THE HON MICHAEL DANBY MP
SHADOW PARLIAMENTARY SECRETARY TO THE LEADER OF THE OPPOSITION,
SHADOW PARLIAMENTARY SECRETARY FOR THE ARTS
MEMBER FOR MELBOURNE PORTS
Mr DANBY (Melbourne Ports) (09:51): On a balmy night on 30 November 1972 I walked down Balaclava Rd from my grandmother’s house in Carnegie to the ‘It’s Time’ rally at the St Kilda, now Port Phillip, Town Hall, and there I met for the first time, and heard, Gough Whitlam, with whom I have been intermittently in contact throughout my time in politics and indeed before my entry to parliament. He was an inspiring but flawed leader. I suppose we are all flawed.
The Menzies government was the first one to tentatively introduce state aid to independent schools in the form of funding for science laboratories, but it was Gough Whitlam who ensured that the funding of non-government schools was for ever non-partisan. Prior to 1970, the hard left anti-Catholic sectarians who dominated the Victorian Labor Party hated the idea of the federal government funding of non-government schools. Whitlam understood that unless there was a needs based, non-sectarian funding of all schools Labor would remain unelectable. Indeed the issue of state aid to independent schools destroyed the career of my predecessor, then leader of the state opposition, Clyde Holding. Just days before the 1970 election the local newspaper, the Herald Sun, reported Bill Hartley, the infamous anti-Israel head of the Victorian central executive, overruling Holding’s pledge to give government money, state aid, to church schools. This caused Mr Whitlam, who was then the Leader of the Opposition, with the support of then ACTU President Bob Hawke, to intervene in the Victorian Labor Party and insist on the replacement of its extreme left executive. Excising the hard left Victorian central executive, dominated by the little remembered but prominent at the time figures Bill Hartley and George Crawford, is widely judged to have been crucial not just at a state level but also nationally to Labor’s election for the first time in 23 years in 1972.
Despite the ghastly ghouls in the Greens party trying to steal Gough Whitlam’s mantle after his death, Whitlam was a centrist and long an enemy of the hard left. Only in conversations since his passing have I been told it was he who alerted the Red Fox, Alan Reid, and his photographer to the scene of him and Arthur Calwell, then the Leader of the Labor Party, lurking under a dim street lamp.
I do not know whether it is true, but it was said to be designed to embarrass the 36 faceless men who comprised the national conference of the Labor Party, determining Australia’s foreign policy without our national deputy leader present and our attitude to the then important issue of the communications base at North West Cape. It was typical of Gough if he in fact did it. His doctrine was, as in many other issues, crash through or crash.
I have to record, unfortunately, that Mr Whitlam in my view sullied his reformist record in 1975 by proposing to take a donation from the Iraqi Ba’ath party. There is and there was grainy contemporaneous footage of Saddam Hussein dragging out dissident members of the Ba’ath party from their national congress to be murdered. These kinds of events about Iraq and the Ba’ath party were known at the time.
Nonetheless, Mr Whitlam was removed by, in my view, an unethical blocking of supply, and the Governor-General’s, Sir John Kerr’s, dubious exercising of his undefined reserve powers in unfortunate collaboration with a former Liberal Attorney-General, the Chief Justice of the High Court at the time, Sir Garfield Barwick. As a university student leader, I organised many manifestations of ongoing public outrage at Mr Whitlam’s removal. Most memorable was an American-style picket of the Royal Commonwealth Society in Queens Road in early 1976, when Sir John Kerr appeared for the first time since the dismissal. As president of the University of Melbourne’s student representative council, I organised over 300 students, all garbed in top hats made out of black cardboard to mock the pomposity of the then Governor-General Kerr and to highlight his constitutional improprieties.
Memories: As President of the University of Melbourne’s Student Representative Council (in blue aviator glasses) I hosted Gough Whitlam Sep ’75 at Chifley Memorial lecture.
Gough’s passion for state aid to independent schools was matched by his passion for and understanding of the importance of the Arts, the first of its kind from a Prime Minister of Australia. As he stated after his term, and I quote:
“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 I would argue that all the other objectives of a Labor Government – social reform, justice and 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 means to an end; the enjoyment of the arts is an end in itself.” (G. Whitlam, The Whitlam Government 1972-1975, Viking, Ringwood, 1985, p. 553)
Gough had a vision for the Arts in Australia. He saw around him a system of representative bodies that were mismanaged and ad hoc, whose priorities often conflicted and set about constructive reform. One of Gough’s greatest achievements in combatting these issues was on Australia Day in 1973 when he announced a new interim Arts Council. The new body, which in 1984 officially became the Australia Council, would incorporate and streamline the roles of many other bodies at the time such as the Australian Council for the Arts, the Commonwealth Art Advisory Board, the Commonwealth Literary Fund and others. Within the Council was to be 7 specialist boards representing Literature, Music, Theatre, Crafts, Aboriginal Arts, Film and Television and Visual Arts. Responsibility for the Council would fall on the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, which in itself is very telling of Gough’s passion for and the priority he placed on Arts policy.
Gough’s contribution to the Arts didn’t end there. He delivered increases in funding for various institutions and bodies in each of his Government’s budgets. He approved the first purchase of what was to become the Australian National Gallery, widened the role of the National library and Helped set up an Industries Assistance Commission inquiry into assistance to the performing arts. Gough’s legacy to the Arts is still visible to this day, and will never be forgotten.
Occasionally through the years I saw Gough Whitlam, and our relationship slowly revived. He occasionally sought to refine my speeches and questions in this place and approved of many of the historical, linguistic and geographical allusions in my parliamentary contributions. Our last conversation was several years ago at the ALP National Conference in Darling Harbour, where Mr Whitlam, typically, exhibited a keen interest in my role, as he had done with many Labor members of this parliament, as the ranking member then of the federal parliament’s Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters. Former Prime Minister Whitlam was very anxious that the Liberals not roll back ‘one vote, one value’. He was passionate about electoral reform and believed that federal Labor had unfairly lost three federal elections in 1954, 1961 and 1969 because of the perversions of the electoral process, including gerrymandering and archaic voting laws. Although he tried to reform them in his time, a blockage in the Senate meant that those fair electoral laws which we now have presiding over Australia were only adopted when his colleague Bob Hawke was elected as Prime Minister in 1983, and great reforms of electoral matters took place in those days.
As Mr Whitlam stepped into his car at the ALP conference in Darling Harbour, his parting remarks to me were in his famous deep, self-mocking tone: ‘I pass to you, Danby, the torch of electoral reform’—a treasured compliment, as is his memory.
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