Environment as Quality of Life: The Whitlam Government 1972-1975

By Peter Burnett

Author’s Note: This is another in our series covering the environmental policies of past Australian Governments

Most Australians have heard of ‘the Dismissal’, but to actually remember it you’d have to be at least into your 50s. The government headed by Prime Minister Gough Whitlam was perhaps Australia’s most controversial, and certainly the only one to have be sacked by the Governor General.

This was a bold and sometimes reckless government, with a ‘crash through or crash’ reputation.

But it was also a visionary government. Even now, many Australians would know of Whitlam’s 1972 ‘It’s time’ election slogan and policy speech, though few would recall anyone else’s election policy speech, including those of our current leaders.

Whitlam and Environment

Environment had become a ‘thing’ by 1972, and Whitlam was all for it. However, the relevant parts of his policy speech were cast in terms of quality of life rather than environment per se. He did however make specific environmental commitments relating to urban tree-planting, national parks, water conservation and heritage.

Once Whitlam came to power, and consistent with his ‘crash through or crash’ reputation, he focused on passing legislation. His Government did not waste much time developing policy statements; they were a government of action.

To the extent that it articulated an environmental vision, it is best captured in the Governor-General’s Speech on the opening of the Parliament in 1973:

“[My Government] is, however, deeply conscious that economic growth and material well-being no longer reflect the whole aspirations and expectation of the Australian community, and that prosperity alone is no longer exactly equated with true progress. The Department of the Environment and Conservation proposes to develop a ‘human progress’ index to reflect the new and emerging human and social values in a modern society.

“In planning for this generation, my Government intends to protect the rights and national inheritance of future generations of Australians. The Government will institute a program requiring environment impact statements for all major projects involving national funds and national constitutional powers.

From vision to action

This sense of an enduring quality of life, which echoed campaign policy speeches, flowed through to three of the four laws that constitute the bulk of the environmental record of the Whitlam Government. (The promised human progress index never saw the light of day.)

The Environment Protection (Impact of Proposals) Act 1974 (EPIP Act) delivered on the commitment in the Governor General’s speech to require environmental impact statements.

The National Parks and Wildlife Conservation Act 1975 provided for the establishment of federal parks and reserves, while the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act 1975 established the GBR Marine Park and the GBR Marine Park Authority to look after it.

From the 1960s, the Queensland Government had advocated oil drilling on the Great Barrier Reef – the world’s largest structure made of living organisms, and one of the most complex known ecosystems. The Wallace Royal Commission into drilling on the Reef, called by the Gorton Government in 1970, reported in 1974 but Whitlam immediately announced an intention to pass what became the Marine Park Act, to protect the reef from oil drilling.

The Australian Heritage Commission Act 1975 which established the Australian Heritage Commission and the Register of the National Estate, which would eventually list more 13,000 natural, Indigenous and historic places around the country.

While the EPIP Act was directed to the utilitarian purpose of improved environmental decision making, the remaining three laws concerned either the protection of natural places of significance to the nation and the conservation of its heritage. As Minister for Urban and Regional Development Tom Uren put it when introducing the Heritage Commission Act, the Government’s philosophy was to “beat the bulldozer mentality”.

The Whitlam government also made an early federal foray into water policy. In a ministerial statement entitled A National Approach to Water Resources Management, environment minister Moss Cass articulated the need for an integrated and planning-based approach to water resource management, applying social as well as economic objectives and the polluter-pays principle, supported by an extensive program of data-gathering and analysis.

Mainstream to the modern eye

All of this seems fairly mainstream stuff now, but it was radical at the time.

EIA was still cutting edge, having made its first appearance only five years before in the US National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA). And heritage had only recently entered the popular consciousness with the imposition of ‘Green Bans’, by the radical Builders’ Labourers’ Federation, on demolition sites in The Rocks and other inner-Sydney locations in the early 1970s.

All of these laws took the Federal Government into the States’ backyards, not only Constitutionally but literally. And, as anyone who’s watched our State governments over time would expect, the States opposed such intrusions vigorously. The Feds, after all, were tromping all over traditional State responsibilities.

And yet, the statements about water resource management would not raise a policy eyebrow these days.

We’ve come such a long way since then … or have we?

Image: Whitlam’s Ministry in 1974. (National Archives of Australia, the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license)

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