Zealous reformer: Former prime minister Gough Whitlam.
Zealous reformer: Former prime minister Gough Whitlam. Photo: peter@peteradams.com

Under the banner "It's Time", Gough Whitlam came to power as a
one-man liberating army with a reform program so vast it was almost
omnivorous. But it came down to one thing: making all Australians feel
good about themselves and their place in the world.

To what extent has that legacy survived? What big ideas are required to see the big man's vision fulfilled? 

In thinking about this question, former governor-general
Quentin Bryce reflected on her friendship with Mr Whitlam and how he
maintained his humour, charm and courtesy through the last five years of
his life, when he became very frail. 

Former Governor-General Dame Quentin Bryce.
Former Governor-General Dame Quentin Bryce. Photo: Andrew Meares

"They were very tough years, and I always came away deeply
affected with his dignity," she says. "He would always insist on taking
me to the lift at the end of our meetings, which always had a formality
about them. I'd walk away and say to my colleagues, 'That's what dignity
means. It is what human rights are about.' And so I've been reflecting
on [Whitlam's] enormous contribution to the development of human rights
law and practice."

But in her work, Dame Quentin finds that dignity is too often
not afforded our most vulnerable people. As patron of Epilepsy
Australia, she hears people with epilepsy talking about the
discrimination and stigma they face. She talks of meeting a young
indigenous man who had been in a fight and asking him what he wanted to
be when he grew up. "He said he didn't want to be anything." 

In August she was appointed the chair of a new taskforce
aimed at reducing domestic violence incidents in Queensland. ``I can't
believe that in 2014 we see violence against women getting worse - and
it is."

Philosopher Peter Singer.
Philosopher Peter Singer. Photo: Georgia Metaxas

She says the biggest idea Australia needs to embrace "is to
get real about the big ideas that have been around for while. Making
human rights a priority, and not giving up on on our ambitions for zero
tolerance for violence against women".

A commitment to new ideas and risk-taking is a priority for
mental health advocate Patrick McGorry - professor of youth mental
health at the University of Melbourne, and Australian of the Year for
2010. Whereas Whitlam was capitalising and channelling the energy of a
worldwide revolution of idealism - the energies of the 60s today, are
met with cynicism and crippled by a ``culture of risk-management and
materialism", McGorry says.

McGorry suggests creating a national fund for people with new
ideas.  ``As a nation we need to support risk-taking around innovation
so it isn't left to markets and venture capitalists ... We had three
years of reform that we have been living off the back of for 30 years.
We need to make reform part of the future."

Historian Dr. Clare Wright.
Historian Dr. Clare Wright. Photo: John Woudstra

A retreat from materialism is high on the wish list of other leading Australian thinkers. 

Peter Singer is professor of bioethics, Princeton University,
and  a laureate professor at the Centre for Applied Philosophy and
Public Ethics at the University of Melbourne. In an email, he writes
that ``Whitlam came to power after a very long period of conservative
rule, and there were many big ideas waiting to be taken up.  It's not so
easy to find such ideas today".

Singer's desire is to see Australia focus on a way of life
that is less devoted to consumerism, and more to building a community in
which we focus on long-term values such as building a world in which
everyone has enough to live decently, and protecting our planet from
environmental damage." 

Professor Barry Jones.
Professor Barry Jones. Photo: Eddie Jim

Dr Fiona Stanley is a leading researcher and advocate for
child and maternal health. She convinced then prime minister John Howard
in 2002 to establish the Australian Research Alliance for Children and
Youth. Currently she's campaigning for an Australian National
Development Index - an alternative to GDP as a barometer of national

``This is a big idea that goes to the very fabric of our
society," she says. ``The neo-conservative economic GDP-driven societies
are starting to fail. And what I think we need to look at is another
way of measuring the nation's well-being to ensure that decision-making
[at a political level] benefits the important things, such as early
child development, climate change, [financial and social] equality."

She points to the Canadian Index of Wellbeing, which
indicates there is poor social health while GDP is climbing. ``It's a
wake-up call. Your GDP might be going OK but your society is not."

Lasting legacy: Gough Whitlam in 1974.
Lasting legacy: Gough Whitlam in 1974.

In effect, it would lead to a change in consciousness.
``People may say this is an elite activity. It's not. In Canada it made
ordinary people think about where their society is heading."

Fiona Canny is the head of campaign for Oaktree, the
youth-led movement to end world poverty that has quietly raised millions
of dollars to that end. She says that values of compassion and equality
are ingrained in Australia's historical vision of itself, and yet
Australian people need to identify with them better. She points to the
cutting of foreign aid by the Abbott government - which at the same time
has not closed tax-dodging loopholes for multinational companies, that
in effect have taken more than a billion dollars off the national bottom

Ms Canny's vision of fairness is a simple one: the government
should do more to tackle corporate tax avoidance, "and use those
recovered funds to fulfil our commitments as international citizens and
give our fair share of foreign aid".

Associate Professor Clare Wright is principal research fellow
in history at La Trobe University, and winner of the Stella Prize for The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka.
Bipartisan support on climate policy, a treaty with our indigenous
people, and Australia becoming a republic are among the big ideas that
should no longer be neglected. Her most ``radical idea" is to abolish
all funding to private schools. ``Make them truly private and put all
the tax money into the public system. How many people on Facebook this
week thanked Gough for their education. My children are not going to
have that. It's disgraceful that a country of such incredible wealth
performs so badly on public education. If we're going to say Australians
value fairness, we should live up to it."

To achieve this end, a reappraisal of what it means to care
for Australia - such that love of country doesn't degenerate into vulgar
nationalism - is in order says Raimond Gaita, professorial fellow in
the Melbourne Law School, and Emeritus Professor of Moral Philosophy at
King's College London.

``Love of country is distorted in Australian politics. It's
partly because we are suffering a political illiteracy now," says
Professor Gaita. ``If you think of the complex problems, of the terrible
turmoil in the world so awfully expressed now by ISIL, that  we can
respond to that with the concept of Team Australia is shameful."

 Former minister for science and technology Barry Jones notes
that Whitlam took the demonology out of foreign policy. ``If you
reflect on what happened in the 70s, there was an idea that if we lost
the war in Vietnam we were doomed. This was a time when there were
television ads with yellow arrows coming down [to Australia from Asia]
indicating they were coming to get us. Now the mineral and property
industries are saying they're not coming fast enough."

At the same time, with the horrors of the Middle East, ``the
demonology is coming back. If you characterise the enemy as evil, you
can't talk it through. At the moment, it's spooky stuff. There is no
rational analysis at all, although Julie Bishop is making an attempt.
But on the whole, on the refugee issue, it's a beat-up of Olympian
proportion to create the illusion that we face a diabolical threat."

But perhaps until we can make peace with our own past, we won't be able to navigate sensibly the troubles of the world.

Former Greens leader Bob Brown believes a true reconciliation
with our indigenous people could be achieved by establishing a memorial
to ``the civil war, the war of defence of the Aboriginal people from
all of us who came later. It's a foundational part of the nation's
history and a memorial would allow us to honestly come to grips with the
bloodshed, dispossession and cultural destruction - and it would be
healthy for whites as much as for blacks. You'd name the dead from both
sides, where the names are available."