By Darryl Mason
I always liked that Gough Whitlam had his plan to transform Australia and dived straight in the day he was elected and just went for it, not caring if it cost him a second term as prime minister (it didn't, at least until the Dismissal). He wanted to radically transform Australia, its laws, society and people, and he did. Nothing his critics and loathers can say today will take away from what Gough Whitlam did, particularly for the poor of this nation.
Few people have changed Australia like Gough Whitlam did. It wasn't just monumental events like Aboriginal land rights, free medical care and the dumping 'God Save The Queen' as our our national anthem, for example, it was lesser known change that also transformed daily lives, like getting sewerage systems into Western Sydney. When I was a little kid, in outer Western Sydney, open drains sat next to many roads, outside many houses, and kids played in them, it was Third World stuff. The Whitlam government covered over the drains, and got the crap out of there.
He got rid of a lot of crap from the racist, intolerant Menzies era, too, to put it bluntly.
Here's a small list of The Change Gough Whitlam, who died today aged 98, brought about in just three years (not in any kind of order of importance):
Got Rid Of University Fees For A Generation Of Students
Independent Foreign Policy And Increased Foreign Aid
Independence For Papua New Guinea
National Identity For Australians
Funding For Australian Films And Arts
Indexation Of The Age Pension
The Abolition Of 'White Australia' Policies
Public Health Insurance For All Australians
The National Sewerage Program
Equal Pay For Women
Aboriginal Land Rights
Ended Australia's Involvement In The Vietnam War
The Racial Discrimination Act
Got Rid Of The Death Penalty
Women Were Given Power In Government
Introduced Legal Aid, And Made It Easier For Women To Escape Violent, Abusive Marriages
Diplomatic Relations With China (he got there before Nixon)
Free Medical Care
Got Rid Of 'God Save The Queen' As Australia's National Anthem
Brought In Radio Station Double-J (which became JJJ)
Lowered The Voting Age From 21 To 18
Brought More Young People Into Politics, And Gave Them A Voice
Introduced Environmental Protection For Precious Sites And Wilderness
And on and on and on.
In just three years.
Below is a selection of memorials to Gough Whitlam, from those who knew him, worked with him or just admired him.
Mark Latham on Whitlam, 'The Greatest Australian':
Gough Whitlam was the greatest ever Australian
...no Australian has enhanced our nation and improved our lives as much as Whitlam.
He may have been prime minister for just three years (1972-75) but his legacy is timeless. Whitlam changed Australia forever. Just look at his achievements.
Whitlam was everywhere, modernising our institutions, from Australia’s foreign policy to the quality of our schools and suburbs. His interests and ideas were universal, from the White House to the outhouse.
Or to use Neville Wran’s comparison: “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.”
Whitlam epitomised the old saying that all politics is local. When he was elected to the seat of Werriwa 50-plus years ago, representing the vast southern and western suburbs of Sydney, his constituents were without essential services and opportunities.
There were no high schools or public hospitals. When the Whitlam family lived at Cabramatta (from 1957 to 1972) there were no municipal libraries or swimming pools. There were no paved footpaths and few paved roads. As for sanitation, everyone (Whitlam included) was in the outhouse.
This focused his mind on policy solutions. He believed that unless the federal government — with 80 per cent of all public revenue in Australia — funded these basic services, they would either be funded inadequately or not funded at all.
The fast-growing suburbs of the nation, the place where most Australians live, could not be left to the states and local government. Piece by piece, he put together a new policy program, based on the ideals of federal responsibility.
Today we associate Whitlamism with political vision, real big picture stuff. While this is true enough, it is also important to understand how the vision was assembled.
It didn’t come from a political textbook or grand theory. It was a product of Whitlam’s experiences in Werriwa, both as a resident and a representative. It was an evidence-based policy program.
For Whitlam, this was a question of relevance. In the 1950s and ‘60s, federal Labor was obsessed with just three issues: international affairs, industrial relations and social security. Whitlam was determined to broaden this agenda, to give the ALP policies on education, health and cities, to make us relevant to suburban lives and aspirations.
It is sometimes said that Whitlam did too much too soon. But which of these policies should have been postponed or abandoned? By today’s standards, they are a regular part of our national identity and community services. We couldn’t live without them.
Ultimately, Whitlam’s greatest achievement was to break down Australia’s class system. His school and higher education reforms gave working families a leg-up on the ladder of social opportunity.
A whole generation of young Australians became the first generation in their families to go to university. More than two decades after he left parliament, Whitlam still received letters and calls from people thanking him for the abolition of university fees.
In the 1950s and ‘60s, people who came from a working class background stayed there. The old economy locked them into semi-skilled work. Young Australians grew up with aspirations no more advanced than doing what their parents and grandparents had done.
In effect, Whitlam’s reforms created a whirlwind of economic and social mobility. In less than a generation, families went from owning nothing to owning everything — all through the power of a good education.
Where I live, I see them all the time. People I grew up with in Liverpool’s public housing estates are now the professionals, small business owners and information workers of the new economy, living in double-storey suburbs on Sydney’s fringe.
This is the Whitlam generation, the beneficiaries of his vision for a fairer and more dynamic Australian society. It is the reason, above all else, why Gough Whitlam is the greatest-ever Australian. He left something better, overwhelmingly better, for the next generation.
David Marr (excerpts):
Scarcely any constitutional lawyers left alive applaud Sir John Kerr for what he did to the Labor prime minister on 11 November that year. Not all the plotters are dead. From time to time fresh details emerge of the outrages planned behind closed doors by Kerr and his circle. But the verdict of both the law and history has been savage: there was no justification for the sacking of Whitlam.
Malcolm Turnbull once remarked to me that 1975 was “a sui generis fuck up”. Yet it still hangs like a question mark over politics in this country, a reminder of Australia’s strange vulnerability to panic and the lengths to which politicians who call themselves conservative will go in the pursuit of power.
Kerr has his defenders still among the politicians of the Coalition. Those who say 1975 is over and done with should pay attention to Tony Abbott over the next few days as he puts in a good word for Kerr. Since the prime minister’s university days, Kerr has been one of his particular heroes. Abbott has an unshakeable belief that 1975 was right.
And vouching for Kerr will remind Australians that this ugly coup isn’t behind us. One side of politics will still not disown what he did and oppose any attempt to be rid of the ancient and contested powers of the governor general which remain, in ruthless hands, ready to wreak havoc on Australian democracy.
Mungo MacCallum (excerpts):
Edward Gough Whitlam truly became a legend in his own lifetime. But it was a different legend to different audiences. Most of the left saw him as a flawed genius and a political martyr well on the way to beatification. The right regarded him as a monstrous aberration, a devil figure they used to warn budding politicians of the awful fate that awaits those who succumb to hubris.
All, however, acknowledged that he was the dominant figure of his times, a giant who bestrode the parliament in a way that few had done before him and none have approached since. Somehow the grandeur of Whitlam lingers on, even among the under 30s who have only heard the stories.
Somehow this unlikely figure, the Canberra-reared son of a public servant, the awkward, pedantic, legalistic, self-righteous, often maddening and at times just plain boring preacher of reform has become part of the Australian pantheon.
In part it is because he made his own myths. Much of what the public saw as Whitlam's bombast was in fact a somewhat clumsy attempt at self deprecation. It is easy to see how: on one celebrated occasion the Director of the Australian National Gallery, Betty Churcher, informed Whitlam of a plan - fortunately kyboshed - which would have made him appear to walk across water to the opening of an exhibition. "Comrade," Whitlam replied, "that would not have been possible - the stigmata have not yet healed." His fans found it hilarious but it confirmed the worst fears of his critics. Here was Whitlam literally challenging the Almighty.
But he wasn't; Whitlam, though an agnostic, once described himself as a fellow traveller with Christianity and was a great respecter of religious belief. Rather than blaspheming, he was thumbing his nose at the pretension, the pomposity and the hypocrisy of an establishment which all too frequently, in his view, failed to distinguish between God and Mammon. And if the snobs didn't get the joke, that was their tough luck.
I first met Gough Whitlam in 1969, shortly after I arrived in Canberra. Like many on the left at that stage I was not sure where he stood on the key issues of the time, especially the war in Vietnam. As the heir to Arthur Calwell's noble but doomed anti-war crusade in 1966, Whitlam, while clearly determined to negotiate Australia's way out of the mess to our north, seemed to me not to have the same fire in his belly
Although only party leader for two years, he had already survived a challenge from the charismatic king of the streets, Jim Cairns (masterminded by the man who claimed to be Whitlam's greatest admirer, Phillip Adams) and was distrusted by some in his own party, notably the leader of the NSW left, Lionel Murphy, with whom I felt considerable rapport.
Moreover he was supported by the NSW right, which even in those days was pretty awful. I realised later that the perception of Whitlam himself as being on the right of the party, like that of Calwell being on the left, was no more than an accident of geography: Whitlam, the internationalist free thinker, was bound to his dominant state faction just as was Calwell, the conservative Catholic advocate of White Australia. But at the time I was inclined to be suspicious of the smooth talking lawyer who, like myself, had benefited (or otherwise) from a privileged education.
The first meeting changed my mind completely; I was won over to lifelong Whitlamolatry. In place of the sinister manipulator I had half expected I found an amiable, funny and rather shy man desperately eager to explain his plans to transform the smug backwater from the Menzies years into a model for the rest of the world.
In those days the idea that Australia could take any kind of leading role beyond sport was breathtaking, yet Whitlam seemed to find it entirely possible if a meticulously prepared program of public education and overdue social change could be carried out - and, as he outlined it all those years ago, there seemed no good reason why it should not. I also embraced the man himself. While Whitlam, like Menzies, did not suffer fools gladly he was not an intellectual snob; he was genuinely interested and concerned about people, not just en masse, but as individuals. He took a personal interest in their affairs. When two opposition staffers married in Canberra in 1972, Whitlam interrupted a frantically busy election schedule to fly from Sydney to attend the ceremony. It was winter and Canberra airport was fogbound for several hours; his VIP aircraft could not land, but rather than return to Sydney Whitlam waited until the weather cleared and made a belated appearance at the reception. He became a secular godparent to one of my daughters, invited my extended family to the Lodge for a head-wetting and maintained an interest in her welfare thereafter. He kept in touch with a huge round of colleagues, acquaintances and their families and was constantly performing small acts of kindness, although these too were frequently misconstrued by cynics; after he had paid a private hospital visit to the child of a colleague he was greatly distressed when an enemy put it about that he was just chasing an extra vote in caucus. The fact was much simpler; the boy had asked to meet his hero, and Whitlam, being a kind and generous human being, had obliged.
He was both a humanitarian and a humanist; he truly believed that if people were told the truth, were shown the possibilities for their future and given a genuine choice, they would behave sensibly, decently and even altruistically. In spite of repeated disappointments he never lost that faith in humanity. It was this above all that made him such an attractive human being.
For his part Whitlam seemed pleased to welcome me on board as another class traitor, especially one who was both a scion of the Wentworth dynasty and a godson of Guy Harriott, the arch-Tory editor of the Sydney Morning Herald. The fact that I could recognise most of his classical allusions, even the ones in Latin, probably helped too.
In those days the office of the Leader of the Opposition was a small and open affair: two advisers, a press secretary-cum-speechwriter, an appointments secretary and a stenographer. Whitlam's anteroom, to give the cramped area between the front door and his own hideaway a grand name, was a favourite after-hours drinking spot for sympathetic members of the press. The Leader, as he preferred to be called, seldom joined them, but his aura was always present; although it was more than three years before the slogan "It's Time" was coined, the mood for change was already manifest.
In those early days there was a huge welling of enthusiasm, not only among Labor supporters but among the general public, who believed that indeed it had been time, and were eager to give the new boys a fair go. It really seemed like a new age. And at least no one could say that the new government was a dull affair: for some weeks the major papers carried a regular front page panel with the heading "What the government did yesterday," which usually ran to several paragraphs. At the end of the first year, Whitlam read into Hansard a list of the major achievements of the government to date; it took nearly half an hour.
I do not remember the content of the speeches. Attending as an early teenager, I doubt the words ever took deep root in my brain.
I do remember the atmosphere and I have a strikingly vivid recollection of the three men, standing together, arms raised above their heads, hands joined. To reach Gough’s hand, held so high, was a strain for Bob and Don.
The last time I saw Gough he was both changed and unchanged. He sat, not strode. The love of his life, Margaret, was gone. He would focus on a world unseen to me.
But then, suddenly, he would be back. Concentrating on me, engaged, the cadence of that truly magnificent voice was again in my ear.
Gough will live always in our nation, which he transformed throughout his long public life.
He is alive in our universities and the many lives he changed by giving free access to university education, my life included in that count.
Alive in Medicare and the uniquely Australian health system we now take for granted.
Alive in our suburbs and in our family law.
Alive in our relationship with China and our multicultural society.
Alive in our embrace of land rights for Indigenous Australians and our hope for a truly reconciled future.
Gough is alive in today’s Labor party, too. We celebrate his government’s triumphs and never forget the hard lessons learned from the mistakes.
Every Labor leader and every prime minister who has followed him has wrestled with his legacy. Gough Whitlam transformed so much about Australia and the prime ministership.
After Gough, the prime ministership would always be “not a permission to preside but a command to perform”. Because of what he did between 1972 and 1975, our leaders will always be judged on whether we drive for major change, not how deftly we manage “more of the same”.
I remember Gough as one of the great Australian characters. His wit literally filling books.
I honour Gough as a man of the highest political courage. A giant of his era. He was truly prepared to “commit and see what happens”. He transformed Australia and we are in his debt.
I reflect on someone who was a great leader and a great person.
Gone, grieved for, but never to be forgotten. A legacy to be celebrated.
A Comprehensive Obituary For Gough Whitlam