I was 14 in my year nine history class at Unley High School when the teacher told me that I could write an 800 word essay on any topic in Australian history. I chose The Dismissal because I had just become immersed in everything Gough Whitlam. When I finished the essay it was 2500 words long. The teacher, Mr Godden, wrote as his final comment.
I have no choice but to give you full marks, even though you ignored the word count. Quite simply you have proven that you know far more about this subject than I.
Though I have tempered my Whitlamite zealotry in the sixteen years since, that essay was the beginning of my career in political academia.
As Whitlam is memorialised, I will be at Matthew Flinders Anglican College (MFAC) receiving a cheque on behalf of Youngcare Australia. While many of the tributes to Gough have used hyperbole as a form of understatement, it is important to recognise that without Edward Gough Whitlam:
- My father would have not gone to university for free. This in turn means that he would have had trouble getting a job as a primary school teacher, and struggled to be my family's primary provider as my parents came to terms with my disability.
- I would have had limited opportunities to be integrated into the mainstream community, and I would have continued to be segregated on the basis of my disability alone.
- I would have not have gone to the Regency Park Centre School (RPC) in Adelaide that Whitlam and South Australian Premier Don Dunston helped establish for children with disabilities. Without the RPC I wouldn't have learned how to talk, feed myself or advocate for my own needs.
- I would have been unable to complete any form of education at all, much less two (almost three) university degrees. I wouldn't have learnt how to use a computer, drive a wheelchair or read a book. In other words I would have been completely helpless.
Read those points again and think about a life of a person with Cerebral Palsy who is 50, instead of 30, as I am. They might be just as smart as I am, just as tenuous, and just as willing to absorb knowledge. But you might not know it, because a person with a disability born in 1963 did not have access to the opportunities I mentioned above. I was extremely fortunate to be born on the right side of history.
The timing of today's historical intersection is therefore fitting. As Australia says one last goodbye to a bygone political era, the students of MFAC and I will be honouring the Whitlamite legacy in our own way. For without Whitlam there is no Youngcare. There is no concept of people with disabilities living independently. Importantly without Whitlam, there is no political or ideological basis to treat people with disabilities as part of the general community.
While one may argue successfully that any politician could have implemented these reforms eventually, the truth is that despite the Whitlam Government's many, many failings I would not be anywhere near the man I am today without that government.
May Edward Gough Whitlam rest in peace. He has certainly deserved it.