This tribute is being published as a foreword to the book ‘Not just for this life’. Wendy Guest has put together all the tributes paid to Gough Whitlam in the House and the Senate in October 2014. This tribute to Gough Whitlam will be published by the UNSW Press.
Something very special and wonderful happened in Parliament House, Canberra, in the last week of October 2014. It began as a conventional condolence motion for a former Prime Minister – Gough Whitlam, who had died on 21 October, aged 98. It became a celebration of the political life of the nation.
More than seventy members of both Houses, from all sides, were eager to go on the record about this remarkable Australian, and what his career meant to Australia and to parliamentary democracy. Almost all of them, even those, the majority, who had never met him, had a personal story to tell about how Gough Whitlam had touched their own lives, or the lives of their families, friends or electors.
The years fell away, and it was hard to remember that they were talking about a career that had peaked in the 1970s, about a Prime Minister who had been brought down after only three tumultuous years in the most bitter political and constitutional crisis in its history, nearly forty years previously. Gough Whitlam’s presence and personality dominated the proceedings, as he usually did in life, although he had never spoken a word in this Parliament House.
In his autumn years, Gough sometimes pondered whether he would be like King Charles I, remembered chiefly because he lost his head. He need not have worried. His 21st Century peers and heirs recognised how much of the Australian political and social agenda had been shaped decisively in the decade from 1967 to 1975 during which he towered over the Australian Parliament.
It is all there in these tributes – the enduring achievements in education, health and national responsibility for cities and regional centres, the environment and the arts, the foundations of the multicultural society, the status of women, aboriginal land rights, the building of a more equal, more tolerant, more outward-looking, more independent Australia.
Of course, the generous bipartisanship of this occasion owed much to the acknowledgement that his manifold failures were as instructive as his successes. These practitioners were very much aware that failure is inevitable in democratic politics. Whitlam himself had once written prophetically on the eve of his great ‘It’s Time’ victory in 1972 that from Macquarie on, Australian politics has been marked ‘by intense effort carried on in the expectation of failure’. This was unusual for Whitlam – the supreme optimist. Being Prime Minister is a dangerous occupation. Except for the first Prime Minister, Barton, Fisher perhaps and Menzies second time round, no Prime Minister has left the office at a time and manner of his or her own choosing; they have all been removed by the electorate, their party, the Parliament itself or death. Whitlam was unique in that he was dismissed by the Governor-General on the threshold of his greatest parliamentary triumph. The Prime Minister who led these proceedings with a fine tribute was himself deposed within a year.
There is a lot of love in these tributes and in Wendy Guest’s splendid compilation of them. Perhaps the strangest aspect of it all is that one of Gough’s outstanding characteristics – his unabashed ego – which in almost anybody else could seem shameless, even monstrous – becomes in these speeches a source of enjoyment, endearment even. That is exactly what he always intended.
It was altogether fitting that this sustained tribute should be made in the Parliament by its members. The House of Representatives was Whitlam’s great stage, his theatre, his forum, his pulpit. All his parliamentary triumphs and defeats took place, of course, in the old Parliament House. The dwindling band of us who worked there until the move up the hill in 1988 tend to dismiss its replacement as sterile, a building without a soul. October 2014 and Wendy Guest’s sensitive record of the event may well mark an overdue change in their collective attitude the beginning of a real affection for the building which plays so central a part in our national life.
It took the celebration of a great Australian life to show that this Parliament too is a place of high eloquence and deep emotion. It may be that this was the occasion when this Parliament House found its soul. That would be the most fitting of all the tributes that could be paid to the greatest parliamentarian of his era.