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
Speech- 27 October 2014
REMEMBERING AND HONOURING GOUGH WHITLAM, A TRUE GENTLEMAN
MONDAY, 27 OCTOBER 2014
As we know, everyone has a Gough story. I would like to say that his inimitable style was important, but unfortunately everyone tries to imitate his style. When people talk about Gough they inevitably go into a ponderous style to sound just like Gough, and over the last week we have heard way too much of that.
I wanted to talk a little bit about why I remember Gough and what he means to so many people of my generation. Senator Milne actually stole some of my thunder this morning when she talked about her dad's reaction to Blue Poles. I, as you know, do not come from a party political family. But my father had exactly the same response to the purchase of Blue Poles and would talk about it. I very rarely ever heard him talk about politics, but I heard him talk about the expense of 'that picture' and about the fact that it did not have a person or an animal in it and how could it be worth that much money. I think that dad's view, until the day he passed, was that perhaps the dismissal was directly related to the purchase of Blue Poles.
My mother, on the other hand, actually cried when Mr Whitlam stopped conscription and pulled us out of the Vietnam War. I was unaware of her concern about conscription. She had three daughters. But she was a child of World War II, and she had many friends who had sons, and she was absolutely traumatised by the concept of having to send a son to war. When Gough Whitlam made the decision very early in his prime ministership to stop that linkage she was so overwhelmed that she cried.
She rang a friend of hers who did have a son and said, 'It won't happen now.' That was particularly confronting for me.
Another thing which mum found disturbing and a little challenging but which, I think, she was thrilled about was the very same TV interview with Margaret Whitlam that Senator Wong referred to about the role of the wife of the then Prime Minister. Certainly, my mother came from a relatively conservative, Catholic, regional country Queensland background. Her image of the partner of a Prime Minister was someone with good hats and gloves! However, we should remember the excitement that that interview caused for women of that generation. Margaret Whitlam was an equal partner. In the contributions over the last few months, first of all, when we lost Margaret and now when we are celebrating the life of Gough, we have so often heard about the true partnership that was the Gough and Margaret show. I think Australia got a really good deal when we got those two, together, as part of the leadership of our country.
For me, the role that Margaret played in working with Gough was one of the stimulants to the exciting changes that Gough Whitlam's government brought into Australian society, along with the hope and expectations of women. But no more gargantuan challenge did Gough Whitlam achieve around the issues of equity, engagement and celebrating talents-those things which we have heard he articulated so well in 1972-than the internal operations of the Labor Party. Over the last couple of days we have heard many times about the way that Gough identified that within the Labor Party there was not a quality engagement and a celebration of talents. We also heard how, in 1964, Gough went to talk to a Victorian group and he said that he could not make an open speech to that group 'because there were two Labor parties involved'. There were the men, the delegates and the candidates, and the women-members of the party-who were operating a support staff, working in the kitchen, making the tea. So at that time he started the ongoing journey for our party-which I know has been watched by other groups-to ensure that women, their talents, their excitement, their involvement would be shared equally and would be engaged in the development of policy in Australia.
Mr Deputy President, I want to talk about some of the things that Gough achieved when he got to government and there is no better place to talk about it than in the Senate. Queensland had some role in the way Gough lost government in the Senate and we all learnt that at school. Nonetheless, I was so pleased to hear Senator Faulkner this morning also talk about the fact that Queensland votes actually maintained Gough's leadership when he was under challenge before that time. So I think our result was about fifty-fifty then.
No sooner had Whitlam became Prime Minister of this nation-and I know there were many parties on this side of the chamber at that stage-than he tackled front on the issues of equal pay for women in our nation. This issue had been simmering for years. There had been some previous cases but he knew-and I actually know this was part of the partnership with Margaret; I just know that-that in fact there was not equal pay for equal work.
Through the work that Gough Whitlam made sure happen very early under his prime ministership we did reopen that case and, again, there was a movement towards establishing equal pay rights for women in this nation. Like so many of these things, it is an ongoing discussion. In terms of the evolution of equal pay, that was an extraordinarily valuable time. Part of his government process was to establish a first full-time adviser on women's issues in any parliament. We can celebrate that; Elizabeth Reid was the first adviser. She was appointed particularly around the aspects leading to the 1975 UN International Women's Year. We made a decision in our parliament, led by Gough Whitlam, that Australia would not just sit back and watch this happen but engage. We would be leading and we would have true involvement in looking at how we could attain advances for women leading up to the international conference.
At that time Elizabeth Reid and her office, which grew, was responsible for ensuring that a range of funding grants were given out to organisations which were women focused, women centred, all across our nation. Many of our refuges, shelters, women's health centres were initially funded with money that came out of this important change. So when Margaret Whitlam led our delegation to that conference she had with her proven examples of where the Australian parliament had made positive decisions which were reflecting true equality for women not just as a participant but as someone who could show that we had made changes. We have heard people talk about the issues around changes to the divorce laws, when 'no fault' divorce came in. So many families were affected by that and still to this day we trace the impact of law changes in that area with the ongoing horrors of domestic violence in our nation.
The first parliament that actually spoke openly about this was under Gough Whitlam, about how the issues of domestic violence were important policy issues, that they were not to be put on the side, not to be cried over but tackled, and that we would engage women in making those decisions themselves.
I note that Jenny Macklin in her contribution the other day particularly pointed out the fact that one of the early actions of the new Whitlam government was to take the sales tax off the contraceptive pill. That seems so straightforward now, but I bet there were serious debates in this place, if in fact they could bring themselves to talk about this issue and about the change that that actually made during that time. Also, about the savings and the freedom that that gave women to make decisions about their own reproductive rights and how they could afford it and not have to save or borrow money to achieve that. It is something so straightforward but so real.
When I think of Gough's years, I think of not only inspiration and change, and a flurry of activity involving our community, but also music. In the last couple of days we have seen so much archival film of the time but, throughout all that watching of black-and-white images, I consistently think of a range of music that, for me, as someone who was at school at the time sums up the kind of change that Gough and Margaret, and the parliament at that time, were involved in.
So I just want to go through it. Many people have talked about the 'It's time' campaign, and I think we can hum that tune to this day, though I won't. I was a bit concerned about how tight those T-shirts were. And I still have trouble thinking about Gough Whitlam in a T-shirt-it's just wrong! Nonetheless, with those tight 'It's time' T-shirts and people singing around, it was exciting. Politics and political campaigns in Australia had not been exciting. They were speech-based; they were talking about what was going to happen. This was a community campaign with its own theme song, and a theme song which worked. So I think of 'It's time' and I hum along, and I know that it is used over and over again but it works for me.
During the wage case and the work around that, which had evolved out of years of work from women who were working with their unions and lawyers to ensure that the issue of equal pay was on the agenda, one of the songs that was consistently sung through that period which is one of my personal favourites now is one called Don't Be Too Polite Girls. It was an iconic song that endorsed the rights of women to have equal pay. So when I think of that time I also think of that song, and, to this day, union choirs across Australia sing this song, and it automatically invokes the issues of equity, engagement and enhancement of talents.
When we think of that iconic image of Gough Whitlam with Vincent Lingiari and those particles of earth-the land being passed over, and the acknowledgement of and genuine respect for land rights-the great song From Little Things Big Things Grow by Paul Kelly and Kev Carmody comes straight into my mind, and the collocation of that music and that image and that result I think would be in many people's minds.
Gough and Margaret also challenged the conventions by appearing in a film which is not one of my favourites but one which has become quite famous-the film about Barry McKenzie. When you hear the crescendo of the Barry McKenzie theme song, you think of the role of Gough and Margaret-the Prime Minister of the country and his partner-who took their engagement with the Australian film industry to a new level, and one which I think would be beyond many people, in making that statement. That song evinces the same engagement of this wonderful couple who worked for Australia, who were involved, and who epitomised so much of the social change in the seventies.
More recently, one of my personal favourites, I have to admit, is from the work of Tim Freedman and the Whitlams, a great song called Gough, on their first album, which summed up the link between what happened in 75 and a young bloke of that period and how that link was there, and that music just permeates my mind when I think about Gough Whitlam and what happened.
In the thought that goes around when I think of the changes that occurred, sometimes there are touches of true operatic fervour, because of Gough's and Margaret's dedication to the arts-and, in particular, to opera-and to progressing that in Australia and providing support to our national company, and also engaging international artists, and there are wonderful themes that come forward of moving forward, and giant people and giant personalities, but with that thundering aspect of operatic volume coming through.
In terms of losing Gough, I was not sad. Many people were. But it gave me an opportunity again to thank him, and to think of the many reasons that we as a community and I as an individual have to thank this man who provided so much inspiration and hope to all of us. I do not think we could begin to count how much memorabilia there is spread across Labor Party offices and union offices: numerous prints of 'It's time', coffee mugs, and oodles of books about Whitlam. We have not lost that. We have just had another stimulant to remember and to celebrate.
But the outpouring of grief last week was very confronting. I want to end by talking about just one phone call of the many phone calls and emails I have had. This was a phone call from a very good friend of mine who was sobbing when she rang me. She just said, 'He's gone, and he changed my life.' She had been a young woman from regional Victoria who had had no hope of going on to university in the late sixties. She had had good grades, but there was no opportunity financially for that chance to make decisions about what she wanted to do. The Whitlam changes to higher education changed her life, and the lives of so many women and men across this nation. And Rae remembered that, and she knew that her ongoing career, studying both here and in the UK, and teaching and being involved in research around Aboriginal land rights and history-all of that was enabled by a decision of government that Gough Whitlam actually made happen.
I had a chance to meet Gough a number of times, and 'a true gentleman' was the way that I always felt that he was. One of the last times was a commemorative event, down at Old Parliament House in his own stomping ground, to celebrate the work of the Office for Women. At that time, he and Margaret were both there-so this is a few years ago-and there was lots of reminiscing and talking, and many of the early advisers in the Office for Women were there, talking about how their careers were enhanced by the opportunity to work in an active government and how their opportunity to work on cabinet documents changed their ability to look at policy and to bring forward good advice to government. I asked Mr Whitlam, when I was brave enough to talk with him, 'What do you think was the most important thing that you achieved in your government?' And he looked, and he pondered for a while, and-I will not do a Whitlam accent-he said: 'Making sure women got into higher education.' Knowing the list of policy changes, and the impact that the Whitlam government had on our country, on our nation, on our people, that touched me greatly. It may well be that, at other times, other things came to the front of his mind, but when I think about the way he said that, the response, and then that personal story from my friend, nothing could be more important.
People feel as though they have lost a family member. The grief that came out last week was the same as you would feel for someone in your own family, and, in many ways, for us in the Labor Party, we have lost a true family member.
Thank you, Mr Whitlam.
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Condolence Speech: Remembering And Honouring Gough Whitlam, A True Gentleman