Gough Whitlam speaks with the media after his dismissal by Governor-General John Kerr

Gough Whitlam, Australia’s 21st prime minister, has died today at the age of 98. His time in Parliament is laden with achievements and controversies, and his Labor government is arguably one of the most memorable governments in Australian history. Here is a look at some key moments of Gough Whitlam’s tenure.

Loan affair. In November of 1974, a political scandal began that marked the beginning of the end for the Whitlam government. Then-minister for minerals and energy Rex Connor and then-treasurer Dr Jim Cairns sought to borrow some $4 billion from Middle Eastern investors without the consent of the Loan Council. The intention was to use the money to fund a number of natural resource and energy projects. The move was controversial because they were not using the usual US or European investors but working with a Pakistani broker to negotiate with the lower interest rates of the booming “petrodollar” Middle Eastern investors.

The loan never eventuated for a number of reasons, the chief one being the Pakistani broker had been lying about the investment negotiations, and Connor resigned in disgrace. Whitlam sacked Cairns. The affair was a huge blow to the Whitlam government, and one that would be the starting point for the deadlocked Parliament that led to Whitlam’s removal as prime minister.

The constitutional crisis of 1975. The elephant in the room whenever the Whitlam government is discussed, the constitutional crisis that led to Whitlam’s dismissal, is the man’s most historical moment. In October 1975, following the “loan affair”, the Liberal opposition exercised its majority control in the Senate to block supply bills, effectively cutting off Whitlam’s ability to secure finances.

Then-opposition leader Malcolm Fraser believed if the government could not secure funds to enact its policies, the government would be left powerless. This would leave the governor-general Sir John Kerr no choice but to dismiss Whitlam and dissolve the Parliament, unless Whitlam called an election for the House of Representatives. The supply deadlock carried on for five weeks, with Whitlam making plans to call a half-Senate election in order to break it, until the governor-general exercised his reserve powers and dismissed Whitlam as prime minister on November 11.

That afternoon, it is announced at Parliament House that Parliament would be dissolved, and Whitlam gave this famous statement: “Well may we say ‘God save the Queen’ — because nothing will save the governor-general,” and encouraged his supporters to maintain their “rage and enthusiasm” until the next election. That election came on December 13, and Malcolm Fraser’s Coalition won a record-making majority.

Medicare. The Medicare system used today began with the Whitlam government’s establishment of Medibank in 1973. It was a tough slog to get the legislation passed, as the Coalition was very much opposed, calling it unsustainable. The Medical Insurance Bill 1973 was rejected by the Senate on three occasions before it was eventually passed by a joint sitting of both Houses of Parliament following the 1974 double dissolution election.

The bill established free public healthcare in public hospitals and provided funding to private hospitals in order to reduce their fees. The system has been tweaked several times since the 70s, most predominantly with the Medicare tax levy to improve sustainability, a rare moment of political compromise.

Education reforms. Whitlam held the belief that no democratic government could accept the disparity of education quality between private and government school students, and in response passed the States Grants (Schools) Act 1973 and the Schools Commissions Act 1973, which dramatically increased funding to government schools.

But perhaps the more controversial reform passed by Whitlam was the abolition of university tuition fees in January 1974, an attempt to make tertiary education more accessible to the working class. The abolition was passed along with the Students Assistance Act 1973, offering welfare to students who needed it. Both policies came with a tax levy.

It wasn’t until 1989 that student fees returned in the form of the HECS system, pioneered by then-education minister John Dawkins and opposed, somewhat ironically, by current Treasurer Joe Hockey.

Maiden speech. It might not have been an unprecedented reform or a scandal, but many agree that Gough Whitlam’s first appearance in Parliament was a defining moment in his political career. As Whitlam stood to deliver his maiden speech, he was heckled by minister John McEwen, to whom Whitlam coolly replied:

“I thought that [McEwen] had returned to the more congenial climate of Disraeli’s day. I recollect that Disraeli said, on the occasion of his maiden speech, ‘The time will come when you shall hear me’. Perhaps I should say, ‘The time will come when you may interrupt me’.”

Many say this quick quip made the newly appointed Whitlam one to watch. And how right they were.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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