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It is a great honour to serve the people of Queensland as one of our state's 12 Senators in the Australian Senate, and the people of Australia as the Shadow Minister for Women, Carers, and Communities.

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Spotlight on Current Events

Opinion Piece- 23 October 2014


In the past 48 hours tributes, accolades and gratitude have rightly flowed in honour of Gough Whitlam. At the core of this thanks is an opportunity to reflect on his deep commitment to gender equality and to give all Australian women a fair go.

Gough Whitlam was the first Prime Minister to make it clear to young women that they could be, and do, anything, proclaiming, 'your biology should not be a barrier'. He recognised and harnessed the increased participation of women in the workforce, one of the most significant social changes at the time.

Whitlam acted swiftly and decisively to make equal pay a reality by reopening the National Wage and Equal Pay case before the Commonwealth Conciliation and Arbitration Commission. The McMahon Government had opposed the push for equal pay for equal work in the Commonwealth public service but the tide now turned under Whitlam's leadership with the Commission extending the adult minimum wage to include women workers for the first time.

Under Gough's leadership half a million female workers became eligible for full pay, women's wages rose by a third, working conditions improved.

But it didn't stop at equal pay. In 1974 over 60,000 women working in the Commonwealth Public Service were eligible for the first ever paid parental leave, before then if you were a woman in the public service and fell pregnant, you lost your job.

The abolishing of tuition fees for students at universities and technical colleges opened up access to tertiary education to thousands of women for whom it would otherwise have been out of reach, enabling careers and opportunities, and created a precedent of universal access to higher education.

Whitlam was also a great reformer inside the Australian Labor Party itself. In 1964, Gough had a speech prepared for party members, but he said he could not deliver it because there were two Labor parties. The men: the delegates and the candidates. And the women: making the tea, preparing the meals out the back. The women stopped making the tea, they were no longer consigned to the back of the room - and so began the making of modern Labor and arguably the beginnings of a modern Australia.

While encouraging more women into positions of power, Whitlam was the first Prime Minister in the world to appoint a dedicated government adviser on women's affairs. Elizabeth Reid was the first to head the new Office for Women's Affairs, checking policy for the impact on women. That Office now sits in the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, offering advice on how legislation will affect women - today, we wonder if anyone's listening.

In Labor, Whitlam's legacy continues as we celebrate high number of women in senior roles across states and federal parliaments. Whitlam reminds us not to become complacent about structural change to assist women break through multiple barriers that prevent them from participating in politics.

Whitlam and his wife Margaret understood that a fairer society is one where Australians are able to participate and in equal measure, regardless of their gender.

Lifting opportunities and empowering all women was central to Whitlam's agenda, establishing the single mothers' benefit which drastically reduced the risk of women living in poverty. Specialist health and welfare services for women were funded including support for women's health centres, refuges and crisis centres, to help women escaping the scourge of family violence. The contraceptive pill was made more affordable and accessible by being placed on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme and by removing sales tax.

Today we take many of these reforms for granted, reforms which go to the heart of the day to day lives of women, but at the time they were vehemently resisted.

Whitlam's leadership saw the end to adversarial divorce. The Family Law Act reduced a lot of acrimony among couples by abolishing the requirement for husband and wives to prove their spouse responsible for the destruction of their marriage. No-fault divorce spared couples the requirement to prove a "matrimonial offence" such as adultery, cruelty or desertion.

Whitlam argued the fault-based system further strained relations in separated couples, undermining their ability to co-operate in the rearing of children. While opponents of the reform argued it contributed to rising divorce rates and sexual promiscuity, they were minority views and public support for this transformation reform was very high.

The Act was the foundation of the Family Law Court and other reforms that would enable women to assert their rights over property and take control of their lives.

The court was structured to foster a supportive atmosphere with proceedings based on the notion that family law matters should be perceived as matters of inter-personal relationships, rather than morality. The creation of Legal Aid for federal matters was critical for women from disadvantaged backgrounds and provided assistance in key areas such as family law.

Vale Gough Whitlam. In three short years your legacy changed the lives of Australian women for the better.

First published in Women's Agenda, 23 October 2014

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