Whitlam Era versus the Abbott Era: Are we better off today?


Gough Whitlam – Giant of Australian politics


THE words “brave”, “inspirational” and “giant” are figuring highly as tributes flow in for Australia’s 21st prime minister Gough Whitlam, who has died aged 98.

And when you look back at the trailblazing policies he implemented during his relatively short stint in the top job from 1972 to 1975, you can see why.

Mr Whitlam will be remembered as one of Labor’s great prime ministers, with visionary reforms that helped Australia grow up.

In fact, his lightning fast implementation of progressive policies may have been his undoing, as he was spectacularly dismissed from office by Governor-General Sir John Kerr in 1975.

Even today, his reforms divide opinion, with critics saying his policies were unsustainable and that tactical mistakes he made led to his own downfall.

But when you look back at his time in office, many of the reforms he pushed for are still live issues today.

RELATED: Gough Whitlam dead at 98

So, how does the Whitlam Era compare to the Abbott Era? Here are five key points that may make you wonder how far we’ve actually come.


Gough Whitlam, Prime Minister of Australia (1972-1975), election campaign 1972.

Down with the youth … Gough Whitlam during his iconic “It’s Time” election campaign in 1972. Source: News Corp Australia

THEN: Free university courses

You know that HECS debt that you carry with you? Well, back in Whitlam’s day there was no such thing. University courses were free.

In the early 1970s, there was a push to make a university education more accessible to working- and middle-class Australians, and Whitlam responded by abolishing university fees on January 1, 1974.

NOW: University fee deregulation

Whitlam’s successor Bob Hawke introduced the Higher Education Contribution Scheme (HECS) in the 1980s, which spelt the end of free tertiary education.

The Abbott Government’s first Budget has proposed to deregulate university fees in an effort to make HECS more sustainable and Australian institutions more competitive.

The change would increase the debt for current and future students. Under the changes, a debt of $30,000 could grow to $38,000 after five years, based on the 10-year bond rate reaching 5 per cent, The Australian reports. After 20 years it would be more than $80,000.

It is yet to be seen if the reforms will pass the Senate.

23 September 1977. Sir John Gorton and Gough Whitlam at a national conference for a democ

A giant … Gough Whitlam. Source: News Corp Australia

THEN: Universal healthcare

In the 1970s, a large proportion of the population lacked health insurance, so the Whitlam Government introduced universal healthcare to Australians in 1975, with the establishment of Medibank, which was later renamed Medicare. The opposition vehemently opposed the scheme, but it eventually passed in 1974 after being rejected in the Senate three times.

NOW: Medicare co-payment

Medicare has been tweaked a number of times since to ensure it remains viable, most notably with the Medicare levy.

Today, Australia is grappling with a way to pay for Medicare, the cost of which continues to grow. In its unpopular first Budget, the Abbott Government has proposed a $7 fee for everyone who visits the doctor but, again, it unclear whether this measure will pass the Senate.

Labor argues that the GP co-payment will weaken the universality of healthcare and discourage poorer people from visiting the doctor.

Gough Whitlam pours soil into the hand of traditional owner Vincent Lingiari in 1975, in

Gough Whitlam pours soil into the hand of traditional owner Vincent Lingiari in 1975, in a crucial turning point in Aboriginal relations in Australia. Picture: Mervyn G Bishop, Courtesy of Josef Lebovic Gallery, Sydney. Source: Supplied

THEN: Multiculturalism

The Whitlam Government was the first to adopt the concept of a multicultural Australian society.

Whitlam removed the last vestiges of the White Australia policy, and the concept of a multicultural Australian society became government policy for the first time.

The government established multicultural radio stations and telephone translation services, and provided special educational support for migrant children.

Immigration Minister Al Grassby passionately promoted the benefits of cultural diversity and the importance of social harmony and tolerance.

NOW: Ban the burqa

With the nation on heightened terror alert, suspicion of Australia’s Muslim community has travelled all the way the Parliament House.

Speaker Bronwyn Bishop and Senate president Stephen Parry were among the Coalition members to push for women wearing the Muslim headdress of the burqa and the niqab to sit behind a glass enclosure if visiting Parliament.

The controversial plan has since been dumped.

Gough Whitlam with his beloved wife, Margaret.

Gough Whitlam with his beloved wife, Margaret. Source: TheAustralian

THEN: Revolutionising foreign policy

Whitlam was seen as a brave reformer for shifting Australia’s international outlook.

Crucially, he was the first prime minister to establish a relationship with Communist China.

Mr Whitlam created the Australian Development Assistance Agency, the precursor to AusAID, and increased foreign aid from $220 million in 1972-73 to $350 million in 1975-76.

NOW: Cuts to foreign aid

Cuts to foreign aid have been a major savings measure in the latest federal Budget, and in budget forecasts. The Abbott Government devoted $5.042 billion to foreign aid in the 2013-14 Budget, a cut of $600 million, and it plans to shave off a further $7 billion over the next four years.

The late Gough Whitlam in 2009. Picture: John Appleyard

The late Gough Whitlam in 2009. Picture: John Appleyard Source: News Corp Australia

THEN: Political courage

Say what you will about Gough Whitlam — and opinion varies wildly between those who call him Australia’s worst ever prime minister to those he see him as a visionary — but he did not lack political courage.

Paying tribute to Mr Whitlam on Sky News today, The Australian’s veteran political commentator Paul Kelly called him a politician of “both courage and conviction”.

In his relatively short time in office, Mr Whitlam’s reforms covered indigenous land rights, ending conscription to the armed forces, legislating against racial discrimination and establishing no-fault divorce.

When campaigning for the prime ministership, Mr Whitlam packaged up his policies and called them The Program; then, when elected, he quickly went about implementing them with a record number of Bills being introduced and enacted.

NOW: Poll-driven sound bites

No matter which side of politics you look at, it’s hard to find a politician with the vision and political courage that Mr Whitlam possessed.

Former prime minister Kevin Rudd once had record levels of popularity in the electorate. He was swept to power after declaring climate change “the greatest moral, economic and social challenge of our time” but he quickly abandoned plans to tackle the issue when it became politically difficult. His polling numbers never recovered.

On the conservative side of the fence, Tony Abbott is yet to show the type of courage that his mentor, John Howard, regularly displayed. In the face of significant popular opposition, Mr Howard managed to implement a goods and services tax (GST), buy back the nation’s guns, and make the case for Australia to go to war.

Mr Abbott was criticised at the last federal election for regurgitating a list of slogans — eg. “stop the boats” — rather than engaging with the issues in depth.

It’s a far cry from Mr Whitlam’s iconic “It’s Time” campaign, which inspired the nation to return to Labor after 23 years of conservative rule. The campaign famously included a TV ads that featured many of the day’s favourite celebrities singing along to a jingle.