THE HON TANYA PLIBERSEK MP
SHADOW MINISTER FOR EDUCATION AND TRAINING
MEMBER FOR SYDNEY
ADDRESS TO THE WHITLAM INSTITUTE FORUM: REVISITING THE REVOLUTION
OLD PARLIAMENT HOUSE, CANBERRA
MONDAY, 25 NOVEMBER 2019
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It’s a great pleasure to be here at a Whitlam Institute event - to celebrate Gough Whitlam’s life and achievements, and to draw lessons from his legacy.
Gough taught us two great lessons:
First, that governments must be brave and bold.
Second, that governments must be practical, and in touch with the daily needs of the people they seek to represent.
(You can sewer western Sydney and buy Blue Poles.)
Real change takes more than good intentions. The Whitlam Government’s reforms took years of hard, detailed policy work, much of it in the long cold years of opposition. And much of it in partnership with those who would be directly affected by the policies.
Or as we say today: ‘nothing about us, without us.’
The work on women’s policy was done by feminists inside the Labor party in concert with feminists outside it.
It won't surprise anyone that in the 1960s and 1970s, the ALP’s embrace of feminism was … not unanimous. Feminist activists – including many in the labour movement – worked through organisations like the Women’s Electoral Lobby to get women’s issues on the policy agenda. WEL is still going strong, and in my own state of NSW just recently played a strong role in the long overdue decriminalisation of abortion.
I described them as feminist activists, in the language of today, but at the time many considered themselves members of the Women’s Liberation Movement. The reforms they advocated and then, in government, helped deliver, had liberation at their core; freedom at their core.
Freedom to choose to have and raise a child, without being thrown into poverty, with the Supporting Mother’s Benefit.
Freedom to choose when not to get pregnant: by listing the contraceptive pill on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme so women could exercise choice, whatever their means.
Greater freedom to leave an unhappy, or a violent marriage, with funding to women’s refuges, rape crisis centres, and the introduction of ‘no fault divorce’.
And freedom from a lifetime of being underpaid or excluded from the workforce. You can’t be free if you need your father’s permission to spend, or your husband’s permission to borrow. You can’t be free if you don’t have the option to earn enough to support yourself.
We may still be striving to close the gender pay gap, but the first steps were taken when Gough re-opened the Equal Pay Case. Half a million female workers became eligible for full pay and women’s wages overall rose by around 30%.
For the first time, under the Whitlam Government, women became entitled to the minimum wage. For the first time, Commonwealth public servants became formally entitled to Maternity Leave.
And ask any working parent about the importance of the Whitlam Government’s support for childcare!
It may be hard to imagine now, but these liberating policies were bold, brave, and yes, a little controversial. But each of them had a real, practical, meaningful impact on the everyday lives of Australian women. What seemed radical at the time strikes us as common sense today.
But it is not just “women’s policies” that change women’s lives. All policies affect women. Almost all affect women and men in different ways.
The Whitlam Government understood that. Elizabeth Reid, adviser to Gough Whitlam, made the argument that all policies should be assessed for their impact on women.
Working for Bob Hawke, Anne Summers developed the Women’s Budget Statement. When I was a Minister, I used their great example – our Cabinet documents included gender impact statements. And last term, Labor committed to gender responsive budgeting.
Because you can’t tackle structural disadvantage only through targeted programs. It takes broad economic reform.
I will never forget the way that people would stop Gough in the street when we were together, to thank him for their education. When he talked about the legacy of his government, one of the things he used to say was that men usually thanked him for ending conscription. Women usually thanked him for making it possible for them to go to university.
Opening up universities and technical colleges to everyone wasn’t one of the Whitlam Government’s “women’s policies” – but the main beneficiaries of this policy were women. In Gough’s three years of government, participation in higher education increased by 25 per cent. A generation of women – and working class men – were freed to make the most of their abilities. Like my family, working class migrants. My parents could never have afforded to send my brothers and I to university if it wasn’t for the Whitlam government’s reforms.
Education has life-long and life-changing effects. Gough’s reforms changed the lives of those who could continue their education for the first time. But the ripples of that change have been felt for generations - their children, and now we can even say their grandchildren continue to benefit. And each graduating class of women paved the way for the women after them.
When all Australians have the opportunity to reach their full potential, our country is stronger, smarter, and better off.
I’m proud to have the privilege of the education portfolio.
And I’m proud to have had the honour of being a Labor Health Minister, to defend and extend the legacy of so many Labor heros – such as Doug Everingham, Neal Blewett, and Brian Howe.
The Whitlam Government’s creation of Medibank– what became Medicare – was another bold reform. It transformed Australia’s health system and had life-changing effects for Australian women.
Before Medibank, Australians who could not afford private insurance were locked out of proper medical care. Many in Australia’s expanding outer suburbs faced long travel times. Many were bankrupted if they became sick.
As a former Health Minister, I know very well that when people can see their doctors, they can get better care sooner and lead longer, healthier lives.
When the Whitlam Government created Medibank, many Australians got healthcare within easy reach for the first time. Funding new hospitals, and the Community Health Program, put health care in the expanding suburbs, where people lived.
When we talk about the Whitlam Government’s legacy for Australian women, the idea of universal access to health care through Medibank has to be included. It means screening for breast and cervical cancers. It means vaccination programs that have made rubella a thing of the past. It means pre-natal and post-natal care that are now a norm and not a luxury.
The Whitlam Government’s focus on the suburbs, where so many young families lived, went beyond health care. As Neville Wran said, Gough found the outer suburbs of Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane unsewered – and he left them fully flushed. And we should never forget the impact of Margaret Whitlam’s practical wisdom. She lived in Cabramatta with a young family. She knew that there were concrete, achievable changes that would make huge differences in the lives of women like her: local swimming pools. Public libraries. She was a tireless advocate for the seemingly small – but so very important – services and programs that so many Australian women, and their families, needed.
I suppose the third lesson of the Whitlam legacy I would reflect on today is this: even when reforms have been carefully, painfully won, they can never be taken for granted. Today we have Medcare, not Medibank, because the Fraser Government trashed it. Since then, we have seen Medicare under attack time and again by our opponents. 2013 was the last time the Australian Government had a women’s budget statement. The gender pay gap remains stubbornly stuck at 14% and we have slid from 15 down to 39 on the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap List.
We must build on the achievements of our predecessors, but we can never take those earlier gains for granted. Medicare came from Medibank. Medibank came from the Curtin and Chifley Governments’ health care reforms. We must always fight to both defend and extend the victories won in the past.
Gough himself described the purpose of the Whitlam Institute as: “to help the great and continuing work of building a more equal, open, tolerant and independent Australia.”
Gough did that.
I would like to think we can all play a role in achieving that goal – for the men and women of Australia.