Elizabeth Reid reflects on gender politics and on being a revolutionary in a reformist job in the Whitlam government, 1972 to 1975, and its relevance half a century later.
In December 1972 – just over half a century ago – a Labor Party government was elected in Australia at Federal level for the first time in 23 years, led by Prime Minister Gough Whitlam (1916–2014).
In early April 1973, I was appointed to Whitlam’s staff as the first-ever adviser to a Head of Government on matters relating to the welfare of women and children. I resigned in October 1975.
I am often asked to name what is different between Whitlam’s time and nowadays. It is a rather daunting task, but let me try.
Gough Whitlam consciously set out to transform Australian society. Whitlam’s belief in social democracy committed him to establishing an enabling welfare state to counterbalance traditional and market inequalities. Those with the least access to social justice were to be recognised and included as full citizens of Australia, with equitable access to its resources.
It is difficult even to conceive of this commitment to social justice as a current political mission statement. We used to believe in democracy as a fair and transparent form of representation of all people. Nowadays, though, political parties go to the people in a democratic election too often without a policy platform, basing their decisions on focus groups, happy to exclude whole groups from ‘their’ democracy, unashamedly lying, and making themselves into ‘small targets’.
In Australia, the Whitlam years were the heyday of the welfare state – with its heated public debates over home ownership, land reform, universal basic incomes, social housing, and much more. Back then, when Whitlam came to power, the level of unemployment – a human metric based on compassion – was reported in the media every day, rather than market factors such as the rhythm of stock exchanges and the value of the dollar.
Now we have a control and surveillance state, within which public discussion and debate barely survive, and where values are subservient to appetite. Road laws in New South Wales, for example, are used to discourage, fine and imprison those individuals who wish to speak out. The economic rationalism that now individuates and wraps itself around each of us has stifled the culture of advocacy and activism in which we of the Whitlam era grew up together.
Advocacy and activism were approaches used to change policies and practices, reform institutions, alter power relations, and change attitudes and behaviours. They were about influencing public policy and public opinion, about raising the public’s consciousness about a situation or issue. They were social change processes that opened up democratic spaces and stopped, or protested, democratic backsliding.
The important thing to note is that advocacy and activism were learnt processes. We learnt how to debate a topic; how to write an article to educate people about an issue; how to run a meeting; how to organise a protest. We learnt skills necessary for life inside, or outside, the institutions of democracy.
So, where did we learn them? Many of us began the processes of learning them within our families: values were instilled, politics debated, issues discussed. There was little competition – no mobile phones, no social media, often no television – but there were traditions of talking over a meal or on the veranda. Some learnt at school. The effective training grounds, though, were the anti-war and anti-conscription organisations, and tertiary institutions.
And, for feminists, the Women’s Electoral Lobby (WEL) was an important site for learning political skills. In 1972, with the formation of WEL, many women who, up until then, had had little public exposure or experience outside of the household, suddenly found themselves being assigned tasks such as designing a questionnaire on issues of concern to women, or organising a meeting, or interviewing a politician, lobbying a publication to print the questionnaire results, picketing an election meeting, and, after the 1972 elections, writing submissions, calling meetings, organising protests, and much more. One went out into the world with one’s heart in one’s mouth and with a task in hand.
In retrospect, it becomes clear that these meeting places – universities, teachers’ colleges, and other tertiary institutions, and left wing and feminist organisations – were the training grounds for the workings of democracy. It was here that you learnt the skills required to be an active and concerned citizen.
As president of the hockey club or secretary to the Labor Club or Young Liberals, you quickly learnt how to plan and run a meeting. As a staff member of the student newspaper, you learnt not only how to write a story; you also began to develop a ‘nose’ for a story. As a member of the debating society, you learnt the art of persuasion, of involving and swaying the public to think through a position. You developed some of the skills required for speaking truth to power, for participating in a democracy.
You learnt the techniques for advocating against things that were not acceptable: for example, laws that allowed rape in marriage, unsafe abortions and the associated corruption, unequal pay for work of equal value, and much more. You began to understand social protests as an essential feature of democracy. And they held no fear for you, for they were a way of life, a part of everyday living.
If so much is to be learnt in these institutions and organisations, why are they not a training ground today for the workings of democracy? In large part, this is because of a decision taken by the conservative government of Prime Minister John Howard (in office 1996–2007) that Students Representative Council (SRC) fees – the fees which supported the students’ councils at tertiary institutions – should no longer be mandatory. The beating heart of these institutions, the Student Union, was deprived of its oxygen, its blood supply.
This decision led to the disappearance of a particularly effective, and fun, training ground for advocacy, meeting management, for the discussion of difficult issues, for strategic thinking, campaign management, and mobilisation: the SRCs and similar bodies.
Together with the other precepts of economic rationalism, an ideology that was just getting a toehold then – that competition defines human relations, that citizens are consumers, whose democratic choices are limited to buying and selling – the impact on these institutions was that they became dead from the centre outwards: students fled campuses. That the cost of being a public intellectual, especially for women, now includes trolling and harassment online, helps us understand the role of courtesy in times past.
There was a time when Whitlam’s belief in the efficacy of the structures and processes of democracy was so strong that he did not think that protests were legitimate. By the time he took power, he had come to accept that, in a welfare state, there were always inequalities that needed to be highlighted, changes that needed to happen, a levelling up that needed to occur. It was in this context that he decided to appoint an adviser on matters relating to the welfare of women and children.
To respond to such demands, for Whitlam, was the role of the state. To identify and formulate the demands, and to design the placards, and take to the streets was our collective right. And we demanded it.
Looking back at footage of the protests of the Women’s Liberation Movement and WEL in the excellent documentary Brazen Hussies (2020), I am surprised at how many of our placards were about the collective good, about social justice, rather than for a specific reform. Of course, there were placards for equal pay, abortion on request, on the need to end violence to women, and so on, but the overwhelming majority of our slogans talked of our collective efforts: ‘Women united can never be divided’ or ‘Sisterhood is powerful’ or ‘Don’t patronise us’ or ‘Women are taking charge of their lives’.
We did transform Australian society. Of that, there is no doubt. But to talk about the feminism of the 1970s as a truly transformative force is not to imply that such a force is spent, nor that there are no battles left in need of warriors. We must find that spirit again, together.
Elizabeth Reid was Adviser on matters relating to the welfare of women and children to E. G. Whitlam, the Australian Prime Minister from 1972 to 1975. She has contributed a chapter to the collection, Whitlam and Women: Revisiting the Revolution (New South, 2023), edited by Michelle Arrow.
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