Gough Whitlam was a prime minister unsuccessful in three of his five federal election campaigns, including 1975’s extremely divisive contest. Somehow, though, his death has sparked an outpouring of kind words that may be most remarkable for their bipartisanship.
A long parade of politicians and other public figures has volunteered to encapsulate the “lessons” that “Gough’s legacy” supposedly “teaches” them.
Noel Pearson gave a eulogy at Gough’s memorial that directed our gaze to Rome, to the outback, to the farce that never ceases in public life, and to the precious value of justice. Leading figures in Australian politics and media have hailed it as one of the great Australian political speeches.
Gough Whitlam has inspired great rhetoric: several of the speeches that had already been given about the former prime minister were many cuts above the general grade of Australian political rhetoric.
Tony Abbott was conspicuously generous, especially in his acknowledgement of Gough’s generosity. Tanya Plibersek offered a heartfelt tribute to “reforms” her party would not dare to advance now.
Malcolm Turnbull’s memorial to Gough and Margaret Whitlam was unlike anything Australian parliamentarians have delivered to Hansard in my lifetime: a prayer for his former constituents, now resident on Mount Olympus.
Pearson came to praise Caesar on Wednesday, certainly not to bury him – thinking of phrases Gough himself must have read and discussed many times – but not to claim him for a particular factional interest either:
Raised next to the wood heap of the nation’s democracy, bequeathed no allegiance to any political party, I speak to this old man’s legacy with no partisan brief.
Pearson spoke most trenchantly about a political achievement that has lived on since Gough’s government – and has now outlived him, its author, too: the achievement of legislation to counter racial discrimination, culminating in the 1975 Racial Discrimination Act.
The villain of Pearson’s speech was former Queensland premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen. His acts of “spite” against Aboriginal Queenslanders were only countered by legal actions which relied on that Act, Pearson said:
If there were no Racial Discrimination Act, that would have been the end of it. Land rights would have been dead, there would never have been a Mabo case in 1992, there would have been no Native Title Act under Prime Minister Keating in 1993.
Pearson delivered these remarks at Sydney Town Hall under two huge projections of that famous photograph at Wave Hill. In it, Gough stands under the bluest of blue skies, pouring his faith in good government into Vincent Lingiari’s hands and declaiming the high phrases that Pearson quoted:
I solemnly hand to you these deeds as proof in Australian law that these lands belong to the Gurindji people and I put into your hands this piece of earth itself as a sign that we restore them to you and your children forever.
Cutting the reverential mood – this has quickly become one of the most-quoted turns in Pearson’s eulogy – he tried to sum up the immensity of Gough’s policy achievement by reference to Monty Python’s Life of Brian:
Apart from Medibank and the Trade Practices Act, cutting tariff protections and no-fault divorce in the Family Law Act, the Australia Council, the Federal Court, the Order of Australia, federal legal aid, the Racial Discrimination Act, needs-based schools funding, the recognition of China, the abolition of conscription, the law reform commission, student financial assistance, the Heritage Commission, non-discriminatory immigration rules, community health clinics, Aboriginal land rights, paid maternity leave for public servants, lowering the minimum voting age to 18 years and fair electoral boundaries and Senate representation for the territories.
Apart from all of this, what did this Roman ever do for us?
I have not yet sourced evidence of Gough’s views on Monty Python, nor of their views on him. Clearly he was not shy of comedy and satire, though. Many have noted his fondness for sending himself up. He appeared in Bruce Beresford’s film The Adventures of Barry McKenzie (as himself). He also received a very poignant note from Spike Milligan on the occasion of his dismissal in 1975.
Pearson called Gough “Roman” three times in the speech, if you count inclusively, knowing it would have tickled him. But “this old man” he played 10 times. It is a more personal and endearing term. Revealingly, it is an epithet he also applied to John Koowarta.
In that, we can hear how Pearson wants Gough Whitlam remembered in an epic history of 20th century campaigners for justice in Australia: Koowarta, Lingiari, Mabo, and their ilk. It is Gough as a hero worthy of Australia’s first peoples. This makes a compelling story and a moving tribute, even if some will resent its assumption that history is made by “great men”.
Meanwhile, Pearson’s speech clearly offered something that much of Australia’s civil society was ready to grab hold of. Megan Levy’s article yesterday captured the published consensus squarely by calling it “one for the ages”.
The Twitter feed she reproduced towards the end of her article also underscores the way the speech seized people’s imaginations, but social media across Australia and more broadly were groaning at the seams with similar examples.
Levy quotes Dominic Knight, who tweeted, “Am I the only person hearing something of the slow, resonating cadences of Dr King as Noel Pearson speaks?”. According to one opinion poll, King’s I Have a Dream is the one speech in all human history that has impressed the greatest number of Australians, so we can all see how this comparison counts as a merit point.
On the one hand, this media response has been a fairly harmless example of a type of group-think that draws much criticism of political reportage. As Matusitz and Breen have sharply put it:
Large groups of reporters cluster around a news site, engage in copycat reporting by using and sharing news information, and lazily refrain from confirming the data.
On the other hand, it certainly underlines Gough’s most appreciated mark on Australian public life: his brilliance as a performer. It is very hard to find any responses to his death that do not mention this aspect. Unsurprisingly, those who want to mark the occasion feel a need for suitably impressive oratory to commemorate it by.
In other words, Pearson’s brilliant achievement in this eulogy was to emulate the brilliant achievement of Gough. Greatness of style reprises greatness … of style.
"With all my reservations," Gough Whitlam said on his 80th birthday, "I do admit I seem eternal." He warned, however: "Dying will happen sometime. As you know, I plan for the ages, not just for this life." Whitlam defied these intimations of mortality for another 18 years before dying happened. What were his plans for the next age, his afterlife? "You can be sure of one thing," he said of a possible meeting with his maker, "I shall treat Him as an equal."
Those who admired and respected the former prime minister loved the jokes. Those who disliked him were not amused, even if they realised that the self-mockery kept the hubris in check. People liked Whitlam or disliked him. It was impossible to feel indifference. Yet even his enemies respected his intellect, powers of advocacy and larger-than-life presence. Gough Whitlam stands behind David Smith, the secretary to the Governor-General, as he reads the proclamation dissolving parliament following the dismissal of the Whitlam government.
Bitter opponents warmed somewhat after he left parliament. They had borne grudges. After 23 years of non-Labor government, they were reluctant to concede that the government he led in 1972 had a right to govern. Their tactics of obstruction led him to call an election after 18 months, which he won. They tried again 18 months later, this time with the help of Sir John Kerr, the governor-general, and shambolic behaviour by some government ministers. The propriety of their actions remains open for debate, but Kerr dismissed Whitlam in 1975 and Labor lost the ensuing election overwhelmingly.
The manner of his defeat has confused the Whitlam legacy. He is remembered as much for his going, which made him a martyr for many Australians, as for his achievements and the new sense of identity he brought the nation.
Senator John Faulkner asked in 2002: "Are you comfortable being an icon and elder statesman?". Whitlam replied: "Well, I hope this is not just because I was a martyr. The fact is I was an achiever." He could point to achievements and reforms such as recognising China, abolishing conscription, establishing Medibank, introducing needs-based school funding, extending tertiary education, reforming family law, boosting the arts, indexing pensions, and moving to equal pay for women, voting at 18, one vote-one value and Aboriginal land rights. He removed sales tax on contraceptives. He broke the cultural cringe, introduced an Australian honours system and a new national anthem, made relations with Asia a priority and ended Australia's involvement with imperialism, later revived in Iraq.
Edward Gough Whitlam was born on July 11, 1916, in Kew, Melbourne, when Australia's first prime minister, Edmund Barton, still lived. He lived during the lifetimes of all 27 other Australian prime ministers, to Tony Abbott. He contributed to the national debate from 1944, when he campaigned for a referendum seeking federal powers for post-war reconstruction – it lost – and still went to his office four days a week in his 99th year.
Henry Whitlam, an English draper, had gone to Bombay in 1854 to join the British army, under Field Marshal Hugh Gough. He carried 54 books with him. Later he joined the miners' struggle for voting rights on Victorian goldfields. Henry and Adelaide Whitlam named their first son Henry Gough. Called Harry, he served four years in Pentridge jail for forgery. A son, Harry Frederick, called Fred, became Australia's Crown Solicitor. It's a tribute to Australian democracy that the family could move in a generation from criminality to a senior law office in the new nation and, in the next, to the prime ministership.
Fred married Martha Maddocks and moved to Canberra, the new capital, in 1927, when he was deputy crown solicitor under Sir Robert Garran. The family was described as upper middle class. Some would argue that opponents saw Gough as a class traitor.
Young Whitlam attended Knox Grammar, Telopea Park High in Canberra, then Canberra Grammar. As children, books were Gough and his younger sister Freda's world. Frivolous distractions, even radio, were eschewed. Having topped the 1934 year in Christian doctrine at Grammar, ahead of Francis James, who was to edit The Anglican, Whitlam and James were told by Canon Edwards, the principal, why Francis would receive the prize: "The reason is that James believes it and you, Whitlam, do not."
Whitlam believed that his "maker" were the forces of family, society and history. He described himself as "a fellow traveller with Christianity" or "post-Christian". He knew more about religious belief than most believers. His life demonstrated the importance of ideas and belief.
He read Latin, Greek, English, history and some psychology for his Sydney University Arts degree, won a rowing blue, reorganised the St Paul's College library, edited Hermes, the students' magazine, played Noel Coward and Neville Chamberlain in university reviews and appeared briefly in Broken Melody, a minor film. He enlisted in the RAAF in 1941, flying as a navigator from northern Australia.
In 1942 he married Margaret Dovey, who had swum breaststroke for Australia at the 1938 Empire Games, the daughter of Bill, later Justice, Dovey. Their marriage is the longest prime ministerial union. He said in 2002: "My 25 years as member for Werriwa and three years as prime minister were just flashes compared in the long, warm glow of the other significant anniversary I celebrated this year – 60 years together with Margaret Elaine Dovey." Margaret helped keep Gough's feet near the ground. She said: "I'm a bit tired of all the adulation. He's almost reached the beatification stage. I suppose canonisation will come, with the obituaries."
Whitlam joined the Labor Party in 1945, completed legal studies, joined the bar in 1947 and used a war service loan to build a house at Cronulla. He stood in 1948 for Sutherland shire council and failed, stood in the 1950 NSW election, and failed, before winning the outer western suburbs federal seat of Werriwa in a 1952 by-election. His family recognised in the post-World War II electorate the disadvantages in education, health, transport, housing and other urban facilities. He tried to correct the deficiencies. Neville Wran, former NSW premier, said: "It was said of Caesar Augustus that he found a Rome of brick and left it of marble. It can be said of Gough Whitlam that he found Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane unsewered, and left them fully flushed."
Labor colleagues in Canberra saw the new, exceptionally tall member as an oddity – avoiding bars and absorbed in work. Robert Menzies saw Whitlam's potential: "He will lead the [Labor] party one day. It will not be dull."
Whitlam saw government as an instrument to improve life for all Australians. Graham Freudenberg wrote in A Certain Grandeur: "He took certain propositions as self-evident and among these were: that the national parliament was the only really important parliament in Australia; that the role of government was constructive, positive and benevolent; that action by governments, through parliament and the public service, was the normal and natural approach for the solution of Australian problems ...".
His interests ranged from flushing the suburbs to recognising "Red China". A speech in 1954 urged the latter. An internationalist and nationalist, he said in 1963: "Australia must strive above all things and more than most nations for the Parliament of the Man, the Federation of the World. The ultimate security of our nation and the ultimate survival of civilisation alike demand it." The weakening of United Nations authority, after the United States became the one superpower, disappointed Whitlam, who thought that history's lessons were not being learned. He pointed to Italy and Germany's arming Franco in Spain while the United States stayed out of the League of Nations; to the Americans helping the Taliban to remove the Russians from Afghanistan and arming Saddam Hussein's Iraq against fundamentalist Muslim Iran.
While Labor toiled in the wilderness after the split over communism in 1954-55, Whitlam made the most of scarce opportunities. After H.V. "Doc" Evatt resigned the leadership in 1960, he beat Eddie Ward to become deputy under Arthur Calwell. His two principal campaigns were for state aid to private schools, particularly poor Catholic schools, according to need, and for reform of the party structure. When the 36 delegates to the 1963 federal conference met to decide policy on the North West Cape naval base, part of the US nuclear defence network, Calwell and Whitlam had to wait outside the meeting, powerless. Menzies attacked the "36 faceless men". After the conference was reformed, Whitlam denounced the federal executive: "We've just got rid of the 36 faceless men stigma to be faced with the 12 witless men." Reprimanded for "gross disloyalty", he escaped expulsion. He had helped win the Dawson by-election in Queensland and his electoral appeal was becoming obvious. His theory that leaders either "crash through or crash" also became obvious.
Despite Calwell's brilliantly prophetic anti-Vietnam war speech, Labor was thrashed in the 1966 election. Replacing Calwell, Whitlam developed a wide range of policies, building what he called "The Program". Old Labor policies, including the pledge of nationalisation that Whitlam described as Old Testament, were superseded by the New Testament.
When the executive's left-wing refused to accept Brian Harradine's credentials in 1968, Whitlam resigned and called on parliamentary colleagues to confirm or replace him. He beat Jim Cairns, but only by 38 to 32.
Labor gained a 7 per cent swing in 1969, reducing the John Gorton Government's majority to seven seats. Labor would have won under the one-vote, one-value system Whitlam introduced in 1974. The party would probably have had four years of government in a healthy economy, before the 1973 world oil price shock. This might have prevented the slide into chaos.
In parliament, his favourite forum, Whitlam had established ascendancy over Menzies' successors Harold Holt and Gorton, then had fun at the expense of the ineffectual Bill McMahon. McMahon tried to revive the communist bogey when Whitlam met Chou-En-lai in China in 1971, only to discover that US President Nixon was following in Whitlam's footsteps. With the help of Clyde Cameron and John Ducker, the ALP's Victorian branch was reformed and a measure of reform brought to NSW.
A majority of Australians accepted Labor's campaign slogan in 1972 – "It's Time". The Coalition had been in power too long. Whitlam won a swing of only 2.6 per cent on December 2, but enough to take eight seats and government. Impatient to start governing before Christmas, Whitlam had himself and his deputy, Lance Barnard, sworn into the existing 27 portfolios. He called the two-man government "the duumvirate", or "the triumvirate" when Sir Paul Hasluck, the governor-general, signed necessary documents. They ended military conscription, released conscientious objectors from jail, recognised China, abolished knighthoods and moved towards Aboriginal land rights.
The full ministry, sworn in six days before Christmas, kept up the pace. Believing education to be the key to equal opportunity, Whitlam abolished tertiary fees and greatly increased spending for schools, universities and colleges. Pensions were increased and indexed and Medibank established as Australia's first national health insurance system. Urban and regional development programs were boosted. No Australian government has been so determined to implement without delay such comprehensive reform. Yet many reforms only brought Australia into line with modern social democracies.
Australians who remember the government for its dark days and dismissal may be surprised by the 1973 record. The program covered cities and local government, racial and gender discrimination, health, education, social security, minerals and energy, migrants, human rights, rural industries, the environment and the national estate. In foreign affairs, where Whitlam wanted "a more independent stance", 39 treaties and conventions were signed.
A National Gallery of Australia employee described Jackson Pollock's Blue Poles, which the Whitlam government bought controversially, as a metaphor for the government – the long hours that went into the painting, never wondering whether it would work, the excitement, passion, sheer rapture, flourishes, sudden insights, grand movements, spatters and accidents.
Historians Clem Lloyd and G.S.Reid wrote: "In the generally undistinguished, and often tawdry, atmosphere of Australian national politics, it is impossible to deny the Whitlam Government its certain grandeur." Historian Geoffrey Bolton described the government as "a shining aberration" in an essentially conservative nation.
Government spending increased by 5.7 per cent after inflation in 1973-74 and by 19.8 per cent in 1974-75. The program had been developed during economic buoyancy of the late 1960s, with Keynesism triumphant. Whitlam, like previous prime ministers, had never become intimately involved in economic decision-making. He failed to give primacy to economic matters, a practice now required of governments.
His government, having long focused on wealth distribution, had little idea about its creation. Whitlam appealed less to people's material instincts than to their better instincts. The economy would run itself, with Treasury help, and the program would be financed from economic growth. But the quadrupling of oil prices in 1973 ended that and the government allowed the economy to run out of control.
Whitlam's adherence to the program sprang from the belief that political promises should be kept, but economic reality mugged the program. The 1974 Budget was a mess. Whitlam replaced Treasurer Frank Crean with Cairns, who rejected Treasury advice and chose an expansionary fiscal policy to combat recession. Cairns was replaced in 1975 by Bill Hayden, who brought restraint and responsibility. It was too late.
The Loans and Morosi affairs gave the Opposition leader, Malcolm Fraser, the "reprehensible circumstances" he used to force an election by blocking Supply in the Senate. Rex Connor, Minister for Minerals and Energy, who wanted to build a powerful nation by harnessing Australia's resources, kept trying for a $4 billion loan from the Middle East after the government had ruled it out. Juni Morosi, an attractive Eurasian, was distracting Cairns. Whitlam sacked both for misleading parliament, but he had failed to control his cabinet.
Although John Kerr acted within his constitutional rights, the debate as to whether he should have dismissed the democratically elected government survives Whitlam's death. The modern test of the reserve powers under which Kerr acted was resolved in Britain in 1913, when King George V decided in favour of the people's house, the Commons, by not using the powers.
The vice-regal action tarnished the Australian political system. Malcolm Fraser's coalition won the ensuing election with a 55-seat majority but would have won anyhow, with runaway inflation, high interest rates and growing unemployment. Labor won power in NSW only six months later and nationally eight years later, but the political system attracted new levels of cynicism from 1975.
The lesson for Labor was that, despite the fact that many western countries fared just as badly after the oil shocks and that Whitlam introduced economic reform with a 25 per cent tariff cut, future governments must give primacy to economics.
The Hawke and Keating governments took the lesson. Describing Whitlam as "one of the most respected and admired figures in labour party politics the world over", British Prime Minister Tony Blair said that Whitlam's was a modernising government that had paved the way for the Hawke and Keating governments and that British Labour had learnt from them.
Revelations that the ALP had sought $500,000 from Iraq's Baath Socialist Party to help finance the 1975 campaign further damaged Whitlam. East Timor also threatened his reputation.
Critics claimed that Whitlam, prime minister in the lead-up to Indonesia's invasion of the former Portuguese colony in 1975, gave the Indonesian president a "green light" to take over East Timor by force of arms. Whitlam and Soeharto met when the Vietnam war was fresh in Australian hearts and minds and the West was disengaging from Asia. The record shows that, while Whitlam – and western governments generally – believed that the most desirable outcome would be for East Timor to be incorporated into Indonesia, this could be achieved only through self-determination by the East Timorese. The question is whether Whitlam pushed hard enough for self-determination. Although he made several references to self-determination, he seems not to have considered the consequences if the Timorese rejected incorporation. The evidence points to a lack of insistence on self-determination.
After the election, Whitlam offered the leadership to Hayden, who declined, before challenging a year later and losing to Whitlam, 30-32. Whitlam's loss in the 1977 election was even more devastating than in the unique circumstances of 1975. "This  was the people's rejection of Edward Gough Whitlam," Freudenberg wrote. When his eldest son, Tony, failed in St George, the father said, his voice breaking: "It's his name ..."
Yet Whitlam had not lost his sense of optimism, his faith in humanity or in parliament. He was free of bitterness. "Bitterness is a vice," he said. "It destroys." He believed politics remained an honourable profession and that parliament was Australia's instrument for reform and equality.
The Hawke Government appointed him Ambassador to UNESCO, the post to which Fraser had sent Kerr. On his return, he became chairman of the Australian National Gallery. He accepted other government and university appointments, travelled widely, addressed all manner of gatherings, wrote books and articles, campaigned for press freedom and human rights with his old adversary Fraser, was a regular at opening nights and advertised spaghetti sauce.
Kerr's sacking of Whitlam's government on November 11, 1975, was proclaimed by Kerr's secretary, David Smith, who finished by asking God to save the Queen. "Well may we say 'God save the Queen' because nothing will save the governor-general," Whitlam responded, urging supporters to "maintain the rage and enthusiasm". In later years he sometimes revealed a wistfulness about what might have been: "People remember that speech better than any other speech I made in Parliament."
Whitlam rarely doubted himself, which was both a strength and a weakness. He shaped public opinion rather than react to opinion polls. He turned the ALP from its tight trade unionism to a more open, ambitious social democracy, making Labor a credible alternative government again after 23 years. He made people laugh, a rare quality in politicians. His wit endured. When a carer asked him, at 97, if he had four children, he replied: "So far."
Few Australians in public life can have had such a passion for their country and such a vision of its possibilities. He said in his 1997 book, Abiding Interests, his "epistle to the Australians", that his abiding interests for Australia would end only "with a long and fortunate life". Margaret Whitlam, whom he described as his best appointment and most constant critic, died in 2012, a month before their 70th wedding anniversary. Gough Whitlam is survived by his sons Tony, Nick and Stephen; daughter Catherine and sister Freda.
- Sydney Morning Herald, 21 October 2014
Other Obituaries for Edward Gough Whitlam
- unpublished eulogy, 5 November 2014, by Noel Pearson
- Parliamentary Debates (House of Representatives), 21 October 2014, p 11517, by Tony Abbott
- Parliamentary Debates (House of Representatives), 21 October 2014, by Bill Shorten
- Parliamentary Debates (House of Representatives), 21 October 2014, by Malcolm J. Turnbull
- Parliamentary Debates (House of Representatives), 21 October 2014, p 11523, by Tanya Plibersek
- Parliamentary Debates (Senate), 27 October 2014, by John Faulkner
- Parliamentary Debates (Senate), 27 October 2014, by Christine Milne
- Whitlam, Margaret Elaine (wife)
- Whitlam, Martha Ravenshaw (mother)
- Whitlam, Harry Frederick (father)
- Dovey, Wilfred Robert (father-in-law)
- Whitlam, Henry Hugh (grandfather)
- Williams, Rees David (friend)
- Ferguson, Laurie John (friend)
- Fraser, Malcolm (friend)
- Ingram, Kenneth Ross (classmate)
- Hewitt, Alison Hope (classmate)
- James, Alfred Francis Phillip (classmate)
- McAlary, Frank Stratton (classmate)
- Kerr, John Robert (colleague)
- O'Shea, Bernard Anthony (acquaintance)
- Wong, Keith (acquaintance)
- Smith, Shirley Coleen (acquaintance)
- Gietzelt, Ray (acquaintance)
- Wilson, Ian Frederick (acquaintance)
- Starke, Joseph Gabriel (teacher)
- Pugh, Clifton Ernest (artist)
- Hardy, Francis Joseph (related entry)
Tony Stephens, 'Whitlam, Edward Gough (1916–2014)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/whitlam-edward-gough-18730/text30330, accessed 14 March 2018.