Environment, culture and heritage

The Whitlam Government provided unprecedented support to Australia’s arts sector, helping a generation of creative Australians to give voice to a new independent, confident and distinctively Australian cultural identity. In his 1972 election campaign speech, Whitlam stated that his government’s arts policy would be guided by four cardinal objectives: ‘to promote a standard of excellence in the arts, to widen access to, and the understanding and application of, the arts in the community generally, to help establish and express an Australian identity through the arts and to promote an awareness of Australian culture abroad’.

Australia’s cultural heritage was protected with landmark legislation, and the creation of the Australian Heritage Commission and the Register of the National Estate. These measures helped to identify, protect and conserve sites significant to Australia’s social history for the benefit of future generations. 

The Whitlam Government also acted to safeguard Australia’s natural heritage, by protecting the Great Barrier Reef from oil drilling, and ratifying the World Heritage Convention, which later allowed for the protection of exceptionally valuable sites of natural heritage such as the Franklin River in Tasmania. 


Protected the Great Barrier Reef

Throughout the 1960s, the Bjelke-Petersen Government in Queensland advocated oil drilling on the Great Barrier Reef – the largest living structure on the planet, and one of the most complex known ecosystems.157  In 1973, the Whitlam Government passed the Seas and Submerged Lands Act which gave the Commonwealth authority over the states in matters concerning seas surrounding Australia.158 This legislation was used to block the Bjelke-Petersen Government’s plans to allow oil drilling on the Great Barrier Reef.159 Whilst the Queensland and New South Wales Governments challenged this legislation in the High Court of Australia, the court found that they were constitutionally valid.160  In 1975, the Whitlam Government created the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, and created an authority to properly manage the area, and protect its biodiversity for future generations.161 The organisation continues to perform this function today. By 1983, the marine park had been progressively expanded, becoming the largest marine park in the world.162







Ratified the World Heritage Convention

The Whitlam Government’s ratification of the World Heritage Convention on August 22, 1974 gave the Commonwealth a powerful tool for protecting exceptionally valuable cultural or natural heritage sites. This is because of the ‘foreign affairs power’, whereby Commonwealth legislation takes precedence over state legislation in matters regarding foreign affairs. By ratifying this convention, the Whitlam Government gave future Commonwealth Governments the power to protect sites designated as World Heritage areas or sites by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Because the Commonwealth must protect these sites in order to fulfil its treaty obligations, the foreign affairs power allows it to over-ride decisions by states that threaten them.

The World Heritage Convention ratified by the Whitlam Government empowered the Hawke Government to protect the Franklin River in Tasmania. By designating the Franklin River as a UNESCO World Heritage Area, the Hawke Government had the authority to prevent the Tasmanian Government from building a dam that would have devastated this ecosystem.



Introduced environmental protection legislation

The Whitlam Government passed the Environment Protection (Impact of Proposals) Act 1974 which required the Commonwealth Government to undertake Environmental Impact Assessments on projects under its control, or undertaken using its funds.163  The Act and the powers it gave were very broad, covering almost all the activities of the Commonwealth Government.164 By passing the National Parks and Wildlife Conservation Act the Whitlam Government established a professional service to manage national park areas, and plan for the conservation the sensitive ecosystems and threatened species that they protect.






Negotiated treaties to protect vulnerable species and ecosystems

The Whitlam Government embraced international efforts to protect sensitive ecosystems. One of the most significant achievements was the RAMSAR convention – an international convention to ensure the protection of wetlands and the biodiversity they support.165  Other agreements included the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, and  the JAMBA treaty – an agreement with Japan to protect bird species that migrate between the Australia and Japan, and their habitats in both countries.166  In compliance with this treaty, the government purchased the 600 hectares of land that now constitutes the Towra Point Nature Reserve.167

Established the Australian Heritage Commission and funded heritage conservation projects

Systemised government protection of Australian heritage sites began with the Whitlam Government. The Australian Heritage Commission was created in June 1975 to create a register of significant heritage places throughout Australia.168 The listing of sites of significance to Australia's cultural and natural heritage helped to raise awareness of their value and provide some protection against damage to them. In his 1969 election policy speech, Whitlam said that the purpose of the register of the National Estate would be "to keep the beauty we have been given and keep out the ugliness we can only make for ourselves".169

The Australian Heritage Commission also helped to recommend and prioritise which conservation projects should receive government funding.170 Funding was provided for the acquisition and restoration of hundreds of sites around Australia, including Camden Park Estate, Elizabeth Farm and the Macquarie Arms Hotel. In 1975, the historic Female Orphan School building underwent essential repairs with funding provided through the National Estate Program. 










Created the Australia Council for the Arts

Fulfilling a commitment made in his 1972 policy speech, Gough Whitlam created the Australia Council for the Arts as the Australian Government’s independent arts funding body. The Council was created with several specialist boards, to distribute funding in the following areas171:


• Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander arts 
• Theatre 
• Music 
• Visual arts
• Craft
• Literature 
• Film and television


The government provided significant increases in funding to the arts through this new organisation by around 100% in its first year alone, and this led to a significant increase in creative output from the Australian arts community.172 The Australia Council continues this role today, providing government assistance for a diverse range of arts projects around the nation.




Established the National Gallery of Australia

The first steps to create the National Gallery of Australia began under the Menzies Government but had advanced very slowly under that, and subsequent governments. The Whitlam Government brought these plans to fruition. The contract for the construction of the gallery was signed in April 1973.173  Later that year, an interim gallery council was appointed by the government.174  The Whitlam Government created an Art Acquisitions Committee and the collection of works for the gallery began.175

The committee attracted controversy through its purchase of Blue Poles, a work by the American abstract impressionist painter Jackson Pollock. The Whitlam Government’s authorisation of the purchase of the $1.1 million painting was seen by some as extravagant but by others as enlightened, bold and forward-looking.176 Whitlam publicly defended the purchase of the work, and defied critics by reproducing the work on his 1973 Christmas cards.177 The work is now widely regarded as one of the iconic artist’s best works.178  Estimates of its current value vary – ranging between 20 and 100 times what was originally paid for it.179


The National Gallery of Australia 


Stimulated the Australian film and television industries

 The Whitlam Government saw the production of local film and television as an important part of the expression of a mature, independent Australian cultural identity. Accordingly, it provided significant support to the Australian film and television industries. 

Whitlam’s government sought to provide increased support for local actors, film makers and producers by increasing the minimum Australian content requirements for commercial television networks.180  The ABC also conformed to these minimum content requirements, and was given a major boost in government funding to assist in the production of local television content.181

The Australian Film Commission was created on July 7, 1975 and began making substantial grants to feature film, documentary, television and short film projects.182  It significantly extended on the support for the Australian film industry that began with the Gorton Government. This support contributed to the renaissance of Australian cinema that took place in the 1970s and 1980s, reviving an industry that had stagnated for decades. This support allowed the expression of a new confident cultural identity through film. Iconic and critically acclaimed films such as Picnic at Hanging Rock, Gallipoli and The Last Wave were produced with funding from the new Australian Film Commission.

The government also sought to foster the development of the Australian film and television industries by improving education and training opportunities. The centrepiece of this policy was the establishment of the Australian Film and Television School on August 31, 1973.183  Whitlam officially opened the school just two years later, and paid tribute to John Gorton for conceiving the idea for the institution.





Reformed Australian radio and introduced Triple J

The Whitlam Government supported Australian music by introducing minimum Australian music content for commercial radio stations. 10% of music broadcast by commercial stations was to be the work of Australian musicians.184  The Whitlam Government established 2JJ – now known as Triple J – as a station specifically designed to support Australian music and connect with young Australians. It began broadcasting on January 19, 1975.185 The Whitlam Government also introduced FM radio in 1974, allowing improved sound quality and the licensing of more radio stations.186 Multicultural radio services - 2EA Sydney and 3EA in Melbourne - were established and licenses were issued to community radio stations for the first time.187 



Whitlam message to triple J




                              Double J studios 2                                     Double J studios 1








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