The Whitlam Program

Whitlam came to office claiming a mandate for a wide-ranging program of social reforms.

He referred to his policies as “the program”.

In a whirlwind of activity over three years the government:

  • ended conscription and withdrew Australian troops from Vietnam.
  • implemented equal pay for women.
  • launched an inquiry into education and funded government and non-government schools on a needs basis.
  • established a separate ministry responsible for aboriginal affairs and supported the idea of land rights.
  • recast our foreign policy by withdrawing support for South Africa, recognising China, granting independence to Papua-New Guinea and distancing Australia from USA foreign policy.
  • abolished tertiary education fees and established the Tertiary Education Assistance Scheme.
  • increased pensions.
  • established a universal system of health insurance known as Medibank.
  • established controls on foreign ownership of Australian resources.
  • passed the Family Law Act, establishing no-fault divorce.
  • passed a series of laws banning racial and sexual discrimination.
  • extended maternity leave and benefits for single mothers.
  • sought to democratise the electoral system by introducing one-vote-one-value.

However, the government also faced difficulties, some of its own making:

  • government spending increased at a rapid rate, fuelling inflation.
  • international factors such as the inflation caused by the trebling of oil prices by the Middle East Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) created economic difficulties.
  • a wages explosion was also fuelling inflation.
  • unemployment increased, particularly after an across-the-board 25% cut in tariffs.
  • varying performances by some ministers, such as Dr Cairns.
  • attempts to borrow $4000m from overseas sources created enormous political difficulties for the government in 1975. The Overseas Loans Affair became the trigger for the Opposition to block the 1975 Budget in the Senate.

The unprecedented decision to try to force the government to an election through blocking the 1975 Budget bills in the Senate, and thereby cutting off the supply of money the government needs to simply carry on, was justified by the Liberal leader, Malcolm Fraser, on the grounds that the government was now so “reprehensible” that drastic measures were required to get rid of it.

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