On this day: Gough Whitlam becomes Prime Minister

By Jeremy Wolff and Natsumi Penberthy | December 1, 2014

Few Australian Prime Ministers have been as polarising as Whitlam.

ON 5 DECEMBER 1972, Gough Whitlam was sworn into government as Australia’s first Labor prime minister since 1949. He would last less than three years in the position, but introduced a raft of reforms in that time.

On the 5th, after winning the election three days earlier, he was sworn in to an unusual two-man government with his deputy prime minister, Lance Bernard. 

(The fact that only two of them running the government was a quirk that came about becasue at the time new ministers could not be appointed till after the ALP’s elected members could all meet. This situation only lasted until 19 December, when the full Whitlam government was announced.)

Whitlam’s successful election bid ended 23 years of a Liberal-Country party coalition government, amid questions about Australia’s place in the Vietnam War and on health policy reform.

The catchy slogan and jingle devised for the Labour election campaign, ‘It’s Time’ – sung by a number of celebrities including actress Jacki Weaver and TV personality Bert Newton in a popular campaign ad – has gone down as synonymous with the era. 

Whitlam would be controversially dismissed by Governor-General John Kerr after a financial standoff with the opposition government in 1975. At that point he had been in power for a little less than three years, but had rapidly pushed through a series of major social reforms that were either loved or hated by the public. 

The Whitlam era of reform

In its first months in power, the Whitlam Government began a series of radical reforms. It removed the last of the Australian troops in Vietnam, ending a disastrous 10-year involvement in the civil war. It also abolished conscription and released imprisoned deserters; eliminated sales tax on contraceptive pills; reopened key equal pay cases for women in the courts system; and announced major financial contributions to the Arts.

Much to former prime minister William McMahon’s dismay, Whitlam also recognised the communist People’s Republic of China, signing a trade agreement with it in 1974. Today, China is Australia largest export partner with exports in 2013 valued at $102b, more than the next four markets combined.  

In the following years, welfare payments for single mothers and free legal aid for people in need were established; no fault divorce introduced; the death penalty and university fees were abolished; and major funds were allocated to the Schools Commission, the Department of Urban Development, the National Gallery of Australia, and towards the creation of Medibank (later called Medicare).

Medicare was the first publicly funded universal health care scheme in Australia, offering subsidised access to healthcare professionals and free access to public hospitals. It remains the primary funder of healthcare in Australia today. 

Whitlam also removed the last vestiges of the White Australia policy. With the passage of the Australian Citizenship Act on 17 September 1973 he removed any remaining formal discrimination based on ethnicity. That same year, his Immigration Minister, Al Grassby, introduced the word and concept of multiculturalism as official government policy. 

In 1975 he also passed the Racial Discrimination Act 1975, which overrode many discriminatory policies remaining in individual states. 

These reforms polarised the public, as they saw spending on health and education quadruple in Gough’s short stint in power. Ultimately he was not voted back into office in 1975, although he is remembered as a radical reformer. 

Contribution to indigenous rights

One of the most significant series of reforms was aimed at creating greater equality for indigenous people, including federal legislation aimed at ending discrimination against indigenous people regarding pay and property.

In 1974 he also created the Aboriginal Land Fund to help indigenous groups buy back privately owned lands, as well as the Aboriginal Loans Commission to help establish indigenous-owned businesses, pay for health and education expenses, and for the purchase of property with a view to home ownership.

In 1975 Whitlam drafted the Aboriginal Land Rights Act. This legislation allowed crown land to be granted to Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory if they could demonstrate their traditional connections to that land. It was defeated in the opposition dominated Senate, but an amended version was later passed by the Fraser Government in 1976.

Whitlam also ended an almost decade-long stand-off in the Northern Territory by buying back lands and handing them to the Gurindji people. This was formalised in a now historic ceremony that took place at Daguragu in the Northern Territory on the 16 August 1975, where Gough Whitlam poured a handful of dust into the hand of Vincent Lingiari.

Whitlam’s dismissal

Then in October 1975, the opposition party, who controlled the Senate, blocked two bills that would allow the government to access the public funds it needed to continue working.

On 3 November 1975, after many debates and tentative resolutions supervised by Governor-General Sir John Kerr, opposition leader Malcom Fraser offered to authorise the bills, provided that Whitlam agreed to call for a new election by May 1976. Whitlam rejected the idea.

A week later on 11 November, to break the deadlock, Kerr dismissed Whitlam and appointed Fraser as caretaker prime minister. An election was held soon after and the Liberal-Country party coalition won in a landslide. After failing to beat Fraser at the subsequent 1977 election, Whitlam resigned from political life.

Gough Whitlam died on 21 October 2014 at the age of 98, and though not everyone agreed with the reforms at the time, he is remembered by many for radically advancing equal rights in terms of gender, race and wealth.

“For people like me who had no chance if left to the means of our families we could not be more indebted to this old man’s foresight and moral vision for universal opportunity,” said Noel Pearson, a prominent indigenous academic and public figure, one of many notable people who spoke along similar lines at Gough Whitlam’s memorial service Sydney Town Hall in November.

Whitlam government timeline

05 December 1972: The Labor party was elected to government for the first time in 23 years, and Gough Whitlam was elected Prime Minister of Australia.

12 December 1972: The Whitlam government announced the withdrawal of Australia’s remaining troops in Vietnam.

19 December 1972: The Whitlam government upgraded the Office of Aboriginal Affairs to ministerial level.

11 January 1973: Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War officially ends.

8 April 1973: The Whitlam Government, became the first in the world to appoint a dedicated woman adviser (Elizabeth Reid) to the head of government.

3 July 1973: The Whitlam Government introduced single mothers’ benefits.

31 October 1973: Whitlam became the first Australian prime minister to visit the Republic of China.

19 December 1973: The States Grants (Schools) Act 1973 was established.

01 January 1974: The Whitlam Government announced the abolishment of University tuition fees.

December 1974: The Whitlam Government created the Aboriginal Land Fund.

11 June 1975: The Racial Discrimination Act 1975 came into force.

01 July 1975: Whitlam introduced Medibank (later called Medicare), Australia’s first national health insurance system.

16 August 1975: Whitlam handed the Gurindji people in the Northern Territory title deeds of their traditional lands.

October 1975: The Aboriginal Land (Northern Territory) Bill was introduced to parliament.

5 January 1976: The Whitlam Government introduced no-fault divorces through the Family Law Act 1975.

11 November 1975: Dismissal of the Whitlam Government.