The Whitlam legacy for single mothers

It was a moving experience yesterday to provide a comment for the Conversation on the impact of the Whitlam Government in social policy in the article:

Gough Whitlam’s life and legacy: experts respond

While my last post lamented how difficult it remains for single parents, my reflections on Whitlam’s legacy in terms of  establishing the single mother’s benefit in 1973 reminded me of how difficult the situation had been prior to that. A recent Australian story about entertainment identity Jan Russ  attested to the dreadful position of many women as late as the 1960s when they had no options but to give up their children for adoption – and the trauma that continued to be lived out decades later.

Like many aspects of women’s equality, there is still far to go but the gains such as the single parent pension  need to be recognised and most of all protected for the future.

I reproduce my comment here:

One of the most outstanding achievements of the Whitlam government was the introductionof the supporting mother’s benefit in 1973 (now called parenting payment). Prior to 1973, only widows were entitled to pension payments, so other women who were raising children alone faced invidious choices, often involving a traumatic relinquishment of the child for adoption or having to work long hours to support her family, which was not an option for many women.

The pension payment gave single mothers (and, in 1977, also fathers) choices and options around the raising of their children, enabling a focus on full-time care for babies and small children and a balance between work and care when the children were older. It was an immensely important initiative in removing old stigmas around single mothers.

This achievement also linked to a proactive approach for women’s employment, taking forward the equal pay initiatives beginning in 1969 and resulting in equal pay for equal work across most of the workforce by 1972, and in 1974 a comparable minimum wage for both men and women. It is hard to believe some 40 years later that such a difference could have existed.

An important achievement of the Whitlam era, which should not be underestimated, was its support for civil society organisations, including women’s services and representative organisations. These organisations have been and continue to play an important role in fostering Australia’s participatory democracy. In many countries today, peoples strive to create these organisations, which have an important role in social and economic progress.

The introduction of Medicare and the abolition of university fees, combined with assistance for students from low-income families, were also major innovations of the Whitlam era in creating a more egalitarian and progressive society.

Cate Blanchett’s eulogy at Gough Whitlam’s memorial service on 5 November echoes the themes raised here:

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