Australian Labor Party - Speech to Parliament

Today marks the anniversary of the election of the first Whitlam government. It also marks the anniversary of the election of the Goss government. It is a significant day in Australian politics, particularly for members of the Australian Labor Party.Forty-two years ago today modern Australia started to take shape. Forty-two years ago today Australians placed their trust in the Australian Labor Party and, more particularly, in the program for transformative government, long argued for and articulated by Gough Whitlam.


I think the irony of the Senate's action this day of preserving a significant element of Gough's legacy would not be lost on him. A couple of weeks ago, I think, this parliament was at its best, in giving voice to Gough Whitlam's life and extending its sympathies to his family and friends. I did not have the opportunity to participate in that debate; I now extend my condolences to his family and friends.

Ben Chifley gave an inspirational purpose to Labor as a party of government, when he described the quest for the light on the hill. But, more than anyone else, Gough Whitlam turned this aspiration into something concrete and enduring. His program for government in 1972, before I was born, imagined the country we live in today and, indeed, the country which many of us would like to see tomorrow. He won the battle of ideas before he won government. He enlarged our national conversation. So many of the things he put into the national political discourse remain goals. I think of constitutional recognition and our progress towards a republic. But, in broad terms, that program was to enable three great aims: to promote equality; to involve the people of Australia in the decision-making processes of our land; and to liberate the talents and uplift the horizons of the Australian people. These continue to represent the aims of Labor today, and many of his policies continue to represent the means towards these great ends.

I wish to touch briefly on two issues that illuminate how Gough Whitlam transformed Australian politics. Firstly, I want to touch on his interest in our cities. It was Gough Whitlam who identified the spatial dimension of inequality in Australia and brought the concerns of people in Australia's suburbs into the heart of national life. In 1969 he said:

We needlessly reduce the quality of life available to us. Crucial in determining the quality of that life is the environment in which we live; the shape of our cities and our towns shapes all our lives, for all of our lives. In no country in the world is this more important than Australia, the most urbanised country on earth. Eighty percent of our people live in cities and large towns. Yet in no comparable country does the national government accept so little responsibility for the problems of our cities and centres. A Labor Government will place cities and centres in the forefront of its responsibilities.

And his government did, as did its successors. Today, with urbanisation increasing apace and other challenges to liveability and indeed sustainability, this task is more urgent. Representing the electorate that I do, I am more convinced than ever that Gough Whitlam's vision for cities being at the centre of our national life must be brought to the centre of our national politics now.

Gough Whitlam also believed, critically, in public life as a vocation. I share that view, and I think it needs to be amplified. Those of us who care about the quality of our democracy and who wish to do justice to Gough Whitlam's legacy should think about his efforts in reforming the Australian Labor Party—difficult as it is for me, as a Victorian left-winger, in some circles, to say this. We should recognise that it is no tribute to Gough Whitlam that the Labor Party of today so closely resembles the party he reformed more than 40 years ago. Only the impotent are pure, surely. This remains a powerful injunction today. It is a reminder and must be a call to arms that we in Labor are in the business of solving problems through collective action and through the work of government, not of serving the cause of complaint when we enter public life. We should structure our internal affairs to advance this aim and to give more people more of a say. We should be doing more to enable us to do the work of achieving equality and broadening democracy and to give every Australian every opportunity to achieve. In echoing these thoughts from 1972, I also make this commitment: that I will maintain my rage and my enthusiasm in this task. Thank you, Gough Whitlam.

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