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‘Helth’ under Whitlam

Andrew Baker | 13 July 2012

I know what you are thinking. You’re thinking the word ‘health’ is spelled wrong.

If we were talking about ‘helth’ under Fraser, Hawke, Menzies, Keating, Howard or any other Australian government you would be right, and ‘health.’

But ‘helth’ in some informal contexts during the Whitlam government is correct.

Gough Whitlam’s ‘Minister for Helth,’ Doug Everingham, was a supporter of Anglo-Australian engineer Harry Lindgren's campaign to spell words the way they are spoken.

So ‘friend’ became ‘frend,’ ‘ready’ became ‘redy,’ ‘bury’ became ‘bery,’ and ‘health’ became ‘helth.’

Fortunately, the ‘helth’ portfolio was replaced by the ‘health’ portfolio following the election of the Fraser government and we haven’t seen it since.

Australia’s ‘helth’ tale is not just a story about some of the absurdities of the Whitlam government; it is also a story about the detachment of elites and sometimes bizarre opinions they try to inflict on the masses from a position of power.

Lindgren should be congratulated for his valuable contribution to civil society. Time will tell, but with the rapid pace of globalisation, and the growing number of people speaking English in Asia and elsewhere, he may just get his way.

And Everingham is more than welcome to his views on spelling reform, but the mistake he made was in abusing his power as a minister of the Crown.

Fundamental changes about how human beings communicate with each other are not the sort to be enforced from the top by those in a position of authority.

The Gillard government’s proposed public interest test for media ownership is a much more egregious example of this abuse of authority.

Civil society is constantly growing, changing, adapting and evolving. The death throes of the newspaper business are just one example of the human capacity for creative destruction.

But these changes should be natural, organic and bottom up. That is why our capacity to communicate freely with one another is imperative.

Changes to what we can and cannot say, and how we say it, should not be imposed by self-appointed guardians of public interest.

The brief tenure of the ‘Australian Ministry of Helth’ is not much cause for concern. What is of concern is the continuing belief that people in power know what is best for the rest of us.

Andrew Baker is a Policy Analyst at The Centre for Independent Studies.