The Way of the Reformer – Gough Whitlam in His Century

Guy Betts

The following was presented by Guy Betts at the National Archives of Australia in Canberra on 5 August 2017.

I'd like to begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land on which we meet, the Ngunnawal people, and to pay my respects to elders past and present.

I'd like you to imagine the landscape around us in 1927 – the year that the Whitlams moved to Canberra from Sydney. The original Parliament building would be there. The building we're in right now [East Block] would be there. These glowing white buildings, incidentally, would still have been surrounded by sheep. New roads were being laid. Young trees were just reaching out of the ground. New suburbs gradually spreading. New buildings slowing rising from the dirt to house Australia's institutions of government. But overall it's a sparse landscape. It's a landscape that a young Gough Whitlam and his father would survey regularly, on their weekly Sunday afternoon walks. These are some images of them on those walks.

So often, that early landscape of Canberra is described as a depressing one – 'the land of the blowflies', as the Melbourne Age described it at the time. But the young Gough Whitlam saw it differently; he saw it as a metaphor for the youth and the opportunity of Australia itself. As a schoolboy he wrote poetry. The final stanza of one of his poems is here. It's a poem that celebrates the opportunities afforded by Australia's relative youth as a nation.

When spite the heritage of great and true
The soul must crave our younger atmosphere
We have the verdant vista of the New
New skies to scale, new paths to pioneer.

Throughout the research I conducted during the development of this exhibition, those words stuck with me. This image here also stuck with me. The idea of a young boy looking out over a landscape like that and seeing not a sparse, empty plain but a blank slate. The optimism for Australia's future embedded in those words always remained at the absolute core of the man.

I think you can tell a lot about someone by what's in their library – their personal archive of themselves. The reason that we have a copy of that poem and the reason that it's included in this exhibition is that Gough Whitlam kept it throughout his entire life. Throughout the most demoralising experiences of his political life, he kept a poem that celebrated the 'verdant vista of the New'. He always saw 'new skies to scale', and 'new paths to pioneer'.

This exhibition's name  The Way of the Reformer is drawn from a frequently recited dictum of Gough Whitlam's in which he said 'the way of the reformer is hard in Australia'. And overall, it was my objective in developing this exhibition to show that it is indeed 'a way' and it is most definitely 'a path to pioneer'. It's a mistake to see Gough Whitlam just as a prime minister. The road that led him there was long, and it began long before he even entered parliament. So, I make no apology for the fact that this exhibition almost excludes the three and a half years of the Whitlam government itself. The exhibition links to them, but it does not explore them. The Dismissal is mentioned, but there is no blow-by-blow account of it. The main reason is that it's been done before. The years in power, and the dismissal that ended them have been judged, evaluated, described and forensically examined to the nth degree. What's less appreciated is the path that led to that time in power. The influences that shaped Gough Whitlam earlier in his life and inspired his agenda for change. I'll explain more about those links in the tour itself, but it's the relationship between his personal experience and his drive to effect change in Australian society that is the basis of this exhibition.

This exhibition was staged to mark the centenary of Gough Whitlam's birth in 1916. The aim was to recall his life in its totality, and reflect on his personal experience of the events that shaped Australia over almost a century. His experience of war. His experience of raising a young family amidst Sydney's suburban sprawl. His direct experience of Australia opening itself up to the rest of the world. In those experiences were the seeds of the program of reform that flourished so briefly in the early 1970s, but continues to inspire.

The other reason why this exhibition places less emphasis on the years of Whitlam government itself is that it's important to remember that the Whitlam agenda for change in the 1970s was an agenda of its time. As transformational as it was, it should not necessarily be seen as a blueprint for the future. As significant as his legacy of progressive change is, the greater legacy he has left is one of inspiration. The example he set for using political power to improve the lot of everyday Australians. The example he set for translating empathy into action.

Gough Whitlam's life experiences sowed the seeds of his agenda for change. Likewise, the agenda he implemented changed the course of millions of Australian lives. For that reason, it was important to include the voice of the Australian people in this exhibition. In the exhibition you'll find a screen that shows a small selection of the notes that were left in condolence books after the death of Gough Whitlam in 2014. These are extraordinary documents, and they represent one of the great strengths of the Whitlam Institute's collection – the correspondence between Whitlam and ordinary Australian people over several decades. That correspondence shows the mark he left on so many lives. Women escaping domestic violence who found refuge in the shelters his government built. Women who had greater freedom to leave broken marriages after the introduction of no-fault divorce laws. Students who had free access to a university education. Aboriginal people who got their land back. Artists whose contributions to our society were supported and encouraged by the government for the first time. Single mothers who were given new social security support. These measures changed the course of people's lives. There's absolutely no question of that. The emotion that rises off those pages is the greatest measure of it.

In the period after Gough Whitlam died, there was a unique feeling of national loss. It was a sense of loss that went beyond the sudden absence of a towering figure from our history. It was also the loss of the optimism, the zeal and the inspiration in political life that he represented. My argument throughout this exhibition is that that sense of loss is ill-founded. While it's true that Gough Whitlam was an extraordinary person, his capacity to translate personal experience and empathy into political action should be seen as exemplary rather than extraordinary. The moral to be taken from this exhibition is that it's not enough to be aware of injustice in the world around us. That's the easy part. Translating that awareness into change is harder.

It's for that reason that, for me, the most moving single object in this exhibition is Gough Whitlam's first membership ticket of the Australian Labor Party. It's a wafer thin, flimsy piece of paper, but it captures forever the moment in which Gough Whitlam decided to put pen to paper, and turn sentiment into action. It captures a moment that changed the course of his life and, eventually, the lives of millions of Australians for generations thereafter. It captures the moment in which he decided to start down that hard road – the way of the reformer.

Copyright National Archives of Australia 2019