TRANSCRIPT - AM Agenda, Tuesday 21 October 2014

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Subject/s: Gough Whitlam.

KIERAN GILBERT, PRESENTER: I thank you Tanya Plibersek for honouring your commitment to come in this morning on a sad day for the Labor Party.

TANYA PLIBERSEK, DEPUTY OPPOSITION LEADER: Thank you Kieran, it certainly is a sad day for the Labor Party. Gough Whitlam was a giant, a Labor Giant, and we feel for his family and of course it is a great loss to the nation also.

GILBERT: Indeed the Prime Minister this morning issued a statement, I’ll just read a little bit to you. He describes Gough Whitlam as a giant of his time, uniting the Australian Labor Party, winning two elections, establishing diplomatic relations with China, the first Australian Prime Minister to visit China, an enduring legacy the Prime Minister describes that as. Also this which is something Matt Thistlethwaite referred to earlier and that I guess is one of those seminal images of the Whitlam era the Prime Minister said that Gough Whitlam recognised the journey our country needed to take with Indigenous Australians the image of soil passing from Gough Whitlam’s hand to that of Vincent Lingiari’s a reminder that all Australians share the same land and the same hopes.

PLIBERSEK: And I think one of the most phenomenal aspects of Gough Whitlam’s time as Prime Minister is that he did things that were so controversial at the time that have become absolutely embedded in our Australian history and character. That image of passing the soil into Vincent Ligiari’s hand starting a process of giving land rights to Indigenous Australians who had waited so long and worked so hard. Introducing Medibank that’s become Medicare, an absolutely fundamental part of our nation’s character now, accessible healthcare for all Australians. Making university education free so that people like my older brother, first in our family ever to go to university, but the experience of so many Australians, that idea that access to university should be based on your intellect and your ability to work hard and not whether your parents are wealthy. These are things that have become part of our national character. The Prime Minister has very generously talked about the establishing of diplomatic relations with China when Gough Whitlam said that he would do that as Opposition Leader, very controversial thing to do, and yet it has been so critical to Australia’s economic and security success in decades following that. And so I think that the lesson I suppose is that those brave policy decisions that have set Australia on a better course should inspire us to bravery today as well. To make those tough decisions, to stand up and argue for the things we believe in, things that we know can make our nation stronger and stronger.

GILBERT: On the foreign policy front that you referred to there he visited in 1971, China, before Kissinger, before Nixon, so not just leading the country in that sense but leading the world as well.

PLIBERSEK: Absolutely and I think now that seems like an uncontroversial thing to do. Most Australians now would acknowledge that our relationship with China is important for us economically and strategically, certainly that we have nothing to fear from China. At that time you’ve got to understand how controversial it was, to be opening up relations with a communist nation. The other great foreign policy achievement is of course returning our troops from Vietnam, bringing back the last of our troops from Vietnam. Again now looking back it seems like the only obvious thing to do and yet at the time incredibly controversial, a very brave move.

GILBERT: A very modern figure, wasn’t he, in the Lodge along with his wife Margaret they were powerful, national leaders and figures weren’t they?

PLIBERSEK: They were great modernisers, making sure that no fault divorce, social security payments for sole parents, reducing the voting age from 21 to 18. These were all big steps on making Australia a more modern nation. But it was something more than that it was actually the relationship between Gough and Margaret, the influence that Margaret obviously had. The fact that she was prepared to speak her mind and the fact that she said she made a decision when she became the wife of the Prime Minister that she could sit quietly in her gilded cage and say nothing or she could use this position to do some good. And she used it to do some good. She speaks very eloquently in a biography that is written about her about the empathy and connectedness that she felt with those women that lived in the western Sydney seat that Gough represented, the work that she did in establishing libraries and swimming pools and arguing for those services in the suburbs of Sydney. But more than that the type of woman she was, she was so utterly herself. Full of intelligence and integrity and with this beautiful close loving relationship with her husband there was a real model of an equal relationship.

GILBERT: Indeed it was and I guess as we reflect on this contribution from Gough Whitlam dying at 98 a rich life, a long life we have to look at their legacy in terms of their impact on the modern Labor Party. Many Labor, senior Labor figures over the last few decades were inspired to enter politics because of his contribution and not a long prime ministership in you know historical standards I guess but three years made a huge lasting legacy as you said social policy but also on the impact in subsequent generations of your party leadership.

PLIBERSEK: He is the iconic figure for making a brave policy stand on a whole range of different issues so he is an inspirational figure in that way. He is inspirational also because there is a whole lot of us who would never have gone to university but for the university changes that he made and he was incredibly generous with his time as well. I noticed the statement from his family talked about him as a loving and generous father. But he was a loving and generous figure in the Labor Party as well. I know many of my colleagues as I did would occasionally visit him in the office or have a cup of coffee in Double Bay and he was so generous with his time and his advice. I mean it always felt like a real thrill as a young person moving into a position of responsibility in the Labor Party actually to be able to go and see Gough Whitlam and say what do you think about these issues, can you tell us a bit more about the history of what were you thinking when you made this decision, how did you come to that position. And he was just phenomenally generous, intellectually and with his time.

GILBERT: A great orator as well wasn’t he?

PLIBERSEK: Yeah, terrific.

GILBERT: And Parliamentary performer.

PLIBERSEK: Although- he was a terrific orator, he had a wonderful turn of phrase. Sometimes he tended to you know make speeches that were a little on the long side and I always I thought it was hilarious Margaret would sit up the front sometimes with a walking stick as they got older and she’d beat, you know bang her stick on the ground and say ‘come on, Gough they have heard enough now’. But again just such a beautiful sign of their relationship.

GILBERT: Jim Middleton my colleague earlier described Gough Whitlam as a flawed genius. I guess it was a tumultuous period the most tumultuous in Australian political time, I suppose arguably with the last few years, but I mean 75, such a tumultuous end to his Prime Ministership. The social policy of course it was against the economic policy, was the vision caught up with the focus so much so that the other things sort of fell away in terms of priority?

PLIBERSEK: I think it is completely unreasonable to expect perfection from our leaders. All you can hope for is that a person honestly does their very best for their country and there is no question that Gough Whitlam was a patriot, that he did exactly what he thought was right for his country. Will people find flaws with some of the decisions he made? Of course they will. In the same way that any Prime Minister will have a review of their time in office that includes the successes, great achievements for our nation and things that might have been done differently but I think you know in the relatively short time that Gough Whitlam was Prime Minister our nation changed for the better. He left a lasting legacy in so many areas and I mean I have always been proud to be part of the party that he had such an impact on.

GILBERT: Well thank you I appreciate your time this morning. Thank you. What a difficult day for you and for the Labor Party.

PLIBERSEK: Thank you.


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