They’ve got me into an argument or two in the past, but my views on the Whitlam Government (1972-75) and on Gough Whitlam himself have remained pretty constant down the years. While his government included the normal number of incompetents, it wasn’t nearly as bad as popular mythology has it, being responsible for some great and lasting reforms that continue to benefit Australians 35 years later.
The Trade Practices Act, a national health care system, the vote for 18 year olds, free university education, sewage to neglected parts of our cities, an end to adversarial divorce laws, public funding for non-government schools – all Whitlam government initiatives. And, of course, in the context of these Notes, it was under Whitlam’s administration that PNG became independent in September 1975.
The debate continues about whether he got the timing right or not. For my part, I have no doubt he did. And on the occasion of the great man’s 92nd birthday yesterday, I once again had the pleasure of speaking with him about PNG, his visits there and his role in its independence. It’s a subject Gough is always willing to expatiate upon with great relish.
Gough is now a very old man, wheelchair-bound and experiencing periodic bouts of ill health, but his mind and recall are as sharp as pins – and his famed wit, that got him into so much trouble when he was prime minister – remains as acute as ever. “It’s a sign of the times that Australia now has a Mandarin-speaking Prime Minister”, he said. "In the US, they're looking forward to having an English-speaking president.”
Of course, Gough believes he got the timing of PNG independence perfectly right, and so does his Territories Minister at the time, Bill Morrison, who’ll be 80 this year, and with whom I had a long conversation yesterday. In fact I’m going to write to both of these key Australian political figures in the nationhood of PNG and ask if they’d like to join the Papua New Guiinea Association. I’ll write to Andrew Peacock, too, to complete the trifecta and balance the ledger.
Photo: Whitlam Institute