Gough Whitlam

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Gough Whitlam : biography

11 July 1916 –

During the two weeks the so-called "duumvirate" held office, Whitlam sought to fulfill those campaign promises that did not require legislation. Whitlam ordered negotiations to establish full relations with the People’s Republic of China, and broke those with Taiwan. Legislation allowed the defence minister to grant exemptions from conscription. Barnard held this office, and exempted everyone. Seven men were at that time incarcerated for refusing conscription; Whitlam arranged for their liberation. The Whitlam government in its first days reopened the equal pay case pending before the Commonwealth Conciliation and Arbitration Commission, and appointed a woman, Elizabeth Evatt, to the commission. Whitlam and Barnard eliminated sales tax on contraceptive pills, announced major grants for the arts, and appointed an interim schools commission. The duumvirate barred racially discriminatory sport teams from Australia, and instructed the Australian delegation at the United Nations to vote in favour of sanctions on apartheid South Africa and Rhodesia. It also ordered home all remaining Australian troops in Vietnam, though most (including all conscripts) had been withdrawn by McMahon.

According to Whitlam speechwriter Graham Freudenberg, the duumvirate was a success, as it showed that the Labor government could manipulate the machinery of government, despite its long absence from office. However, Freudenberg noted that the rapid pace and public excitement caused by the duumvirate’s actions caused the Opposition to be wary of giving Labor too easy a time, and gave rise to one post-mortem assessment of the Whitlam government: "We did too much too soon."

Enacting an agenda

The McMahon government had consisted of 27 ministers, twelve of whom comprised the Cabinet. In the run-up to the election, the Labor caucus had decided that should the party take power, all 27 ministers were to be Cabinet members. Intense canvassing took place amongst ALP parliamentarians as the duumvirate did its work, and on 18 December the caucus elected the Cabinet. The results were generally acceptable to Whitlam, and within three hours, he had announced the portfolios of the Cabinet members. To give himself greater control over the Cabinet, in January 1973 Whitlam established five Cabinet committees (with the members appointed by himself, not the caucus) and took full control of the Cabinet agenda.

The Whitlam government abolished the death penalty for federal crimes. Legal aid was established, with offices in each state capital. It abolished university fees, and established the Schools Commission to allocate funds to schools. Whitlam founded the Department of Urban Development and, having lived in developing Cabramatta when it was largely unsewered, set a goal to leave no urban home unsewered. The Whitlam government gave grants directly to local government units for urban renewal, flood prevention, and the promotion of tourism. Other federal grants financed highways linking the state capitals, and paid for standard-gauge rail lines between the states. The government attempted to set up a new city at Albury-Wodonga on the Victoria—New South Wales border. "Advance Australia Fair" became the country’s national anthem in place of "God Save the Queen". The Order of Australia replaced the British honours system in early 1975.

In 1973, the National Gallery of Australia, then called the Australian National Gallery, bought the painting Blue Poles by contemporary artist Jackson Pollock for US$2 million (A$1.3 million at the time of payment) — about a third of its annual budget. This required Whitlam’s personal permission, which he gave on the condition the price was publicized. The purchase created a political and media scandal, and was said to symbolise either Whitlam’s foresight and vision, or his profligate spending. Clifton Pugh’s portrait of Whitlam won the 1972 Archibald Prize.

Whitlam travelled extensively as Prime Minister, and was the first Australian Prime Minister to visit China while in office. He was criticised for this travel, especially after Cyclone Tracy struck Darwin; he interrupted an extensive tour of Europe for 48 hours (deemed too brief a period by many) to view the devastation.