Gough Whitlam is being remembered today as a martyr and a hero, a legend and a giant of the Labor Party.

The former PM’s greatest legacy, though, is the change he made happen and the change he made possible — from universal healthcare to free university education, from legal aid to no-fault divorce.

Whitlam is a hero of the Left, but it’s not as simple as all that. As Guy Rundle writes today:

“Whitlam was a social democrat, rather than a socialist, and above all a reforming liberal. His vision of a good Australia was a place where ‘every kid has his own room, and his own desk and lamp, so he can study’. In recent years, some have dismissed many of his modernisations as consisting of things that would have occurred anyway, but there is no guarantee of that. Much of what occurred, occurred because of what was enabled — by massive reforms…”

Whitlam was ousted in 1975, but his legacy lived on in Australian politics. Post-Whitlam, the federal government was expected to reform, not merely manage, and to reform on a large scale. Bernard Keane writes:

“Change became the yardstick by which successful governments were measured — governments might either do too little (now a common complaint) or do too much too quickly, but they must be seen to pursue big picture change.”

Whitlam’s time in office was tumultuous and divisive, and culminated in a titanic struggle that almost tore the country apart. But in looking back at that time, we also see an era when politics seemed to matter in a way it no longer does — when the divisions over which our representatives argued were about far more than the managerialist minutiae that dominates public life now.