights becoming a subject future governments were expected to address.
Although the Royal Commission was to be overshadowed by the dismissal of the Whitlam government and political forces beyond its control, it would still come to represent a defining moment for homosexual rights in Australia. The Royal Commission was to influence the way homosexuality and homosexual rights were to be viewed by the general public and policy makers. By opening up to various interest groups and the wider public, it allowed the Royal Commission to be attuned to the sentiments gaining traction within the community and reflected the changing public opinion. Although the Royal Commission’s recommendations didn’t immediately represent legislative change for homosexual rights, it aided homosexual groups by creating a space in public conversation for them to be heard. The turning point for homosexual rights in Australia was the final recognition that social attitudes to homosexuality were the problem and not homosexuality itself. The Royal Commission was to be an agent for this change. Its recommendations on homosexuality were all aimed at changing society and the law to recognise homosexuals as legitimate citizens whose rights were restricted. In doing so it perfectly encapsulated the Whitlam vision of a more open, equal and tolerant society.
Australian Federal Government, Royal Commission on Human Relationships: The interim report 1, 12th February 1976, Canberra, 1976
Australian Federal Government, Royal Commission on Human Relationships: The final report, vol.1, 12th February 1976, Canberra, 1977