Fifty Years on, the Whitlam government’s Community Health Program is more relevant than ever

On Friday I had the privilege of attending a forum Celebrating the Whitlam Community Health Program: Lessons for the Future and participating on a panel at the Whitlam Institute.

The forum was the culmination of an ARC-funded Project looking at Contemporary lessons from a history of Aboriginal, women’s and generalist community health services in Australia 1970-2020, which involved more than a dozen investigators from nine universities and partner organisations.

  • Minister Butler speaking at a podium. A large image of Gogh Whitlam is behind him.
  • Associate Professor Tamara Mackean speaking at a lectern. A large photo go Gogh Whitlam is behind her.
  • Several people seated at the front of a room. Slide projected says "Australian women's health movement, centres & services: 1970s-2020s"
  • Dr Toby Freemans speaking at a podium with a large photo of Gogh Whitlam behind him.

The Community Health Program

The Community Health Program was established in 1973 and within three years it had funded over 700 projects, including community health centres, Aboriginal medical services, and women’s health centres.

Communities must look beyond the person who is sick in bed or who needs medical attention. The (Hospitals and Health Services) Commission will be concerned with more than just hospital services. The concept and financial support will extend to the development of community-based health services and the sponsoring of preventive health programs. 

Gough Whitlam, in a 1993 keynote address to the Australian Community Health Association’s National Conference in Adelaide

Even though the program was gouged by later governments many of the services funded still exist. For example I’ve worked with the Liverpool Women’s Health Centre this year, which was founded by a collective in 1975 and funded through the CHP.

The vision of the CHP remains relevant today: ensuring that people can have access to relevant, meaningful multidisciplinary care in the community. When the CHP was conceived in the early ’70s it sought to meet preventive care needs, to address inequalities, to reduce demands on hospital emergency departments, and tackle rising rates of chronic disease – issues which we have gone backwards on since.

The presentations and panel discussions highlighted that while the community health sector remains dynamic, Commonwealth engagement with the sector has been erratic. There’s a need to return governance to communities, reduce the variability in services offered by community health between states and regions, and to return to block funding rather than project funding. Primary Health Networks are well placed to tackle these issues, and to foster the kind of resilient local service systems that we’ll need to address environmental, social and economic shocks in the near future.

Thanks to all involved for a very thought-provoking afternoon.

Project team

Researcher and Project Manager

Dr. Connie Musolino, University of Adelaide.

Chief Investigators

Partner Investigators

  • Patricia Turner AM, CEO of the National Aboriginal Community ControlledHealth Organisation (NACCHO).
  • Denise Fry, Sydney Local Health District.
  • Paul Laris, Paul Laris and Associates.
  • Tony McBride, Tony McBride & Associates.
  • Jennifer Macmillan, La Trobe University.

Researchers and Students

  • Dr. Helen van Eyk, University of Adelaide.
  • Dr. James Dunk, The University of Sydney.
  • Abdullah Sheriffdeen, Flinders University.
  • Jacob Wilson, Flinders University.