Michelle Arrow first came across the 1970s Royal Commission on Human Relationships as a short reference in a larger history book. This piqued her interest and began a research project into a forgotten moment of Australian history. The research was crafted into a 52 minute radio feature broadcast on ABC Radio National’s program Hindsight during the project, reigniting interest in this Whitlam Government initiative.
In 1974 three commissioners were given a brief to investigate the family, social, legal, educational and social aspects of male and female relationships. Originally envisioned as a salve to women voters in the light of abortion legislation failing in the Parliament, its terms of reference were later extended to homosexual relationships. The fall of the Whitlam Government left the Commission in its wake, where it was subsequently shortened by the Fraser Government. The Commission’s recommendations and findings were sensationalised, and never debated in Parliament.
The Commission was a very public investigation into the private life of Australia, not how it was imagined to be but how it really was. The process of conducting such an inquiry was often painful and confronting. The extent of violence against women and children, the widespread ignorance about sexuality, the consequences of unwanted pregnancies, and the painful legacies of homophobia – all of these issues were aired publicly by the Royal Commission.
Michelle Arrow is the first historian to explore this treasure trove of material and was supported through the research by a National Archives of Australia Frederick Watson Fellowship. The radio program broadcast on Hindsight won the 2014 NSW Premier’s Multimedia History Prize and was replayed on the ABC as a tribute to Gough Whitlam after his passing.