This is the speech given by Warren Snowdon, Member for Lingiari in the Northern Territory on the passing of the Hon. Edward Gough Whitlam AC QC



It is indeed a great honour and privilege to be at the despatch box today to contribute to this fine discussion. I commend all who have spoken for their eloquence and their reverence for the occasion but most importantly for recognising the greatness of Gough Whitlam.

I have no doubt—and all the speeches thus far have recognised this—that his efforts made unprecedented transformational change to our national government and to the Australian society. He changed forever the architecture of Australian public policy. In my view, we would not be the proud and confident nation that we are today without his genius.

I was a student at the Australian National University in the early 1970s. As a part-time job I used to drive cabs. Quite often I would be driving past Parliament House in the evening and I would note that the red and green lights would be on above the parliament—though those younger members would not know about this—and I would just stop by and go and sit in the Speaker’s Gallery and watch the debate.

Other days I would turn up at question time and watch the performance of this great man.

Later, in 1973, I was engaged as a research assistant on a book about the Whitlam government—Out of the wilderness, by Clem Lloyd and Gordon Reid. Through the research job that I had, I got to see firsthand the dynamism of the legislative agenda of the Whitlam government.

So I stand here as someone who was of a generation—and there are not many left in this place, with great respect to the member for Berowra—who can, I think, appreciate what that parliament was really like. To all of those who might be listening, to all of those who have the opportunity to look at what happened then and what happens now, I say that there is a difference.

I want to refer to Gough’s early days in Gove. Indeed, the Leader of the National Party referred to it, as did my friend the member for Jagajaga. Gough was stationed at Gove airstrip with No. 13 squadron in 1944 for a number of months and he met and established deep friendships with the Marika and Yunupingu families—and I will come to that a little later.

As the member for Jagajaga said, this was the site of one of Gough’s first political campaigns in support of Labor Prime Minister John Curtin’s 1944 referendum on postwar reconstruction and democratic rights. Sadly, it went down and Gough fondly remembered this time, saying: “Our squadron and other members of the Forces voted in favour but the civilians let us down.”

One of the powers proposed to be transferred to the Commonwealth in that referendum had been the power to make laws for the Aboriginal race in areas of greatest need—health, social services, land tenure and adherence to international conventions. In the late 1950s much of Gough Whitlam’s vision was a result of his work on the Constitutional Review Committee in the 1950s and its recommendations.

On this committee Gough travelled the country seeing firsthand the areas of need and inconsistency of service delivery and the place of the Commonwealth to make provision for services and opportunities for all Australians. For instance, it was the Constitutional Review Committee that recommended the repeal of section 127 of the Constitution, the exclusion of Aboriginal Australians from the census. It was not until 1967 that that happened—a decade later.

In 1967, soon after becoming leader of the Labor Party, Gough returned to Gove to investigate all aspects of northern development and resource development. He said at the time: ‘I went to see firsthand the water, mineral, agricultural, pastoral and fishing resources and the surface communications.’ He made visits right across the Northern Territory.

In 1972 the Whitlam government established the first Department of the Capital Territory and the Northern Territory—later to become the first ever Australian Department of Northern Development and the first Australian Department on Northern Australia. Gough, as we have heard previously, was also a driver for Senate representation for the ACT and the Northern Territory.

It is worth noting that the Senate (Representation of Territories) Act 1974 was opposed by conservative governments in New South Wales, Queensland and Western Australia on the ground that Territorians could not have senators voting in a states house.

But the policy area where I think Gough Whitlam affected some of his most transformational change was in the area of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander rights.

In his 1972 campaign speech, he said: “The inequality suffered by indigenous people should cause Australians an unrelenting and deep determined anger. He said: “We will legislate to give aborigines land rights—not just because their case is beyond argument, but because all of us as Australians are diminished while the aborigines are denied their rightful place in this nation.”

In 1973 he established the Woodward royal commission—the forerunner to the drafting of the Aboriginal Land Rights Act, which was subsequently passed by the Fraser government in 1976—and then, in August 1975, Gough Whitlam, as we have seen, handed Vincent Lingiari, the charismatic leader of the Gurindji, title to 800 square miles of their traditional lands.

During that handover, Gough said: “I want to promise you that this act of restitution which we perform today will not stand alone—your fight was not for yourselves alone—and we are determined that Aboriginal Australians everywhere will be helped by it.”

And then he said: “Vincent Lingiari, I solemnly hand to you these deeds as proof, in Australian law, that these lands belong to the Gurindji people and I put into your hands part of the earth itself as a sign that this land will be the possession of you and your children forever.”

Of course, old Vincent’s response was very simple: “We be mates now.”

The impact of this on Australian political life and what it has meant for Australian political history is understood. All Australians, I think, as a result of the genius of Gough Whitlam and his team, now understand the importance of establishing, forevermore, the place of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians in our lives, of giving restitution and of understanding not the black-armband view of history but the reality of what was so wrong in our past.

I have today received a message from the Gurindji and it says: ‘Very sad we lost that old man, but good because now people all over Australia will be reminded of his great legacy and the great thing he did with our leader, Mr Lingiari. That old maluka’—old man—’understood our important role in land rights. We will meet today to plan how we will mourn him.’

Of course, this is not the only thing he did in this space. As the member for Jagajaga said, he established the Aboriginal Land Fund and the Aboriginal Loans Commission. He passed legislation that abolished discriminatory treatment of Aborigines and overrode the discriminatory laws of the Bjelke-Peterson government.

He passed the Racial Discrimination Act to ensure that Aboriginal people could not be discriminated against with regard to employment, pay or working conditions and to establish equal treatment before the law, access to housing and accommodation, and access to goods and services.

He amended the Migration Act. That should not be a surprise, but what did this do? Part of his amendment was to abolish the provision that existed when his government came to power that required Aboriginal people to apply for special permission to leave the country. He funded Aboriginal legal aid services for people and established the Aboriginal Legal Service.

When he passed the Racial Discrimination Act, at its proclamation he said the following: “The main sufferers in Australian society, the main victims of social deprivation and restricted opportunity, have been the oldest Australians on the one hand and the newest Australians on the other. We stand in their debt. By this Act we shall be doing our best to redress past injustice and build a more just and tolerant future.

But he did not stop there.

Importantly, he reformed the Australia Council, broadening ordinary Australians’ access to arts funding which would have been largely the exclusive right of the wealthy and elite art groups. As part of this, he founded the Aboriginal Arts Board under its first chair, Wandjuk Marika from Yirrkala.

This, in turn, enabled the flourishing of one of the great international arts movements in the last century, the Aboriginal artists of the Central Desert and Top End, and produced internationally recognised masters such as Clifford Possum and others. His great reform for local government meant that territory local governments received Commonwealth funding for the first time. He established the first Department of Aboriginal Affairs. He made such great change, for which we will be forever indebted.

Of course, he did so much more, and you have heard about it all this morning. He did some other very significant things for northern Australia. It was he who at Christmas in 1974 responded to Cyclone Tracy. It was he who appointed Major General Stretton with broad powers to safeguard and evacuate the people of Darwin. He put off a trip to Greece to make sure he could attend to these functions.

He established the Darwin Reconstruction Commission under Clem Jones, the former ‘can-do’ Lord Mayor of Brisbane, to begin the reconstruction of Darwin, creating the modern city of Darwin today. Whitlam pledged a determined and unremitting effort to rebuild the city and relieve suffering, and he carried that out.

Others have spoken about other aspects of his life, but, as the member for Lingiari and, previously, the member for the Northern Territory, I feel it is incumbent upon me to talk about his contribution to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians. What he did was put down a marker. What he did was change the way we relate to one another. What he did was forever change that relationship. It will not matter whatever others do or what others might want to do even in current times—the fact is those changes will last forever.

We can be proud of being members of this parliament, and we have spoken today about the nature of this place. We ought to be proud as parliamentarians of the work which has been done across the divide. The Aboriginal Land Rights Act was one such piece of work and we should be proud of the contribution that we have made and can continue to make by working collaboratively, in a bipartisan way, to support those interests into the future.

I extend my sympathies to Catherine, Nicholas, Tony and Stephen on behalf of myself, my family and the community of the Northern Territory.

In 2001, Gough came to Alice Springs to visit Yuendumu, which is 300 kays up the road—a dirt road and not a very pleasant trip. He was there to open an aged-care facility. I well remember that day with him and Margaret—Margaret with the stick, as the member for Sydney said, reminding Gough that it was time, and Gough knew.

But he was so generous—ever so generous—to those people he worked with. It has been a great honour and privilege for me to be able to participate in this discussion.

You can see all of the tributes paid to Gough Whitlam at the House of Representatives Hansard page for Tuesday, 21 October 2014.

Photo: Gough Whitlam with body-painted Aboriginal man at Wattle Creek, 1975. National Archives of Australia: A6135, K30/9/77/4