Whitlam Institute

Human Rights

Human Rights


The guiding tenets of Gough Whitlam's political vision and political practice were liberty, equality, and fraternity, and there is a natural progression to the Whitlam Government's reform program having a strong focus on human rights. 

Whitlam had described conscription as intolerable, and one of the earliest accomplishments of his government was the granting of exemptions from conscription for all Australians. His government's record includes the abolition of the death penalty and the ratification of a raft of international treaties and conventions. After his parliamentary career ended, this interest continued as Whitlam served as Ambassador to UNESCO and a member of its Executive Board. 


International AgreementsAbolition of the Death Penalty | Opposition to Apartheid | End of Conscription & Freeing of Draft Resisters


International Agreements

Perhaps due to his father's role as Australian representative to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, Gough Whitlam placed particular emphasis on the adoption of international agreements as a method for securing human rights protections domestically and internationally.  Some of the most significant agreements to protect human rights today were ratified or enacted by the Whitlam Government. International Labour Organisation (ILO) conventions that were designed to protect the rights of workers were a particular emphasis for the government. The human rights agreements enacted by the Whitlam Government include the:

  • 1953 Covenant on the Political Rights of Women
  • 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons
  • 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness
  • 1966 International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights
  • 1966 International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination
  • 1967 Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees
  • ILO Convention No. 86—Contracts of Employment (Indigenous Workers) Convention, 1974
  • ILO Convention No. 87—Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organise, 1948
  • ILO Convention No. 98—Right to Organise and to Bargain Collectively, 1949
  • ILO Convention No. 100 – Equal Remuneration, 1951
  • ILO Convention No. 107 – Indigenous and Tribal Populations
  • ILO Convention No. 111—Discrimination (Employment and Occupation), 1958
  • ILO Convention No. 131—Minimum Wage Fixing, 1970

Gough Whitlam's Speech to the United Nations General Assembly 1974


To learn more, read The Hon. Michael Kirby's speech 'Whitlam the Internationalist'


Abolition of the Death Penalty

On September 18th, 1973, the Death Penalty Abolition Act was enacted. This legislation abolished the death penalty for federal crimes. One argument Whitlam made for this reform was that in the past, many executed prisoners had subsequently been found to have been innocent. He also pointed out that the death penalty had no demonstrable impact on the incidence of crime. His overarching argument, however, was that:
"Capital punishment is just as barbaric and inexcusable in the hands of States as it is in the hands of individuals. As we know, it barbarises and unsettles the executioners themselves."

Opposition to Apartheid

The 1971 tour of Australia by the South African rugby team – the Springboks - had resulted in large protests in Australian cities, and prompted a boycott from six Australian players, who refused to play against a racially selected team.  When Ansett and Trans Australia Airlines announced that they would not fly the team, Prime Minister McMahon said that he would deploy the Royal Australian Air Force to carry them instead. Whitlam argued that by allowing racially selected teams to visit, Australia was allowing itself to be used in the legitimation of 'immoral policies' in South Africa.  

In its first week in office, the Whitlam Government decided that racially selected sporting teams from South Africa would not be allowed to enter, or transit through Australia. This ban was maintained by all subsequent Australian governments until the collapse of the apartheid regime in 1994.

End of Conscription & Freeing of Draft Resisters

Throughout the Vietnam War, Australia had drafted conscripts for deployment with the Australian Army. Conscripts were chosen according to their birthday, which was randomly chosen by ballot. This became known as the 'lottery of death'.  Failure to present to the military after having been drafted was punishable by prison sentence under the National Service Act. Conscription was one of the most divisive issues in Australian society during the 1960s and early 1970s. Large protests, strikes and moratoriums were the expression of the public's growing outrage at the Government's conscription of young men for a war that many believed Australia should have no part in. The Labor Party supported the anti-Vietnam War and anti-Conscription movements.

The first act of the Whitlam Government was to free all imprisoned draft resisters. Charges against more than 300 draft resisters were dropped. Conscription was also abolished and the government also announced on December 11, 1972 that the last Australian troops would be returned to Australia within three weeks.