Gough Whitlam

The Honourable Edward Gough Whitlam AC QC

  • Redmond Barry Award 

Throughout a distinguished career spanning the fields of the law, politics and diplomacy, Edward Gough Whitlam has rendered outstanding service to Australia's library and information profession. Reflecting on his years as Prime Minister, Mr Whitlam wrote in his book of record The Whitlam Government: 1972-1975:

"Of all the objectives of my Government none had a higher priority than the encouragement of the arts, the preservation and enrichment of our cultural and intellectual heritage."

Fundamental to Mr Whitlam's vision for our country has been his philosophical commitment to 'the right to know' and therefore the importance of providing equality of access to information for all members of the community.

On 11 March 1975 Mr Whitlam established a committee of inquiry which was to explore issues associated with public access to information. The importance of this step was noted by the then President of our Association, Mr W L Brown who made the following comments in his address at our Melbourne Biennial Conference in August 1975:

“The initiative of the Prime Minister of Australia in establishing a Committee of Inquiry into Public Libraries gives Australian libraries and librarians ... the opportunity of laying before the Parliament and the people a charter for the development of library and information services to meet the needs of the Australian people in the next generation. "

In the official opening address of that conference Mr Whitlam expressed his Government's expectations in respect of the Committee's deliberations:

“What we are seeking is not just more books or better buildings but a comprehensive national information policy. There is a long-term need to coordinate and rationalise all library services."

He noted that:

“The library's function is to provide information. The librarian's function is to organise that information and ensure that everyone has access to it. These functions are basic to any concept of true democracy. Libraries that are free, open and accessible are just as much bastions of freedom as universities or parliaments. Freedom of speech is a precious freedom, but it has a much higher value, a much richer significance, when freedom of information goes with it. Everyone has the right to an ill-informed opinion, but only through access to information can the freedom to express opinions have genuine value. Only through access to information can freedom of speech be truly relevant in a democratic society."

The Committee of Inquiry into Public Libraries embraced not only issues in the effective provision of free public library services but made many other detailed recommendations on planning, coordination, finance, regionalisation, technological matters and the need for innovation. The Committee's broad premise that the provision of public library and information services should be the collective responsibility of the Commonwealth, State and local spheres of government, funded in part by each, was strongly welcomed by the profession at the time.  There is no doubt that twenty years later, this initiative of the Whitlam Government remains one of the key events in the history of libraries in our country.  It has certainly underpinned much of the professional debate and effort in Australia for two decades and much of the development in the delivery of information services has been shaped by this endeavour.

While Prime Minister, Mr Whitlam made many other decisions which impacted on libraries and librarians. He introduced the Public Lending Right which ensured financial support for authors whose books were made available in public libraries. The Australia Council was established. He set up Community Information Services under the Australian Assistance Plan. His decision to accept responsibility at the federal level for the funding of tertiary institutions led to the development of impressive collections in university libraries and an expansion in the services offered to students. The establishment of the Australian Archives was a recognition of the importance of preserving our documentary heritage. The foundations were laid for the introduction of Freedom of Information legislation. There were many initiatives of this type which Mr Whitlam introduced, and which have made a lasting impact on our profession.

Mr Whitlam has maintained his interest in issues of equality of access to information since retiring from Parliament in 1976. He delivered the Dulcie Stretton lecture for what is now the Library Society of the State Library of New South Wales in Sydney on 13 November 1985 on the subject of The Munn-Pitt Report-5O Years On. He also gave the inaugural Kenneth Myer Lecture for the Friends of the National Library of Australia on 5 April 1990 on the subject of National Collecting Institutions.

As Australian Ambassador to UNESCO from 1983 to 1986 and a member of the Executive Board of UNESCO from 1985 to 1989 Mr Whitlam took a particular and wide ranging interest in the major programmes dealing with culture (Programme 111) and communication/information/informatics (Programme IV). He waged a persistent and successful campaign to have Australia formally accede to the Florence Agreement and the Nairobi Protocol which dealt with the free international flow of cultural information. Mr Whitlam has referred to this achievement as "my last official act in a process of reform and agitation, to stimulate the arts in our country and refurbish our cultural institutions."

In conferring the Redmond Barry Award on Edward Gough Whitlam, the Australian Library and Information Association pays the highest tribute to one of the outstanding individuals in Australian public life this century. We thank Mr Whitlam for the role he has played in promoting the development of our profession and the services we deliver to the community.