Australian Democracy, Equality and Culture: Reflections on E G Whitlam – Kim Williams
01 July, 2021

Australian Democracy, Equality and Culture: Reflections on E G Whitlam – Kim Williams

National investment in creative and intellectual life in Australia is central to ensuring equality, in all its manifestations and touchpoints, across our society. That investment is required because the evidence is in. Unless we embrace adherence to ‘enlightenment values’ – with a whole hearted commitment to reason, to verifiable facts, to science and its disciplined methodologies, to the maintenance of open minds, tolerance, the pursuit of beauty in all things, and to a core secularity in our polity, then truly bad things follow.

One only needs to look at the diversity of hideous populist political outcomes in wide evidence today in too many jurisdictions to recite; across Europe, North and South America, Asia, and Africa; to realise we are obligated to push back with vigour and defend that which represents a never-ending quest for equality, respect for thought and core moral purpose. This can only follow from deep knowledge immersed in history - capable of celebrating the broad diversity of humanity, and people’s aspirations, and devotions. It does not happen spontaneously; it only ever derives from hard effort with a commitment to investment in national creative and intellectual nourishment

In Australia we see many earlier political examples of fine principle at play in striving for equality. From the South Australian colony and its early universal enfranchisement to women and Aboriginal Australians, through H V Evatt and the establishment of the United Nations, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the successful opposition to the Communist Party Dissolution Act and the vital referendum on it, before we arrive at E G Whitlam and his central role in repealing the White Australia Policy and a host of other initiatives to promote and defend equality and national intellectual renewal. Whitlam’s successors in Hawke, Keating, Rudd, and Gillard have all taken important initiatives that have reinforced equality as political policy bedrock.

The legacy of Gough Whitlam is writ large across Australian society to this day, but nowhere was his impact as profound as in his devotion to policies supporting the intellectual and creative life and aspiration of all Australians.

Whitlam’s was a commitment which was unprecedented in Australian history. It has been matched only once since - by Paul Keating’s Creative Nation policy which was released over a quarter of a century ago in October 1994.

In my view the delivery of real equality in Australia is dependent on having a confident intellectually resilient nation where independent thought drives a shared sense of our ‘commonwealth’, where human rights are respected and defended and the benefits of citizenship are manifestly available to all.

It is important to reflect on the transformative impact of Whitlam’s policy speech of 1972 in which the program had three central 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.’

After a mounting cavalcade of far reaching policies addressing ‘liberty, equality and fraternity’ which encompassed: the rights of children; education for all; a universal health insurance system; a national compensation scheme; land and housing initiatives; the abolition of conscription; Aboriginal land rights; open government; recast economic planning horizons with regard to taxation, prices, the basic pension rate, social welfare and superannuation; industrial relations; cities, sewerage and transport; regional development, primary industries and northern development; Whitlam launched into our quality of life!

And there, for a political first in our nation, he spelt out initiatives designed: -

to promote a standard of excellence in the arts; to widen access to, and the understanding and application of, the arts in the community generally; to help establish and express an Australian identity through the arts; and to promote an awareness of Australian culture abroad.

Those commitments were to resonate over the ensuing three years in relation to the arts and cultural institutions. However as importantly, the resonances continue in the hearts and minds of artists and cultural institutions to this day because the content and commitment were remarkable in scope and the portrayed vision. In the policy speech the section on Australian culture even preceded the all- important outline of the complete overhaul of Australia’s foreign policy. It was about independence and about an aspiration to ensure equality for artists and intellectual pursuits in the duty of government care to fashion a resilient society. One enabled to sit with other nations and peoples with confidence as to having just policy settings and a confident contemporaneity.

Never in Australian history had cultural policy enjoyed centre stage as a deep political commitment until that precious moment in Blacktown, NSW on a hot November night in 1972. Never had matters of art and culture been central to the national future and its agenda, allied with core issues of the economy, health, welfare, and human rights. Indeed, the arts were core to the concept of human rights. There can be no question that this was the stuff of big picture vision which has provided a source of inspiration and a magnet for attack ever since. Inspiration to artists and the cultural institutions central to creative endeavour in Australia. Attack from those who seek to belittle the notion of vision which expresses bold aspiration and goals as anathema. Those attacks see vision as a term of abuse in the same way that ‘liberal’ is now used derisively in America to diminish and denigrate opponents.

Whitlam was an unapologetic big picture thinker. The policy foundation for the commitments to the arts in his 1972 policy speech was grounded in a firm conviction that artists themselves must oversee the policy and priorities in resource allocation and should determine the funding that was to be provided. It was a wholly renovated approach to public policy development and determination. It provided a policy commitment which was firmly rooted in respect for the artist and celebration of creative life as a worthy vocation.

Of all the myriad things Gough Whitlam did for Australian culture nothing mattered more than the respect he extended to the creative community in placing representatives from across the spectrum of Australian creative life in charge of decision making in all the fields of endeavour in which Australians were active (including all fifteen members of the Aboriginal Arts Board being Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander – in 1973!).

The confidence and respect Whitlam displayed towards the creative community meant that it was transformed in outlook, aspiration, and responsibility - literally overnight. To be an artist had value. To work as an artist was valued. The work of artists was central to the nation’s future. The time of the artist had finally arrived in the modern purpose of the Australian nation.

In the opening of the Arts, Letters and Media chapter of his landmark reference work, The Whitlam Government he wrote:

In any civilised community the arts and associated amenities must occupy a central place. Their enjoyment should not be seen as something remote from everyday life. Of all the objectives of my government none had a higher priority than the encouragement of the arts, the preservation and enrichment of our cultural and intellectual heritage. Indeed, of all the objectives of a Labor Government - social reform, justice, equity in the provision of welfare services and educational opportunities – have as their goal the creation of a society in which the arts and the appreciation of spiritual and intellectual values can flourish. Our other objectives are all a means to an end; the enjoyment of the arts is an end in itself.

Whitlam was a leader who wrote policy for the ages, with history as guide and robust curiosity and intellect as foundations. When Whitlam was reviewing the policy and program landscape of the Commonwealth’s support of culture, he noted that up until his government it had been marked by sporadic, disconnected and often flawed, incomplete or half-hearted commitment from various previous governments. He asserted that the policy and structural framework needed to be refashioned in a modern way, consistent with a dedicated intention to invest and build coherently. He wanted to secure a policy pathway which saw beyond the simple injection of additional money, notwithstanding the evident need for a heavy uplift in that funding. The rollcall is substantial. To name just a few initiatives, he established many statutory authorities: - the Australia Council, Australian Film Commission and the Australian Film Television and Radio School; he commissioned the National Gallery; he founded the Public Lending Right, delivered immediate censorship reform and the Indemnity Program for Touring Exhibitions; he created the Australian Archives Office; and finally he launched free tertiary education. There was significant upweighted investment in all these programs and major renewal in support to the ABC.

Whitlam was always highlighting the overwhelming obligation of politicians to observe their duty of care to knowledge and its protection as central to the national future. Such observations reflected a devotion in his developed cultural policy to the central importance of strong national institutions. He never wavered from the view that strong nations need resilient independent institutions to defend, promote and celebrate values of enduring importance to humanity.

The essence of the difference Whitlam offered, and which has embedded him in Australian consciousness so indelibly, was proved in his having: - a rigorously well-developed and comprehensive policy program; a confidence in taking bold reformist action; and in empowering those in creative vocations to take charge of their own destiny. He regarded intellect, creativity and empowerment of cultural institutions as being as important to the health of the national future as Medibank.

Since his time, the erosion of too many of the primary values he represented has resulted in a sad descent into a miasma of mindless process and mediocrity, often on the altar of anxiety about negative reaction and populist fearmongering. It represents a resistible aspect of what I term the ‘unwavering march of the general ignorance’ which pervades so much of modern discourse. It has resulted in steady diminishment of investment to the detriment of cultural endeavour in Australia’s national ambition. Without reinvestment the outlook is one, which is increasingly challenged, where equality will continue to be compromised and injustices confirmed and perpetuated.

Whitlam would have none of that and nor should we. I invoke his record because it still stands as unique; reflecting attributes of originality, unbridled conviction to equality, and a quest for confident reform in the service of the common good. Whitlam demonstrates that it has been done before, against immense odds, and can be done again.

We all fail the future if the shortcomings in our current direction are not addressed with bold policy to drive the creative potential of the nation, making a fairer and better society.


Publication Information:

ISSN: 2652-9076-01

Series: Australian Fabians Review - Issue 1 

Author: Kim Williams AM

Year: 2020

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