We will long remember 2016 as a watershed year. The Brexit Referendum of 23 June and the Trump electoral ascendency of 8 November may dominate the inevitable ‘year that was’ highlight reels yet these are but the most dramatic representations of a troubled world.
As I reflected on the year I was drawn back to Graham Freudenberg’s 2015 Gough Whitlam Commemorative Oration.
In his closing words Graham reminded us of Gough’s unswerving conviction in the primacy of the Parliament and his belief that Parliament remained the “great forum for developing, presenting and explaining policy”. Worth recalling in these uncertain times is Graham’s belief in the Parliament as the “anchor of our national life”. At the same time, he argued, there is a need to draw on all the available resources in the development and implementation of the public polity pointing to a future role for the Whitlam Institute itself as an independent institution: “This was Gough’s own deep hope as he watched the Institute grow during his rich and mellow autumnal years”.
We have always been profoundly aware of our responsibilities here at the Whitlam Institute but I cannot help but think that the importance of this particular national institution is more important today than it was even twelve months ago.
We had already determined that deepening and expanding our public policy research program is a priority over these next few years and during the course of this year we have published more policy research than ever. Our ‘Working Papers’ series is slowly gaining recognition for articulating an intellectual foundation for a 21st century social democracy. We’ve rekindled work on education and school reform, commenced scoping an important new project (but more of that in 2017) and strengthened our international activity and collaborations especially in Denmark, the United States, New Zealand and in a small way China. We’ve convened a further series of domestic and international policy research workshops. We have extended our series of ‘public conversations’ with more forums in Sydney (CBD, Parramatta but primarily here at the Institute) and forums in Melbourne and Hobart. We’ve broken new ground in getting the word out about our policy activities: Michael Kirby’s presentation on the Marriage Plebiscite, for example, was picked up by over 38,000 people within 24 hours of going online.
This year saw our schools program come to life not only with a record-breaking number of entries in the What Matters? student essay competition but with over 1300 primary aged students involved in a one-day civics program here at the Institute through a partnership with Mission Australia and Liverpool City Council. Well over 5,000 young people were directly engaged with our schools programs over the year.
We’ve also taken another step or two towards ensuring the Whitlam Institute becomes a thriving intellectual and cultural centre. We continue to expand our program here in the Female Orphan School with over 12,000 people coming through our doors (a 50% increase over 2015). One of the highlights this year has been the specially curated Way of the Reformer exhibition in the Margaret Whitlam Galleries marking the centenary of Gough’s birth and we couldn’t be more thrilled with the confirmation that the National Archives of Australia will be showing the exhibition in Canberra next year. We can say that close on 30,000 people were directly engaged our work in one way or another over the course of this year.
There are a few hints below of what lies ahead for us in 2017: it is going to be a very big year for the Institute that much is clear. The one to get in your diary without delay is the 2017 Gough Whitlam Oration to be delivered by Dr Stephen FitzGerald at Riverside Theatres on 16 March. It will be an address for these times!
For the moment though let me simply say thank you.
Thank you to all those who’ve followed our work, attended our seminars, come to see us, made those donations so critical to all we do (including some fascinating gifts to the Prime Ministerial Collection), partnered with us, written for us, volunteered, called us, shared their stories and spread the word.
See you in the New Year!