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Issue #1662      October 29, 2014


Edward Gough Whitlam

On Monday October 20, one of Australia’s greatest reforming Prime Ministers, Edward Gough Whitlam QC passed away at the age of 98. He was PM for three years until being sacked by Governor General John Kerr in a CIA-backed coup on November 11, 1975. Whitlam was no “leftie”, but an enlightened and educated lawyer and humanist, who passionately believed in peace, social justice and equality of opportunity. During those three years he led a team on an all-embracing program of social, economic, cultural, environmental and political reform that served the needs and interests of the Australian people and Australia’s independence and sovereignty.

PM Tony Abbott moved a condolence motion in the House of Representatives on Tuesday October 21, which was followed by tributes from MPs on both sides of the House. Coalition MPs spoke fine sounding words, through gritted teeth. Whitlam “might not be one of our greatest Prime Ministers, but he was certainly one of the greatest personalities that our country has ever produced,” Abbott grudgingly said.

Labor MPs recalled a few of the achievements including the introduction of free university education, Medibank and expansion of welfare as well as paying tribute to his wit, passion and vision for Australia. Both Houses suspended business for the day after making their tributes in his honour.

The Gurindji people held a ceremony for him at Daguragu, about 460 kilometres south-west of Katherine, the site where in 1975 Whitlam poured sand into the hand of Vincent Lingiari. The Wave Hill hand back – as the event became known – finalised the first significant recognition of land rights by an Australian government. It was part of broader reforms introduced by the Whitlam government that led to the passing of the Land Rights Act and official recognition of traditional ownership in Australia.

Not all of the reforms were progressive. For example, the introduction of direct “state aid” (funding) for non-government schools which saved the poorer Catholic parish schools which were under considerable financial pressure. The government made a serious mistake in accepting advice from the Reserve Bank and Treasury for a credit squeeze. The Whitlam government stood by and watched Indonesia’s invasion and occupation of East Timor.

Whitlam’s Labor government made important changes to Australia’s relationship with Asia, seeking to engage and deepen relations with Asia. In his 1969 policy speech Whitlam said that Australia is not “‘the policeman on the beat’, we are not ‘the sheriff’, we are not ‘part of the posse’. We see Australia as a good neighbour.” Words the US would not find pleasing. He started by establishing diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China, the Democratic Republic of Vietnam and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. He also initiated a dialogue with the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), pledging financial assistance to its development program.

Its boldest action was the raid on ASIO in 1973, instigated by Attorney General Lionel Murphy who believed (with good reason) that ASIO was withholding information from Labor. The Whitlam government also established the Hope Royal Commission in 1974 to investigate ASIO’s past practices and the extent it was prepared to deal honestly with the Labor government.

Labor frontbencher Anthony Albanese told Parliament that all of Whitlam’s changes had stood the test of time. “Our legacy in terms of political contribution can be judged by the permanency of it,” he said.

Today, what remains of those reforms is under savage attack by the Coalition government, Labor Opposition, big business and the Murdoch media. The erosion of those gains, which reflected the strength of the left and progressive social forces of the 1960s and ’70s began under the Fraser government and has continued ever since. A quick comparison of the many fine achievements (see opposite) and what remains or is under attack right now, shows just how much has been wound back to the detriment of working people, the planet and Australia’s security interests. Post-Whitlam Labor has contributed to this process.

The ASIO-backed coup that saw the very popular Whitlam government sacked on November 11, 1975, lifted the lid on the façade of bourgeois democracy. The people can elect governments, as long as they remain “safe”. Whitlam’s Labor government was the last with a progressive program that met people’s needs. It is no coincidence that the coup was the day before Whitlam was due to make an important statement on the US’s top secret spy and communications base, Pine Gap.

Next article – Whitlam legacy

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