Barrister Harun ur Rashid*
Dhaka, October 26, 2014 (Alochonaa): Former Australian Prime Minister Gough Whitlam, a towering figure who led the nation through a period of massive change, died in Sydney on October 21, aged 98. He was prime minister from 1972 to 1975.
Australia was the first Western country to recognise Bangladesh (January 31, 1972). Relations with Australia started on a very positive note. Australia’s first High Commissioner to Bangladesh, James Allen, could speak Bengali. That gesture demonstrated the Australian government’s goodwill for the new country.
Under Whitlam’s instructions, Australia assisted diplomatically in the admission of Bangladesh to the UN in 1974.
He visit on January 19, 1975, was the first and last one by a prime minister of Australia to Bangladesh. The visit clearly demonstrated his desire for engagement with Bangladesh, which was born out of a nine-month War of Liberation. As an opposition leader he fully supported the War of Liberation by the valiant freedom fighters and also the open policy of entry to Australia of war-affected Bengalis.
During his discussions with Prime Minister Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, it was reported that he offered his good offices to normalise the relations between Bangladesh and Pakistan. The Bangladesh prime minister reportedly accepted the offer.
Within Australia, he changed its face with social, economic and health reforms. Whitlam took the ideas of social democrats in Britain and West Germany, and to some extent France, and tried to deliver a programme which was applicable to Australian circumstances. He was undeniably Australia’s greatest social democrat.
Despite being in power for only three turbulent years (1972-75), Whitlam launched sweeping reforms of the nation’s economic, education, health and cultural affairs. He stopped conscription, introduced free university education, pulled out troops from Vietnam, abolished the death penalty and reduced the voting age to 18 from 21. He introduced free universal healthcare for all Australians. Without this historic reform 1 in 5 Australians would be unable to afford basic health care in hospitals and visiting physicians.
Under his leadership, the last traces of the White Australia policy designed to exclude non-white migrants were also removed, and the Racial Discrimination Act was passed, ushering in a new era of multiculturalism for Australia.
He implemented free higher education, making hundreds and thousands of Australians the first in their family able to go to university. He legislated for no-fault divorce, so women could choose to leave an unhappy marriage without being financially burdened. He reopened the equal pay case, championing the rights of women to work and be fairly compensated.
He championed Aboriginal land rights, returning land to the Aboriginal people of the Northern Territory. He was also known for involving Australia’s Aboriginal people directly in policy making and establishing free Aboriginal legal services.
Whitlam doubled funding to the arts, introduced legislation to form the Special Broadcasting Service for migrants, and created the Australia Council for the Arts.
He was the first Western leader to visit China and make his nation’s relationship with Asia a priority. This decision and those which flowed from it have been responsible for much of Australia’s economic and trade prosperity in the years. Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying praised Whitlam as an “eminent statesman” and an “old friend of the Chinese people.” The official Xinhua news agency also paid tribute to the politician as “a dear old friend” and “a great helmsman in the China-Australia relations.”
Conservative Prime Minister Tony Abbott called the Labor stalwart “a giant of his time,” and instructed flags around the country to be flown at half mast while suspending normal parliament for the day as a mark of respect.
British Labour leader Ed Miliband described him as “a truly great Labour leader and a great Australian” who “changed his country forever.” “Gough remains an inspiration to social democrats around the world,” Miliband said.
Labor supporters will hold him in their hearts in the same way that Republicans in the United States will forever adore Ronald Reagan and the Democrats will John Kennedy.
*The writer is a former Bangladesh Ambassador to the UN, Geneva. This was originally published in the Daily Star