The passing of Gough Whitlam has led us to ponder his achievements as a politician, particularly as Prime Minister of Australia in the mid-70s.
His achievements and the achievements of his government went far and wide in reforming and modernising Australia in many ways, particularly in relation to families, which is something I want to reflect on as a family lawyer.
In 1975, the Whitlam Government passed the Family Law Act which provides the legal framework for family law in Australia, including the introduction of ‘no-fault divorce’.
Prior to these reforms, people who wanted a divorce from their partner needed to prove that their partner was at fault in the breakdown of a marriage by committing acts such as adultery, desertion, or cruelty. Whitlam removed these ‘faults’ so now couples only need to show that their relationship has suffered an irreconcilable breakdown.
Whitlam believed that the Family Law Act brought dignity to the process of divorce by removing the public forum in which they were conducted and establishing a stand-alone Family Court. This process also helped reduce the high costs that prevented many people from going through the divorce process.
Whitlam wanted all Australians to have this dignity and this important reform achieved that. Importantly, children were saved the awful stress that is associated with the ‘blame culture’ of separation and divorce at that time.
How family law changes affected women
The reforms broke through the patriarchal structures inherited from a class society and gave universal freedoms to women across the country.
Women who stayed at home to raise children at the expense of their careers were recognised as making just as an important contribution to the financial stability of a marriage as the major wage earner did. The Family Law Act acknowledges that contributions from ‘homemaker’ parents are just as important and equal as the wage earner.
Critical to the raft of legislative changes was financial support for women and children who couldn’t stay in marriages. Support payments weren’t available for single parents, and so the reforms heralded important freedoms for women living in abusive relationships and gave them an economic option to get out.
The Whitlam government’s reform agenda was squarely aimed at reducing the inequality in society, and gave many Australians access to free university. The introduction of no-fault divorce meant that women could leave bad marriages and support their children while getting a tertiary education and a ticket to freedom.
Gough Whitlam inspired a generation of Australians and gave them, particularly women, the self-determination and freedom to take control of their lives.