Whitlam and Western Sydney

Whilst the Whitlam Institute has a national policy focus, it is also very much a part of the Greater Western Sydney region, and identifies with the people who live there - just as Gough Whitlam did.

Gough Whitlam was the first Labor leader to represent an electorate based in the suburbs of Western Sydney. This gave him an an acute awareness of the issues facing the people living there, and this had a marked impact on the way he shaped Labor's policy program, and his government's agenda.

Below you'll find a map of Western Sydney marking sites that reflect Gough Whitlam's association with the region. Some sites reflect Whitlam's personal connections to the region, and sites of commemoration, but most document the impact of Whitlam Government policies on the people and landscape of Western Sydney itself.

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Blue Marker Blue pins mark sites that reflect the impact of Whitlam Government policies on Western Sydney

Red Marker Red pins mark sites of personal significance and commemoration for Gough Whitlam

Western Sydney in the 1960s 

Throughout the whole post-war era, the populations of Australia's cities grew rapidly. So too did the proportion of people living in urban areas. This growth was mostly accommodated in sprawling outer suburban areas like Western Sydney. New homes in these areas were often not provided with adequate services. In 1965, only 55% of Australians lived in houses connected to sewerage systems. Despite the fact that Western Sydney contained the highest proportion of university-aged people in the country, there was no university in the region. There was a chronic shortage of hospital beds and other healthcare facilities. There was also a lack of community facilities such as parks, recreation centres, and community halls. Access to public transport was also a major problem, and many suburbs weren't connected to phone lines.

City Populations

Proportion of Australians living in cities

Whitlam Speaking in Parliament
Image courtesy: National Archives of Australia

Gough Whitlam and Western Sydney

Since 1957, Gough Whitlam lived in the Western Sydney suburb of Cabramatta, and represented the electorate of Werriwa for over 25 years. Whitlam claimed that his direct experience of life in the sprawling western suburbs inspired him to address the problems of urban Australia once in government. The problems faced by the people of Western Sydney epitomised the conditions of outer suburban areas in cities across Australia.

As a backbencher, Whitlam often raised these issues in Parliament, beginning with his maiden speech in 1952. In that speech, he told the parliament that there were no hospitals or high schools anywhere in the electorate he represented.

"My great objective as a parliamentarian was to dramatise the deficiencies and devise practical government programs to deal with them. It was a cause that went to the heart of our way of life. It seemed to me that if governments could not do something for the conditions of life in our cities and suburbs there was something deeply wrong with our system of government and our national priorities"

Whitlam was attentive to the needs of the people of Werriwa. On weekends, when his electorate office was closed, a line of constituents would form in front of the Whitlam family home. One by one, Whitlam would invite them into his living room to discuss their concerns. Whitlam patronised many of the clubs in the area, and drew up the legal paperwork necessary to establish the Cabravale Diggers Club. Gough's wife, Margaret was also strongly involved in the local community. Like her husband, she was disappointed by the lack of services and amenities in the region so she also lobbied the local council to build a swimming pool in the suburb. Once it was completed, Margaret served as the president of the swimming club there, and taught local children to swim. Shortly after moving to Cabramatta, Margaret Whitlam established a Women's Educational Association in the suburb. She also worked as a social worker at Parramatta Hospital.

Labor Leader

Whitlam's rise to the leadership of the Labor Party in 1967 offered him the chance to remould the party platform. An unprecedented emphasis was placed on urban issues. Whitlam appointed the party's first spokesman on urban affairs, and made a series of landmark speeches outlining Labor's urban policies. Labor proposed a number of key policies:

* The creation of a Department of Urban and Regional Development
* The connection of every home in every Australian capital city to sewerage
* The improvement and extension of urban public transport systems
* The enhancement of the suburban environment through the improvement of community services and facilities
* The decentralisation of urban expansion, to ease the pressures of population growth on major cities
* The improvement of funding arrangements for local government
* The public development of housing to improve housing affordability

The Labor Party's emphasis on urban issues under Whitlam's leadership made a substantial impact. The McMahon Government, which had previously shown limited interest in urban issues, created the National Urban and Regional Development Authority in its last year in office in response to the electoral appeal Whitlam's urban program was generating.

Whitlam opened his 1972 election campaign at the Blacktown Civic Centre. This choice of venue was intended to be symbolic of Labor's commitment to the people of Australia's outer suburban regions, and the improvement of the quality of life there. Whitlam campaigned heavily on urban issues in the lead up to the election, which Labor won, after 23 years in opposition. Most of the seats that it gained were in outer-suburban areas.

The First Year

Once in office, the Whitlam Government acted quickly to implement its reform program. Tom Uren was appointed as Minister for Urban and Regional Development. Within a month, the Whitlam Government had created the Department of Urban and Regional Development and begun negotiations with states to execute the National Sewerage Program and the Land Commissions program. Within a year, the Area Improvement Program and the Urban Public Transport Assistance Scheme were underway, Local Governments had received federal funding for the first time, and agreements had been reached to begin the development of several Growth Centres. This was the first time the Commonwealth had become directly involved in urban affairs.

Improvements to Western Sydney Suburbs

The Whitlam Government began a number of programs that were designed to improve the standard of living in suburban areas. These included the Area Improvement Program, the Urban Local Roads Program, the Regional Employment Development Scheme and the Sport and Recreation Program. Most of these programs were designed to favour those regions most in need of improvements to community facilities. Because of this, Western Sydney was often a major beneficiary of these programs.

The Area Improvement Program was designed to improve quality of life in suburban areas by improving community facilities and services. The program funded the development of community centres, parklands, libraries and roads. These services were deficient in many parts of Western Sydney.  The development of the Auburn Botanical Gardens and the Duck River Parklands, for example, were funded through this scheme, as was the construction of the Wentworthville Community Centre.

The Urban Local Roads Program was designed to lessen the impact of car traffic on suburban areas. It was intended that projects funded through this program would make local streets calmer, more pedestrian friendly, and more visually appealing. Projects were funded around the country, including Western Sydney. One such project was conducted in Ingleburn. The Whitlam Government provided funding for the development of a number of sports and recreation complexes in Western Sydney.

The National Sewerage Program

The National Sewerage Program aimed to connect all houses in Australia's capital cities to sewerage by 1978. When the Whitlam Government came to power, many houses in Western Sydney were not connected to sewerage systems. The program began in 1973, and distributed financial assistance to projects across Australia. Works were conducted in the Western Sydney suburbs of Bankstown, Baulkham Hills, Blacktown, Camden, Campbelltown, Holroyd, Liverpool, Parramatta, Penrith, Glenfield, Macquarie Fields, Minto, East Liverpool, Doonside, Greystanes, Ingleburn, Milperra and Lansdowne, amongst many others.

The National Sewerage Program was gradually extended over time to include all Australian cities with a population over 20,000. This was one of the reasons why the original 1978 deadline was later extended. The incoming Fraser Government cut funding to the program, and terminated before its completion. Nevertheless, the National Sewerage Program effectively addressed a significant urban problem, and extended this basic service to many homes which had previously been denied access to it.

Unsewered Homes

Number of unsewered homes in Sydney

No other western nation has cities in which the incidence of urban sanitation is so primitive or so ludicrous as in the cities of Australia...We are the most effluent nation in what Liberals call the free world

- Gough Whitlam

It was said of Caesar Augustus that he found Rome of brick, and left it of marble. And of Whitlam I say, he found Brisbane unsewered and left it fully flushed.

- Neville Wran

Health and Education

The paucity of health services in Western Sydney was an issue Whitlam frequently raised in Parliament, from maiden speech in 1952. In government, Whitlam established a Hospital Development Program, focussed on the capital cities. In Western Sydney, this program aimed to fund the development of new hospitals at Campbelltown, Westmead, Mount Druitt, Liverpool and the Hills District. The program was not fully implemented partly because of the pressure the deteriorating economic climate placed on the federal budget, as well as further budget cuts enacted by the Fraser Government. Nevertheless, the Whitlam Government committed funds to the development of Westmead Hospital, Campbelltown Hospital and Liverpool Hospital. The Whitlam Government also funded the construction of community health centres, such as the one at Mount Druitt.

Campbelltown Hospital

Image Courtesy Campbelltown City Library

The next university in New South Wales, the next college of advanced education and the next teachers' college must be built in the western suburbs, an area which has the largest population of college age of any area in Australia.

- Gough Whitlam

The introduction of state aid for non-government schools allowed a new source of revenue to flow to a number of schools in Western Sydney. The Whitlam Government established the Australian Schools Commission, which recommended federal grants to schools on the basis of need. This meant that schools such as Our Lady of the Rosary in Fairfield, St Gertrude's in Smithfield and Sacred Heart College in Cabramatta could qualify for capital assistance from the federal government. in the 1969 and 1972 election campaigns, Whitlam committed to the funding and construction of a new university in Sydney's western suburbs. Whitlam argued for the necessity of this new institution on the basis that Western Sydney had the largest population of university age students in the country, but was without an institution to provide this education. In 1974, the Whitlam Government announced the first round of federal funding for establishment of the university. The government's subsequent dismissal and the succeeding government's budget cuts stalled progress on the project. Organisations including the Western Sydney Regional Organisation of Councils, UniWest and ARROW, pursued the Whitlam Government's proposal, which was finally realised in 1989 in the establishment of the University of Western Sydney. To read more about Whitlam's role in the establishment of the University of Western Sydney, read Mark Hutchinson's paper, Gough Whitlam and the 'Grounds' for a University of Western Sydney'.

Electoral Reforms

Prior to his 1972 election victory, Gough Whitlam had long drawn attention to the large discrepancies in the number of voters in each electorate. The existing electoral laws allowed electorates to have up to 20% more voters than the average. Adjustments to electorate boundaries were failing to keep pace with the rapid growth in population in areas like Western Sydney. This meant that outer-suburban electorates often had far more voters than inner-city electorates did, effectively diluting the value of the vote of those living in outer-suburban areas. Whitlam argued that it was undemocratic that the people of Western Sydney did not get as many parliamentary representatives as other areas. In 1974, there were 83,941 voters in the outer western Sydney seat of Mitchell, but only 46,975 in the rural seat of Darling.

Once it gained power, the Whitlam Government passed the Commonwealth Electoral Act No. 2 1973 to require fairer redistributions of electorates. This law required the Electoral Commission to take account of the growing populations of regions like Western Sydney, and reduce the maximum allowable deviation from the average number of voters per electorate. The first redistributions to reflect Whitlam's legislation came into effect in time for the 1978 election, in which Western Sydney was represented with an additional, newly created electorate named Dundas. The legislation helped to entrench the principle of 'One Vote, One Value' in the election of MPs for the federal parliament.

Local Government

The Whitlam Government was the first to make grants directly to local councils. Indeed, it was the first federal government to fully engage with local government. Whitlam argued that the increasing responsibilities local councils were being required to assume were not matched by the appropriate level of funding. Additionally, many of the issues that detracted from the quality of life in outer-suburban areas were in the domain of local government. Before the 1972 election, Whitlam made a commitment to giving local government bodies access to the Commonwealth Grants Commission, the body that distributes Commonwealth funding to the states.

In 1973, the Whitlam Government passed the Grants Commission Act (1973), which gave local councils the right to apply to the Grants Commission for financial assistance. The Grants Commission was required to distribute funding on a needs basis. Because of this, Western Sydney received more funding than any other region. While these arrangements were altered by subsequent governments, the stream of revenue from the Commonwealth to local government organisations, like those in Western Sydney has never ceased to flow since it was introduced by the Whitlam Government.

Urban Public Transport

The Whitlam Government planned to fund significant improvements in Australia's cities, particularly outer suburban areas like Western Sydney. For Western Sydney, it planned to purchase over 100 new train carriages for the suburban network, build additional tracks between Granville and Penrith to increase the capacity of the line, build a railway line between East Hills and Glenfield and build a new railway station at Campbelltown. These projects were part of the government's Urban Public Transport Assistance Scheme, which provided a two thirds grant to state governments for public transport improvement projects.

The delivery of these projects was complicated by a number of factors. The legislation enabling the commencement of the Urban Public Transport Assistance Scheme did not pass through the parliament until 1974, because of the 1974 double dissolution election. This meant that there was scarcely a year for the program to get underway before the Whitlam Government was dismissed in 1975. The incoming Fraser Government significantly reduced funding for the program, so the New South Wales Government reallocated its funding. This meant that some of the major projects favoured by the Whitlam Government were deferred or cancelled.

The Whitlam Government also approached the New South Wales Government with an offer to construct and operate, at no cost to New South Wales, a new independent railway network radiating from Parramatta. The lines were to extend from Parramatta to Hoxton Park, Parramatta to Epping via Carlingford and from Parramatta to Castle Hill. The aim of this project was to assist in the decentralisation of Sydney's urban structure and concentrate more jobs, services and amenities in the western suburbs, effectively reducing the commuting distances of residents there. Parramatta was to be developed as a second CBD. The New South Wales Government and the Whitlam Government conducted a feasibility study for the project. The Parramatta radial railway project did not proceed. When the findings of the feasibility study were reported to the new Fraser Government, it indicated that the Commonwealth would not be making any funding commitments to the project. The study was forwarded to the New South Wales Government, and the project never eventuated.

Askin Letter

Whitlam's letter to Premier Askin proposing

a Parramatta rail network

After 1975

The Dismissal, and the subsequent defeat of the Labor Government at the 1975 election had profound ramifications for the urban program. The new Fraser Government did not share the Whitlam Government's interest in urban affairs, and sought to limit Commonwealth involvement in the area. The Department of Urban Affairs and Regional Development had its functions truncated, before finally being abolished entirely in 1978.

With its commitment to reducing government spending, the Fraser Government wound down or abolished many of the programs initiated under Whitlam including the National Sewage Program, the Urban Public Transport Assistance Scheme and the Area Improvement Program. The effort to relocate government jobs to Parramatta stalled under the Fraser Government, as did the proposal for a railway network radiating from Parramatta.

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This page was developed by Guy Betts with the support of a Museum of Australian Democracy Summer Scholarship

Banner image courtesy of the National Library of Australia nla.pic-an23817073