It is now trite to say that Gough Whitlam was a great leader. A foundation of his greatness was his ability as a (Labor) lawyer.
When Whitlam was sworn in as Prime Minister on 5 December 1972 he was also sworn in, for a period of fourteen days only, as Attorney General.
Within that fourteen day period, as Prime Minister and Attorney General, he signed the two great treaties which had been drafted and adopted by the United Nations to implement the terms of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights into the domestic laws of UN member nations.
Those treaties were (and are) the International Covenants on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.
Another great Labor lawyer, Mary Gaudron described those documents collectively as the most important legal documents of all time.
The achievements of the Whitlam government in the area of law reform were immense. Gough Whitlam shared the credit for those achievements with the Attorney General appointed on 19 December 1972, Senator Lionel Murphy (later Justice Murphy of the High Court). Murphy was a rival of Whitlam in the Parliamentary Labor Party but was, crucially, of the same mind in relation to legal reform.
Some of Gough's law reform achievements are listed below.
1. The Racial Discrimination Act 1975
2. The formation of the Australian Legal Aid Office, the first national legal aid program.
3. The introduction into federal electoral law of the principle of “one vote one value” which at a single stroke removed the pro-Nationals gerrymander and made the drawing of electoral boundaries fair. (Whitlam Labor had won a majority of the vote in 1969 but that gerrymander ensured Labor was not elected).
4. The reduction of the voting age federally to eighteen years.
5. The Family Law Act 1975 – which introduced no-fault divorce on the single ground of irretrievable breakdown of marriage, evidenced by one years separation.
6. The Trade Practices Act 1974 which introduced a strong regime of pro-competition laws for Australian business for the first time.
7. The abolition of the death penalty federally.
8. The ratification of the Protocol to the Refugee Convention which introduced the modern form of the Convention itself, it having previously been restricted to Europeans who became refugees before 1951.
9. The ratification of four important International Labour Organisation conventions which protected freedom of association and the right to organise, collective bargaining, equal pay and discrimination in employment respectively.
10. The successful prosecution of a case in the International Court of Justice to prevent French nuclear testing in the Pacific.
11. The formation of the Australian Law Reform Commission and the appointment of Justice Michael Kirby as the first (and very successful) President.
12. The introduction of Senate representation of the ACT and Northern Territory.
13. The granting of 3000 square kilometres of land to the Gurindji people at Wave Hill in Northern Territory, the first federal grant of Aboriginal land rights.
Vale Gough Whitlam