It is testament to the profound impact Gough Whitlam made in just three years as Prime Minister so long ago – 1972-75 – that his death on October 21 was felt so keenly across generations. One suspects that even Gough’s most ardent admirers might be surprised, if gladdened, that his death at 98 was met with such sadness, affection and gratitude.
Prime ministers, premiers and ministers naturally dream of leaving a legacy – that’s why they are so quick to rush to print on losing office. Most, however, must make do with a few plaques, markers of long forgotten launches. And a few dozen copies of remaindered memoirs. Judging by the reaction to Gough Whitlam’s death, his name, and his seminal place in the story of modern Australia, will be spoken for generations to come.
Among those who have vivid memories of the Whitlam years, it is telling that many hold those memories not as voters for (or against) Whitlam’s ALP, but as secondary school students.
Such was thrill and tumult of a reformist government actually “doing” things, and such was the towering charisma of the man himself, that even generally apathetic school teens could not help but be captivated by events in Canberra.
In the years 1971-76 I went to Xavier College in the Melbourne suburb of Kew – as it happens the suburb in which Whitlam was born in 1916. During this time there were four Prime Ministers: John Gorton, William McMahon, Gough Whitlam and Malcolm Fraser.
My memory is that most of the boys at school spoke dismissively of the “socialist” Whitlam government, no doubt parroting the dread and disgust of their well-to-do parents. But they certainly knew who Gough Whitlam was. I doubt they would have given Billy McMahon a second thought had he won the 1972 election. (Although it is interesting to speculate on the course of events had Gorton not relinquished the prime-ministership in March 1971.)
Gough Whitlam charged my interest in politics while I was at school. I took a keen interest in the 1974 election and the following year, by which time I was studying political science for the first time, was transfixed by the constitutional crisis and the dismissal.
November 11, 1975
I was in a history class when fellow student John Chipp, who had been sent to stand outside the classroom for unruly behaviour, rushed into the classroom to announce that the Whitlam government had been sacked. The teacher, Pat Clohessy – the legendary athletics coach who would later be inducted into the Sport Australia Hall of Fame – told Chipp not to be stupid and ordered him out of the room again. But Chipp persisted, Clohessy left the room to see what he could find out, and it was true: the Governor-General had sacked the Whitlam government. Class was suspended as a visibly shocked Clohessy took in the news.
As for my schoolmate Chipp, his sources were impeccable. He was the son of Don Chipp, a former federal Minister in the Holt, Gorton and McMahon governments and his father had been sworn into Fraser’s caretaker Ministry. (Don Chipp was dropped from the Ministry when Fraser won the 1975 election. A disgruntled Chipp went on to form the Australian Democrats. Again, it is interesting to speculate on the course of Australian politics had Chipp remained a Minister.)
I continued my interest in politics, went on to major in the subject when I went to university, giving my schoolboy interest in the Whitlam years more depth and nuance.
The Gough Factor
Gough Whitlam energised and engaged the Australian people – including non-voting Australians – like no other Prime Minister had before or since.
In mourning Whitlam, Australians also mourn the absence of Gough’s ilk. Whitlam represented a brand of political leader and parliamentarian we simply do not see anymore. The death of Whitlam reminds us of the many qualities he possessed that are manifestly absent from today’s Canberra: substance, conviction, passion, purpose, vision, eloquence, and charisma in spades.
Gough Whitlam possessed all these qualities, and they ultimately outshone his flaws, as is evident from the tributes that continue to flow.
Whitlam’s ascendancy to power carried with it a lesson for today’s political leaders. Power is not about birthright or naked ambition. Whitlam sought power, because he wished government to create a better Australia.
Whitlam stood for something. When he said in his 1969 election policy speech, “We of the Labor party have an enduring commitment to a view about society”, Australian politics could not be further removed from today’s small-target, policy-free election campaigns.
One imagines there are not many MPs in today’s colourless and insipid Federal Parliament who would attract Gough’s approval. There are some, and one of them is Malcolm Turnbull, who shares many of Whitlam’s qualities, and who delivered the most eloquent and one of the most moving tributes to the late Prime Minister.
I end my tribute to Gough with an excerpt from Turnbull’s:
“We recognise that all prime ministers capture the attention of the Australian people. Not all prime ministers capture their imagination, and even fewer capture their imagination and retain it for so long. Gough Whitlam was able to do that because of his presence and his eloquence but, above all, because of that generosity of vision I spoke about earlier. He was an enhancer, an enlarger. … Gough will never be forgotten. … By capturing our imagination with such optimism, he will always be a symbol of the greatness, the importance, the value of public life—an example to all of us.”
Vale Gough Whitlam. You leave Australia a better place.