Gough Whitlam’s cultural legacy – a game-changer for the public imagination

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Wednesday 29 October 2014
Rhana Devenport

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The ‘towering patrician’ and former Prime Minister of Australia, the Honourable Edward Gough Whitlam AC QC (born 1916) passed away on Tuesday 21 October 2014 at the impressive age of 98. Much has been written and more will be said about this remarkable politician and key figure in Australian politics, both about his achievements and his miscalculations. I would like to make reference here to his formative contribution to culture.

In power for three potent years from 1972 before his dramatic dismissal on 11 November 1975, Whitlam altered the cultural and social climate and helped reshape public imagination. He increased Australia’s ties with Asia, recognised the People’s Republic of China, introduced the health system which later became Medicare, replaced ‘God Save the Queen’ with ‘Advance Australia Fair’ as the national anthem, established the Australian National Parks and Wildlife Service, ended conscription, introduced free university tuition and expanded justice for Indigenous Australians by granting land rights. He led a new focus on women, the environment and the arts.

On the cultural front Whitlam elevated the Australia Council for the Arts to the level of a separate statutory authority with increased powers, he established the National Film and Television School in Sydney and the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra. In 1973 Whitlam purchased for the National Gallery, Blue poles, painted in 1952 by Jackson Pollock, at a cost of $1.3 million, the highest price ever paid for a modern painting at the time. The acquisition radically divided public opinion; Whitlam knew its significance and toured the painting across Australia. I remember my excitement seeing the work and its impact on the population, and being rather amused that in the face of outrage, Whitlam used an image of Blue poles as the official government Christmas card. Gough Whitlam and his wife Margaret (who passed away in 2012) will be long remembered for their brilliant minds, enormous vitality and fearless vision.

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Image credit: Gough Whitlam at Old masters – new visions : the Phillips Collection, Australian National Gallery 1987 Photograph: Whitlam Institute. Ref: Guardian Australia