Thanks Gough

Gough Whitlam, 1955 (National Archives of Australia)

Edward G. (Gough) Whitlam was prime ministor of Australia from 1972 to 1975.

I was only ten years old when he became PM, and a pimply young teen in high school when he made his exit, but during his time he made some tectonic changes to the fabric of Australian life.

Before I start, I should point out that politically I’m a bit of an economic conservative. I once ran as a federal candidtate for the Liberal Party in the 1990’s – a political party directly opposed to many of the philosophies of the Labor Party, of which Gough was a member, and luminary.

After watching an excellent two-part series on Gough Whitlam by the ABC : “Whitlam. The Power and the Passion“, I felt like I needed to express my gratitude to this amazing man for his legacy, of which I am a beneficiary – even though he was only Prime Minister for three years, and left office over 40 years ago.

So, Mr Whitlam, here are the things I’d like to thank you for, in no particular order:

1. Free University Education. What an amazing gift from a country to its youth. I came from a low-income family. I doubt I would have been able to go to uni if I or my parents had to pay full fees. But I got to study at one of the best Universities in Australia (University of Queensland) and didn’t have to pay a single cent. After three years I graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree and was able to work in my chosen field. My uni degree opened up wonderful opportunities for me, and today allows me to enjoy a much better lifestyle than I would have otherwise had.

2. Universal Health Care. Occasionally, when we have been ill, my family and I have free access to some of the best doctors in the country. Sometimes our health system is criticized, but I am grateful for our doctors and hospitals. In this family, they have saved our lives on several occasions. I can’t imagine ever living under a system where you could only get quality health care if you could afford it, or if an insurance company gave its imprimatur.

3. No-Fault Divorce. As anyone who has ever been through it will tell you, divorce is an unpleasant experience. Gough Whitlam introduced the “No fault” doctrine into Australian Family Law so that divorce proceedings were no longer a witch-hunt to find out whose “fault” it was that a marriage ended, but (more importantly) what outcome would be fairest for all, including the children of the marriage. While I don’t think you’ll ever come up with a system where divorcees come out of the proceedings happy with the process, I think today’s system is much more humane because of the reforms brought in by Whitlam.

4. Ending Conscription. As a primary school kid, I remember the anguish suffered by friends of my parents, whose sons had been “Called up” for military service in the Viet-Nam war. While I wasn’t of military age myself, I’m grateful that Whitlam ended conscription which had, till then, forced young men fight in wars, even though they weren’t old enoughn to vote.

5. The Trade Practices Act. Yep – it might sound like a crusty bit of legislation, but this act gave consumers a whole swag of new rights when dealing with corporations, which till then were almost impossible for average mums and dads to pursue. If you enjoy reasable guarantees and warranties on your purchases today, thank Whitlam for it.

6. Aboriginal Land Rights. What’s that got to do with a whitefella like me? When Gough poured a hand-full of dirt into the hands of Vincent Lingiari, and said “This is your land”, he helped white Australians realize that this continent was not a British outpost. It wasn’t a commodity that was bought and sold by corporations. It had a wonderful heritage that reached back to the dawn of time. Although Aborigines were the custodians of that heritage, all Australians were spiritual beneficiaries.

7. Equal pay for women. I was a kid growing up in a low income family where both parents worked full-time. This law recognized that the work my mum did was just as valuable as the work done by her male counterparts. Our family benefited directly from this recognition. Today, my daughters benefit from this same recognition. They won’t be treated as second-class workers

Yes – there were economic problems associated with the Whitlam government: Inflation, Debt, Unemployment, Scandals. But, for me, the important thing is that that Whitlam made some bold decisions, and those decisions still benefit all of us four decades later.

Australian Health Care – Simply The Best

"Chest X-ray" by Aidan Jones
"Chest X-ray" by Aidan Jones

My mother had open heart surgery recently.

It was a big deal. She’s almost 70 years old, and had one valve replaced, one valve repaired, and a hole in her heart closed up.

She was in a world-class private hospital in Brisbane for a week in a private room with the heart surgeon of her choice.

She’s only in an average health fund which costs her and Dad a total of about $350 per month.

And she recently got the bill.

Including drugs, pharmaceuticals, theatre and anesthetists fees, the total cost to her and dad was….Nothing. Not a cent.

The hospital costs were covered by the public health care system (Medicare) and the other stuff was covered the private insurer (MBF).

Mum raves about the quality of care she received. She can’t praise highly enough the dedication and attention she got from the nurses and doctors.

Neither can I. This is amazing. And it makes me realize we’re lucky to live in a country that has such fantastic health care. You measure it by the quality of care that average (not wealthy) people receive.

Some of the redneck yee-ha’s in the USA would call this socialism and throw tantrums about it. But when I look around here, I see dozens of health care insurers thriving. Hospitals – private and public are doing what they’re supposed to do most of the time, and average people are getting good care for a decent price.

All I can say is thank goodness we live in Australia. The health care system isn’t perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but it works well.

And Mum…. she’s recovering well!

Protecting Our Genome

Human Genome by Dollar Bin
Human Genome by Dollar Bin

Mapping the Human Genome was probably one of the greatest achievements of our time.

Scientists were able to unravel our DNA and gain an understanding of how its building blocks, chromosomes, specifically affected our lives.  For the first time we were able to find out if we were susceptible to various diseases, where our ancestors came from, what might happen to us physically as we aged.  Companies like 23 and me, and deCode have sprung up offering a comprehensive low cost service to analyze and help you understand your own DNA for around $USD 500.  This is an exciting development which is changing the lives of many people, and offering hope to others.

At the same time, multinational drug companies such as Myriad Genetics obtained their own genomic information for use with tests such as the BRCA1 and BRCA2 which can determine a woman’s susceptibility to Breast Cancer and Ovarian Cancer.  The problem was they claimed exclusive ownership of the information, and legally threatened anyone else who tried to use this genomic information to do their own tests.  They charged women in the USA $3,700 for the test.

In other words, Myriad was saying “Information about this part of your genetic material belongs to our company, you’re not allowed to use it, but we’ll do the tests for you if you pay us a lot of money.  And if you try to do the testing yourself, we’ll sue you”.

Thankfully, a district court judge in the USA has ruled that Myriad’s patents are invalid.  The judge said that the company didn’t invent the genetic information – they just discovered it.  And you can’t patent something you discover, only something you invent.

The bigger issue in all of this is that the Human Genome belongs to all of us.  In computer jargon, it should be “Open Source”.  It’s abhorrent that a company can come along and try to hoodwink you into thinking that they own information about your genome.  Multinational drug companies try to tell us that unless they can own and exploit that information, they won’t develop life saving tests.

Rubbish!  These charlatans are building upon the freely available work of groups such as the Human Genome Project. They can’t then claim ownership of it, and bully anyone who disagrees with them.  If they don’t like the situation, too bad.  Some other organization will come along and quickly fill the gap.

This information belongs to the human race.  It’s inappropriate for it to be traded around like MP3’s or computer games.

Queensland Health – a first-hand account

Our 4 year-old, Lilly, had trouble breathing last night at about 1am.

Her lips started turning blue, she started making barking noises like a seal, and could hardly get any air into her lungs. We were very worried.

I called 000 and the ambulance arrived within 5 minutes.

They were really effective, gave her oxygen, and took her off to the Royal Children’s Hospital right away.

A doctor was available to see her as soon as we arrived at the hospital, administered some drugs (Dexamethasone, for Croup), and we were able to take her home within the hour.

Everyone was very professional and helpful, and I can’t praise them enough.

It didn’t cost us a cent.

There’s been a lot of criticism of the health system in Queensland recently, but I think that despite the problems that have been publicized, we have an excellent system. It worked for us, and probably saved our daughter’s life.

To all the doctors, nurses and ambo’s in Queensland – our family regards you as heroes.