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The ground-breaking initiatives of the Whitlam Government were years in the making – born in the extensive policy development and organisational reform undertaken during Gough Whitlam’s period as Opposition Leader, as well as his longer engagement with the party, the parliament and the people. 

This paper was launched at the Whitlam Institute Symposium, Breaking Ground: Lessons in Preparing for and Winning Government, on 21 October 2022. The authors begin by focusing on February 1967, the month that Gough Whitlam succeeded Arthur Calwell as Leader of the Federal Parliamentary Labor Party. That same month saw Australia’s last execution at Pentridge Prison in Melbourne, that of Ronald Ryan, amid vocal protest in which Labor Party members and trade unionists were prominent.

In similar ways, political causes and social movements that were gathering momentum in the late 1960s and early 1970s would shape the Whitlam program and, eventually, the Labor government of 1972 to 1975. The new leader had to negotiate the thickets of Australian policy on the Vietnam War, but he would also be grappling with the fraying at the edges of the affluent society. Education was underfunded at all levels, and educational opportunities remained limited. Women, immigrants, and Indigenous peoples suffered various forms of discrimination, and Papua New Guinea still had a de facto colonial status.  

Social and economic inquiry found holes in the welfare state by exposing poverty amid plenty. High rates of economic growth associated with the long boom continued, but tariff protection and the industrial relations system were attracting critics and there was a growing awareness of the costs to the environment, and to the general ‘quality of life’ of economic growth. A ‘new nationalism’ was in evidence in cultural life, but its full development awaited the coming of the Whitlam government in December 1972, the most radically transformative three years in modern Australian history.

Related Information

"Relevant and electable": Gough Whitlam and the remaking of the Australian Labo… https://apo.org.au/node/320396

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