Gough Whitlam, who was prime minister for just three years but became a defining political figure of modern Australia, has died aged 98.
Whitlam’s family said in a statement on Tuesday: “Our father, Gough Whitlam, has died this morning at the age of 98.”
“A loving and generous father, he was a source of inspiration to us and our families and for millions of Australians.
“There will be a private cremation and a public memorial service.”
The election of his government on 2 December 1972, with the famous “It’s time” election campaign, ended 23 years of conservative rule and its dismissal by the governor general Sir John Kerr on 11 November 1975 remains one of the most controversial events in Australian political history.
But in just three years the Whitlam government instituted sweeping changes that transformed Australian society as the baby boomer generation came of age.
In a rapid program of reform it called “the program”, the Whitlam government created Australia’s national health insurance scheme, Medibank; abolished university fees; introduced state aid to independent schools and needs-based school funding; returned traditional lands in the Northern Territory to the Gurindji people; drafted (although did not enact) the first commonwealth lands right act; established diplomatic relations with China, withdrew the remaining Australian troops from Vietnam; introduced no-fault divorce laws; passed the Racial Discrimination Act; blocked moves to allow oil drilling on the Great Barrier Reef; introduced environmental protection legislation; and removed God Save the Queen as the national anthem.
Paul Keating said:"Gough Whitlam changed the way Australia thought about itself and gave the country a new destiny. A more inclusive and compassionate society at home - a more engaged and relevant country abroad.
"He snapped Australia out of the Menzian torpor - the orthodoxy that had rocked the country asleep, giving it new vitality and focus. But more than that, bringing Australia to terms with its geography and place in the region.
"Along his journey he also renovated the Labor Party, making it useful again as an instrument of reform to Australian society.
"He will be missed by all who identified with his values and determination to see Australia a better place. But no one will miss him more than his family."
Bill Shorten said:There will be more tears shed today, I believe, for Gough Whitlam than perhaps any other leader in Australian history. And his beloved men and women of Australia will long remember where they were this day.
It’s time, Gough told us, because of him, because of his life and legacy it’s always time. It’s always time for more generous and inclusive Australia. It’s always time to help our fellow Australians rise higher than their current circumstance.
It’s always time for courage and leadership to create and seize opportunity.
It’s always time. Gough’s light shines before him and the memory of his great works will live long in the heart of our nation.
former PM and Labor leader Julia Gillard said: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.
Tony Abbott said:He united the Australian Labor Party, won two elections and seemed, in so many ways, larger than life. In his own party, he inspired a legion of young people to get involved in public life.
Evan Williams said:We were all worshippers in those days. And once a worshipper, the feeling is never quite shaken. In 1972, when I joined the staff of the first Labor prime minister in 23 years, the country seemed uniquely blessed. We stood on the brink of golden age. All that was humane and generous in political life would prevail. Rationality and enlightenment would rule. A new order was about to be born, and we, the worshipful few, were present at the creation. This was our glad, confident morning, never to be recaptured or relived.
I had been warned of a violent temper, a ruthless nature, a streak of feline cruelty. But I didn't believe it. Or rather, I didn't care. Of course Gough was rude to his staff - witheringly, brutally, scathingly offensive when the mood took him. But that was only to be expected in a man working under terrible pressure. That the humblest typist was not exempt from his invective simply showed that outmoded conventions of male chauvinist gallantry had no place in the new order. None of us escaped those dreadful tantrums. Certainly not Peter Wilenski – his chief of staff – nor Jim Spigelman, later the chief justice of NSW. I once witnessed a public dressing down of Spigelman for some trivial offence that would have terrified a lesser man, and undoubtedly scared the rest of us more than it did Jim.
There was a reason why we tolerated these outbursts. We knew he didn't mean them. They were part of the show – complete with stentorian huffing and breathing, staged for our amusement as much as his. He had a way of grinding his teeth when he was annoyed, which I always took to be an affectation, and had a strange way of swearing. Each profane word or phrase was carefully articulated; no g's dropped, no syllables slurred. It was the obscene speech of the educated man, and to the extent that it reflected genuine anger or exasperation, it blew over as quickly as it started.
Even so, it was a good idea to keep out of his way whenever he blew his top. I had a terrible experience one day in 1975. Labor had lost the Bass byelection in Tasmania, and Whitlam was in a seething mood next morning when he arrived in Melbourne to address a meeting of Victorian farmers. In the scramble to get into the hall in Collins Street I left the notes for his speech in Gough's car, which sped off before anyone could recall it. No speech, no copy of speech, no mobile phones – and a hostile, waiting audience.
Some of my colleagues began running off in search of the car while I waited on the footpath.
And after about 15 minutes a white-faced David Solomon appeared with the precious sheets of paper. Inside the hall, Gough had been ad-libbing in fine style. I handed the speech up to him on the platform. Afterwards, with a thought for my safety, Solomon and Graham Freudenberg took the precaution of installing me in a separate car to shield me from the wrath to come. But Gough emerged from the meeting all smiles. I thought it prudent not to provoke him by offering an apology.
I doubt if a mean-spirited man could have behaved as he did that day. Even the most notorious and impulsive displays of temper – throwing a glass of water over Paul Hasluck in parliament (an outrageous gaffe, characterised by Hansard as an "incident"), or his public humiliation of his Speaker, Jim Cope (the only other act of Whitlam's that still strikes me as wholly unforgivable) – owed more to exhibitionism than malice. I saw no malice in the man. When Hasluck, as governor-general, swore him in as prime minister, years after the water-throwing, the breach was apparently healed. Hasluck was charitable to Whitlam in his posthumously published memoir, The Chance of Politics (1997), though he still considered Gough a smartypants: "When he became prime minister, I welcomed the change and predicted that he would be one of our great prime ministers and certainly the first leader of distinction and capacity since Menzies."
If you ask non-Labor people how they remember Gough, they will speak of his pugnacity, his aggressiveness, his confrontational style. They will mention the dangerous radicalism of his policies, his disastrous maladministration of cabinet (which must be conceded), his ruthless methods. In truth, of course, he was a gradualist, a nineteenth-century Fabian reformer wedded to the traditions of Westminster parliamentary government and by temperament a product of the professional middle-class.
That middle-class background, that bookish upbringing and privileged education, were the keys to all attempts to understand him. They accounted for the early suspicions of traditional Labor men and for the bitterness he inspired among the class he was thought to have betrayed. I never knew a man subject to more scurrilous rumour-mongering. Among the ladies of my mother's card-playing circle, rumours were regularly exchanged. "Is it true, dear," my mother would ask, "that Gough and Margaret are living apart?" Or: "I have heard that Mr Whitlam has gone into St Vincent's Hospital for a serious operation." Mum always knew of someone who had witnessed secret divorce papers, details of a marriage settlement or the dire results of some medical exam.
Among his more curious obsessions, Whitlam was fascinated by status, the trappings of rank, the rules of precedence. It wasn't snobbery so much as a historian's curiosity about the workings of social custom and the vagaries of human pretension, and it expressed itself in an interest in styles and titles and forms of address. He would examine each edition of Who's Who, alert to new titbits and revelations. He disapproved of those with honorary degrees who claimed for themselves the title " Dr" Billy McMahon's elevation to the Privy Council – McMahon and Malcolm Fraser were among the last Australians entitled to style themselves "Right Honourable" - was a particular source of vexation.
His pedantry appealed to me: "our opponents" for the Liberals, never "the enemy"; "employees", never "the workers"; "the Australian government", never "the Commonwealth" - though this last was something of a puzzle. I spent hours one day composing a letter to Clyde Cameron about the pronunciation of "kilometre".
And once, at Government House, he corrected Lady Kerr's French! It was a terrible move. A dinner menu had misused the definite article, and John Kerr's second wife prided herself on her French. As Margaret Whitlam was to say later, often and only half jokingly, Gough's fate at the hands of John Kerr was sealed at that moment.
Like many middle-class people, he was proud to have attended a posh school or two. He was enrolled at Knox Grammar's prep school, on Sydney's "Deep North Shore", in 1925, having briefly attended two Sydney Anglican primary schools (including the Church of England Girls Grammar School at Chatswood). He used to say that while many conservative politicians had gone to Knox – Jim Forbes, Ian Sinclair, John Fuller – he was the only Labor man. So he was delighted, in 1974, when the headmaster, Dr Ian Paterson, invited him to address the school on speech day.
"Comrade," he said to me, "you're a Knox boy too. You must write me a brilliant speech. Find J.S. McEwen's study of Knox's religious beliefs. We should also quote him on Knox's theories of education. Compare his reform of the church with my reform of the Labor Party. How would John Knox have fared if he had set about reforming the ALP instead of the Church of Scotland? How would I fare if I were to advocate resistance to the established civil order and deplore the influence on the party of the monstrous regimen of women? Would Knox's children have been admitted to Knox?" It was the perfect opportunity to charm a middle-class audience with humour and erudition.
A few weeks before the event he had another call from the headmaster. There had been resistance to the invitation, and Gough's impression was that Dr Paterson wanted to cancel the visit. Whitlam assumed that the school council, appalled at the thought of his addressing the assembled boys and parents, had directed the headmaster to find another speaker. But Gough would not be put off. His conversation with Dr Paterson, which he loved to recount, went something like this.
"Are you suggesting that I shouldn't come?"
"It is simply this, Prime Minister. We realise now that the invitation was an unreasonable imposition on one so busy. We cannot possibly put you to this trouble."
"But I'm greatly looking forward to it."
"So were we all. But we really think it is asking too much of you to spend a large part of your day at Knox. You have many other pressing concerns. It was thoughtless of us."
"Not at all. I shall be accompanied by my wife and my press secretary and by Rob Lawrie, whom I shall be appointing to a senior diplomatic post in south-east Asia. Both men are old boys of the school. It will be a memorable occasion."
"But surely, with your busy schedule - "
"I won't hear of it. Please assure your chairman that I look forward to the fifth of December."
In the event, he and Margaret were received with due courtesy but noticeable coolness, which caused him some pain. Dr Paterson recalled that Gough's first words on alighting from his car were: "Where's the demonstration?" Jokes about the monstrous regimen of women, the school of hard Knox, and the largest meeting ever addressed by a Labor prime minister in the electorate of Bradfield, fell predictably flat. But the headmaster had been right in saying that Whitlam had other things on his mind. A week later the Executive Council authorised the Minister for Minerals and Energy to borrow up to $4 billion "for temporary purposes", and the following day Gough left for Europe on a tour that was to last six weeks, interrupted only by the devastation of cyclone Tracy, which required him to return to Darwin before resuming his trip abroad.
Those travels were always a target of Opposition and media gibes, but he enjoyed them too much to quit. After all, they were a form of therapy: they left him recharged, and he was convinced that by travelling he was enhancing Australia's standing in the world. Foreign leaders saw him at his best – "a large, urbane and well-posed leader" (Hasluck) "who was interested in ideas and could understand what other people said to him." His imposing manner, his sheer style, were enormous assets. Those qualities of bearing, of turnout, of manners – he used the old-fashioned word "address" – helped to shape his judgment of others. He detested scruffiness. He admired smart, presentable men (and on this account disapproved of most of his male staff, with the exception of Richard Butler). I remember a rhapsodic description of a suit worn by the evangelist Billy Graham, whom he had met in the US. "It fitted him perfectly. It seemed to be part of him as he walked – this sleek, silken, deep blue material, perfectly cut. I have never seen anyone more immaculately turned out."
Good-looking men – men with style, with address – appealed to him. He could be warm and gallant towards women, given to exaggerated shows of courtesy and attentiveness. But no more. Any dangerous energies were subsumed in work. The only carnal appetite he flaunted was a relish for food. He ate voraciously anything placed before him but drank alcohol hardly at all, unlike most of those around him. I think he would have loved to have a woman in his cabinet. His feminism was genuine, but more than once he would surprise us with an interest in some notorious book or movie. One Saturday afternoon he found time to see Nagisa Oshima's explicitly erotic Japanese film In the Realm of the Senses at an arthouse in Sydney. Knowing of my interest in films, he asked if I would go with him. I did. Earlier, on a trip to Washington, one or two of my colleagues tried to persuade him to see the pornographic film Deep Throat, which had been banned in Australia. Gough thought better of it. Next day he met President Nixon.
People spoke of his recklessness, his folly, his contradictory nature. The idea that he was a man of contradictions appealed to those who would acknowledge his finer qualities but sought some explanation – in politics, in pathology, in the perversity of human nature – for everything in Whitlam they deplored. But I never found him especially complex. I loved his vigour, his insouciance, his erudition, his candour, his eloquence, his daring. His chief attribute was a kind of innocence. He had a child's faith in the goodness of others. He was always trusting.
It may be, as Patrick White believed, that trustfulness is a higher virtue than trustworthiness. But like all trusting people, Gough expected trust to be repaid, and it saddened him when it was not. He once said to me: "Bjelke-Petersen has always treated me with the utmost courtesy. How could he have acted the way he did?" I told him he had publicly called the Queensland premier a "Bible-bashing bastard" – at which he breathed heavily and ground his teeth.
Politics, for Whitlam, was an eristic exercise, bound by the conventions of good debate, in which political questions could be settled by rational argument, by parliamentary discussion, by reference (if necessary) to the party platform. If one's case were sound it would prevail. In such a world the arbitrament of parliament was the ultimate judgment and the proceedings of parliament the truest record of accomplishment.
When, in 1973, the opposition objected to Gough's tabling of a booklet about the government's first year in office (which I'd spent some weeks preparing), he proceeded to read it into Hansard, including all its tables and figures. I think it took him a couple of hours. In the dog year of 1976, when his speech in reply to the Fraser government's first budget lasted almost as long, he delivered it in a crackling, barely audible voice through a heavy cold before going home to bed. "Comrade," he said, "I'm buggered."
It was to parliament that he turned for deliverance on the day of the sacking. On a scrap of paper at The Lodge he drafted his motion of no confidence in the appointed Fraser government. You can see that scrap of paper in the National Archives – as touchingly impotent a document as anything Neville Chamberlain waved to the crowds, and at the same time a glorious summation of everything Whitlam believed in.
It was as if he knew in his heart that once that motion was passed all the events the day would somehow be reversed, all Kerr's treachery confounded, all the plotting and scheming and obstruction of his government would be undone and the will of people upheld. He had a lawyer's faith in in the power of words and a good parliamentarian's faith in the authority of parliament.
But there was another scrap of paper to contend with that day. "Kerr's sacked me," he told us when he returned to Parliament House. "There's his letter."
That letter was everything. It was more than a letter. It was a legal document. And Whitlam was a lawyer. I suppose he could have torn the letter up. He could have pretended it was never written. He could have ignored Kerr's decision and forced a public confrontation with the governor-general. He could have driven away from Yarralumla as if nothing had happened – or created terrible waves in Parliament and outside. I doubt he would have got away with it. But in the last resort, as a lawyer, he respected the law.
In the supreme moment of crisis in his life, all his legal training, all his middle-class instincts, all his bourgeois sense of the fitness of things, prevailed. He played by the rules. He would fight an election on Kerr's decision. He would dispute its propriety, its decency, its fitness, its motivation. But he never questioned its legality. The most extraordinary thing about Whitlam's dismissal was that he took it on the chin. Perhaps a good Knox boy could have done nothing else.
I'll update when we hear from Hawkey