Gough Whitlam was irreverent. He even joked about his own death. Some years back he mockingly complained to me that he thought the ALP would try to turn his funeral into “a fund-raiser, some kind of raffle”. As I sought to assure him that would not be the case, he interrupted saying “I’ve got news for them, my funeral will be bigger than Cleopatra’s entry into Rome”.
I am sure it will be.
Gough’s irreverent humour means that we can best honour his memory in the way he would most like; by joyfully celebrating his life and its impact on every Australian.
He certainly had a big impact on me, even though I was still in New Zealand during the time of the Whitlam Government. My first meeting with Gough occurred immediately after I had been interviewed by Don Dunstan at Parliament House in Adelaide when, at age 24, I was applying for the job as his Press Secretary and Speech Writer. Gough was in Adelaide to give a speech at Glenelg and popped in to see his long-time partner in reform. Years later he claimed credit for convincing Don to hire me. What he actually told me that evening, however, was “Go East young man, go East”. On this occasion, I’m glad I didn’t take his advice.
In the ALP, Gough was always there for us. He came to our policy and campaign launches andtravelled the country to spruik for candidates, speaking at sub-branch meetings and barbecues. Even when he was wheelchair-bound, as he was at Sasha’s and my wedding, Gough would still come, if invited. He was a generous, kindly man of Olympian bearing, with his wife, Margaret, always there to puncture any hubris and bring him down to earth. She was his anchor as well as his support and the two of them are inseparable in their contribution to Australia.
Inevitably, most of the attention on Gough Whitlam right now is about his brief but tumultuous three years as Prime Minister, that ended with his dismissal by Governor-General Sir John Kerr, the political equivalent of an earthquake.
But, let us remember that in 1967 new leader Gough Whitlam inherited a party that was dispirited and accustomed to defeat. He understood that the ALP could not be elected with only the votes of its working-class union base. To become Prime Minister, he needed to build a bigger coalition with middle-class, professional and university-educated support. So Gough deconstructed and rebuilt the ALP, modernising, intellectualising, demystifying it, and exorcising from it the bigotry and racism that had soiled and shamed it from the earliest years with the White Australia Policy. Whitlam embraced a multicultural Australia with the duller “melting pot” replaced by a richer, more colourful “salad”. He also lifted our sights beyond the front bar and our quarter acre blocks, to the arts and a cultural renaissance. As a result, we are a much different nation today.
In opposition and in government he forged an extraordinary partnership with Don Dunstan, even though Gough was fundamentally a centralist with little regard for the states. Gough and Don were the Washington and Jefferson of modern Australian Labor politics in the 60s and 70s. They were champions of change, maestros of the possible, leaders who incessantly summoned their party and the Australian people to move forward.
It’s true that in his first week in office Gough Whitlam ended conscription, brought the remaining troops back from Vietnam, banned racially-selected sporting teams, supported sanctions against Apartheid, while announcing that Australia would recognise China and seek equal pay for women.
It’s true that Gough’s abolition of university fees gave a generation of working class teenagers a hope of an education that would enrich their lives.
It’s true that his championing of universal health care, legal aid, urban planning, the standardisation of railways and his commitment to equal opportunity, anti-discrimination and Aboriginal land rights were each a big leap forward for Australia.
Kerr and then the voters got rid of Whitlam but most importantly his reforms remain. That’s the real test.
But Whitlam was much more important than any individual policy or achievement. Many people serve their country; Gough Whitlam changed ours. He lifted our individual horizons as people and made Australia more confident and more independent as a nation.
He was a Colossus, a big man in every sense who helped all of us and our country walk taller.
Rome, 21 October 2014