|Whitlam in WW2 (13 Squadron RAAF)|
Gough Whitlam died yesterday at the age of 98 – a good innings.
His brief three years in office changed this country for the better, and along the way, changed my life substantially.
Twelve months after my return from Vietnam, and after teaching children with disabilities for that period, I headed off to the University of Queensland on a scholarship granted though the then Department of Labour and National Service as a post-discharge benefit. The fees were paid by the department, and I was given a stipend (roughly the equivalent of the basic wage) for that time.
I did well (straight Distinctions) as a consequence of being able to focus completely on study, and was encouraged to continue part time when I went back to teaching in 1973.
Plugging away at study, by 1981, had two degrees (Arts and Education) which stood me in good stead for the rest of my career.
This university attendance would not have been possible without Whitlam’s removal of university fees.
In 1976, as a serving teacher, I was selected for a full-time post graduate course in the education of students with disabilities at Griffith University (then known as Mt Gravatt College of Advanced Education).
These courses were financed by Commonwealth money which was part of support for the states to provide equal educational opportunities for children with disabilities across the country.
This Commonwealth support for students with disabilities continued after the demise of Labor in 1975, because it was embedded in Whitlam’s human rights legislation, the first federal legislation on human rights enacted in this country.
Many years later, another tranche of this historical Commonwealth funding built a new special school which I opened in Townsville in 1987. Prior to that, in 1982, I had been taken off-line for six months to prepare a design brief for the school, and to negotiate with the board of the North Queensland Society for Crippled Children (now the Cootharinga Society) to ensure that the children it was built to accommodate would be allowed to attend.
Back then, not everyone (including some members of the board of the society) believed that these children had the right to receive an education. I remember a conversation at the time with a board member who told me that these children were "unreceptive to education". The Cootharinga Society has come a long way since then.
By the end of 1987 all the children resident in the nursing home were traveling daily by bus to their new school, in the same way as their able-bodied peers These days, the nursing home doesn't exist as the children are living in the community thanks to the sterling work done by the society using the funds which originated in the Whitlam era support human rights for people with disabilities.
Whitlam’s administration introduced the concept of human rights for people with disabilities, an achievement often forgotten.
Whitlam is wrongly credited for withdrawing our troops from Vietnam. He didn’t. The Australian withdrawal effectively commenced in November 1970. McMahon had seen the writing on the wall, and announced on 18 August 1971 that 1 ATF would cease operations in South Vietnam, and would begin commencing a phased withdrawal.
It could be argued, however, that Whitlam’s success in creating a viable opposition, and promoting the abolition of conscription and withdrawal from Vietnam strongly influenced that decision.
It came a bit late for the people in my intake, of course, and the fact that as a serving soldier I was denied an opportunity to vote for Whitlam’s policies – which had a strong bearing on my immediate future - in the 1969 federal poll is a reflection of the sclerotic attitudes prevailing at the time. These attitudes were swept away by Whitlam in about two months after December 1972.
The improvements in the quality of life of people with disabilities, which I have closely observed and lived through since 1970, saw their origin in Whitlam’s three years in power.
That achievement alone honours his memory.