4 November 2014, Sydney Town Hall, Australia
When I heard Gough Whitlam had died, I was filled with an inordinate sadness. A great sorrow. I wasn't even in school when his primeministership was ended. Why was I so sad? His public presence over the course of my life was important, but he was no show pony. So what had gone?
The loss I felt came down to something very deep and very simple. I am the beneficiary of free, tertiary education. When I went to university I could explore different courses and engage with the student union in extracurricular activity. It was through that that I discovered acting.
I am the product of an Australia that wanted, and was encouraged, to explore its voice culturally.
I am the beneficiary of good, free healthcare, and that meant the little I earned after tax and rent could go towards seeing shows, bands, and living inside my generation's expression. I am a product of the Australia Council.
I am the beneficiary of a foreign policy that put us on the world stage and on the front foot in our region. I am the product of an Australia that engages with the globeand engages honestly with its history and its indigenous peoples.
I am a small part of Australia's coming of age, and so many of those initiatives were enacted when I was three.
In 2004, after working overseas for a few years, I returned to Australia to work on a production of Hedda Gabler at the Sydney Theatre Company, a company I love. A theatre company, like so many theatre companies, that would not exist without the Whitlam initiatives, or more importantly, the ongoing Whitlam legacy.
Anyway, I also shot an Australian film that year called Little Fish. This was a decidedly urban story set in a culturally diverse suburb of western Sydney. The tale of a young woman in a relationship with an Asian-Australian man, a chequered history with drugs, and a lot of personal ghosts. A story like Little Fish would not have been told without the massive changes to the Australian cultural conversation initiated, and shaped, by Gough Whitlam's legacy.
In 1972 an Australian film or drama would have been a kind of country idyll, with no connection to urbanity or multiculturalism. Little Fish starred Hugo Weaving, Noni Hazlehurst and Sam Neill; all wonderful actors and themselves direct beneficiaries – and indeed products – of the wave of Australian cinematic and theatrical creativity unleashed by Gough Whitlam's time in government.
This story embraced Asia and multiculturalism. It was a brutal, sharp and unromantic tale. It was made by a wonderful Australian director, Rowan Woods, and an Australian writer and now producer Jacquelin Perske, both of whom graduated from the AFTRS – probably without fees – and produced by Porchlight Pictures, with the help and guidance of government film bodies that all found their voice, and their true shape, under and out of initiatives made in Gough Whitlam's time in government. Little Fish represented in its own small way a maturing of the Australian dramatic voice on so many levels – nearly 30 years after the initial changes and support were put in place by Gough Whitlam.
I tell this story not to wave a personal Little Fish flag, but for this simple reason. It was a film shot, for the most part, in Cabramatta – hello everyone in Cabramatta – the heart of Gough's seat. And quite simply today I was faced with talking about the impact of Gough Whitlam on women and the arts, and I was overwhelmed.
So, I stuck a random pin in the map, because his effect on the geo-cultural-political map of Australia is so vast that wherever you stick the pin in you get a wealth of Gough's legacy. Hugo Weaving, Noni Hazlehurst, Sam Neill, Rowan Woods, Jacquelin Perske, Vincent Sheehan, AFTRS, STC, Cabramatta, multiculturalism, urban stories, Australia's relationship with Asia, a complex national identity scrutinising itself through difficult and well-wrought drama; the list goes on. And that is just one pin stab in one art form from one beneficiary's perspective. It's exhausting just trying to conceive of it.
Speaking of exhausting, I am a working mother of three, and when I took on the role of Little Fish I had just had my second child. Noone batted an eyelid. No one passed judgment. And no one deemed me incapable. Because the culture around women and their right to work as equals in Australia, had already been addressed significantly by Gough Whitlam.
Supporting mothers' benefits. Before 1973, only widows were entitled to pensions, and thus the new benefit created the choice for single mothers in how they raise their children, and began combating some of the stigmas surrounding single motherhood itself.
Equal pay for equal work began with the 1972 equal pay case at the Commonwealth Conciliation and Arbitration Commissionand was extended in 1974 when the Commission included women workers in the adult minimum wage for the very first time.
In the early '70s there were a series of international conventions to which Australia was not yet a party. Gough, who was a huge believer in the UN and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, was active in signing us up to those agreements and initiatives.
The Whitlam government was also a pioneerin awarding numerous senior positions to women in such crucial areas of government as the courts, the public service, and the diplomatic service. Whitlam was the first leader to appoint a prime ministerial adviser on matters relating to the welfare of women and children – enter, the great Elizabeth Reid.
He established the Family Court – a cornerstone reform – and in the Family Law Act of 1975 he made the space for fault-free divorce, which allowed women to exit from abusive relationships and re-engage with society with dignity and with equality.
Women were probably the main beneficiaries of free tertiary education. So here today I may stand as an exemplar, but if you combine the modernising and enabling capacity afforded women by his legislation you can begin to see that the nation was truly changed by him through the arts and through gender, thereby leading us towards an inclusive, compassionate maturity. So much of this achievement is directly attributable to policy initiatives Gough Whitlam began with a series of reforms to extend the degree and quality of social opportunities to women in Australia.
But there is so much to say. Even from my own small, tiny, irrelevant experience, that what I would actually love to do at this memorial is pretend to be Gough Whitlam for a minute. (Don't worry I'm not going to imitate him, no-one could).
He said of his government:
"In any civilised community, the arts and associated amenities must occupy a central place. Their enjoyment should not be seen as remote from everyday life. Of all the objectives of my government, none had a higher priority then the encouragement of the arts - the preservation and enrichment of our cultural and intellectual heritage. Indeed I would argue that all 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."
I was but three when he passed by but I shall be grateful 'til the day I die.
The scale of Gough Whitlam's ambition and vision will be forever remembered.