Whitlam and my folks: reflections of a Gen Y

By Iona Salter | 05 Nov 14

I was at a market in Samoa, where I’m on a year-long aid assignment, when I checked my phone for news and read that Whitlam had died. Perched at a bench with fellow office workers eating plates of breadfruit and chicken in the sticky heat, I felt a world away from Australia. But Whitlam’s politics had a profound effect on my parents’ generation, so I texted my father.

“The first federal election [I voted in] would have been 1969 when Whitlam first ran for PM and was beaten by Gorton,” he wrote back.

“I had been hitchhiking round Oz and was driving south to Sydney with two young guys listening to W’s election speech and we were all mightily impressed. He was a grand orator.”

Then later: “I misled you! I was forgetting that you couldn’t vote till 21 then, which of course Whitlam changed. So ’72 was when I first voted … That government achieved so much in a short time.”

Notable years in my parents’ youth match up with quite a few key Whitlam dates. My mother was born in 1949, the year Robert Menzies began the 23-year spell of Liberal-Country government Whitlam was to break. My paternal grandparents were so taken by Menzies they named their first son – my father – after him.

Dad recollects a time when, in a bout of post-operative delirium, his mother insisted on communicating via notes because she was convinced unions had bugged her hospital room. Thankfully that level of paranoia was a one-off for my grandmother, though it was indicative of the general distrust of the labour movement and Labor Party which surrounded my father in his youth.

But by his early 20s, his views evolved to a point where Whitlam’s sweeping changes were the breath of fresh air he’d been waiting for. His generation came of age in a decade of radical social change. And as their T-shirts proclaimed, it was time for a government that reflected that.

A lot has been written recently about Whitlam’s impact on my parent’s generation. From Mark Latham’s praise for the new educational opportunities he afforded them, to the many tributes on social media and on the steps of Old Parliament House, it’s been a big couple of weeks for public sentimentality.

But I’m not old enough to remember “well may we say”. My parents were my conduit for Whitlam-era values. So for me it’s been an opportunity for a more private kind of reflection.

When my mother died of cancer in 2000, I remember reading the messages people had written in a book at her funeral and coming across lots of references to a commitment to social justice and human rights. As an 11-year-old this confused me. The values parents embed in their children’s upbringings are rarely given explicit labels.

We didn’t call it a social injustice when someone in the playground had way more Tazos than the rest of us, but we didn’t think it was right.

Sustainability wasn’t the buzzword it is now, but it was important to us that Blinky Bill would still have a home tomorrow.

And people with a few years on me probably remember sitting down with their parents to watch Live Aid – where poverty alleviation met the eighties guitar solo.

In their professional and personal lives, my parents were involved in a lot of international aid initiatives. Fundraising for Community Aid Abroad’s Walk Against Want was an annual feature of my childhood. (As was the tantrum that inevitably followed because “I don’t want to walk, Daaaaddddd,” but let’s not get off track.)

They weren’t the type to tell me what to do with my life, but I have no doubt it was their influence that made me want to work towards fighting global inequality in any tiny way I could.

So there I was, at a market in Samoa, reading that Whitlam had died.

Whitlam, who visited Samoa in 1973, increased Australia’s aid spending by 60 per cent in his time. His government created the Australian Development Assistance Agency, the predecessor to AusAID.

His foreign policy approach was substantially different to that of his predecessors. When the racially-selected South African rugby team was due to tour Australia in 1971, Whitlam joined protesters, including my father, in calling for a boycott.

His stance on apartheid was in marked contrast to that of then-Prime Minister William McMahon, who offered to send Australia’s air force to fly the team if airlines refused.

Whitlam fought for my parents’ and their contemporaries’ right to oppose injustices beyond our shores. In opposing a bill that would restrict Australians’ freedom to protest apartheid and the Vietnam War, he told parliament that “one cannot expect men and women of 18, 19 and 20 years of age to respect laws which they abhor.

“They are entitled to express their views about them, and I believe that future generations of Australians will be grateful that the members of today’s younger generation have shown that they abhor apartheid and the Vietnam war.”

I think I can safely speak for many a Gen Y when I say that in that prediction, Whitlam was right.

Iona Salter works in professional communications in the international development sector. She has written for publications including Asia360 News, The Guardian and Crikey.