The Honourable (Edward) Gough Whitlam, AC QC
Senator John Faulkner
State Memorial Service
Sydney Town Hall
5 November 2014
“Dying will happen sometime. As you know, I plan for the ages, not just for this life.”
As those words show, Gough Whitlam always thought – and planned – on a grand scale.
In the past fortnight Australia has reflected on what Gough meant to, and achieved for, our nation.
His government, cut short though it was, transformed our country in ways that still endure, four decades later.
The optimism and energy which he represented, which he embodied, were and remain emblematic of a vision of Australia as an independent, confident, outward looking, generous nation.
He was a great Australian Prime Minister – great in every sense of the word.
His prodigious gifts would have guaranteed success in any career he chose – but they were perhaps most uniquely suited to the occupation he made so completely his own.
His formidable memory, pointed wit, remarkable intellect and soaring imagination made him feared at the dispatch box and inspiring on the campaign trail. He was meticulous in his attention to detail, without losing sight of the “light on the hill” he urged our Party to set aflame once more.
In a time when so many are so cynical about politics, let us remember that this great Australian chose politics as a cause and a lifelong passion. Let us remember what he achieved through the practice of politics.
The policies he advocated and later enacted looked outward to the world and forward to an Australia where all citizens had the opportunity to realise their ambitions and make good on their potential; an Australia where the government accepted responsibility for the commonwealth and the commonweal of our citizens.
The Whitlam Government gave us:
Medibank. Reforms to bring fairness to secondary and tertiary education. The first federal legislation on human rights, the environment and heritage.
Sweeping electoral reforms. The vigorous promotion of the arts. Land rights. Equal pay for women.
An end to conscription. The reconfiguration of our foreign policy to reflect a confident, independent Australia.
All legacies of the Whitlam Government.
Yes, there were mistakes.
Gough never pretended to perfection or to sainthood – well, hardly ever! Although, when he set off the metal detector at airport security he would blame his “aura”.
And, when interviewing him in 2002, I insisted we discuss some of his Government’s failings, telling him that the documentary couldn’t be hagiography, his response was “Comrade, why not?”
His achievements and his legacy are not diminished by the knowledge that he had human flaws and human failings.
Nor are they in any way diminished by his unwavering, life-long commitment to Labor.
He was a staunch constitutionalist, a consummate parliamentarian and a great Prime Minister. He was all these things – and he was a Labor man.
His policies, his programs and his instincts were profoundly Labor.
He was a great Labor Prime Minister – and a great Labor Leader before it.
He chose Labor as his cause despite the imperfections he understood and strove to remedy for so long, and ultimately so successfully.
He chose Labor as a young navigator on active service defending our shores at the time of Australia’s greatest peril.
It later gave Gough great pleasure to say that the first Whitlam Ministry (the duumvirate, as he liked to call it, just Lance Barnard and himself) was the only Federal Ministry to be comprised entirely of war veterans.
Gough chose Labor because his faith in the transformative power of government is fundamentally a Labor faith.
His belief in the role and the responsibility of our democratic institutions – and those who serve in them – to look forward, to strive upward, is fundamentally a Labor belief.
As was his conviction in the power of progressive politics to build community consensus behind reform, and to enact those reforms in Government.
Gough’s faith in Labor’s great and enduring mission was not diminished or discouraged by the Party’s flaws.
He was neither indifferent nor resigned to the problems he saw. His instinct and his determination was to solve those problems rather than use them as an excuse to abandon the effort to harness the power and shoulder the burden of government.
I am reminded of a remark he made about a recent ALP National Conference that he labelled a “fiasco”. He said “it was so busy avoiding controversies that it failed to produce policies”.
Gough did not shy away from controversy. He took on vested interests within his party. He set about changing a culture comfortable with defeat.
He set about modernising, reforming and making the Australian Labor Party electable once more.
When Gough became Deputy Leader and then Leader, the Labor Party was still struggling with the scars of the Split. He fought in every Party forum to solve those long-standing problems.
He was not afraid of taking on opponents in debate. He believed in advocacy. The public saw the flashes of brilliance, the breathtaking brinkmanship, but never the many patient hours of negotiation and persuasion.
In response to critics who decried compromise and made a fetish of ideological purity, Gough retorted: “Certainly, the impotent are pure”.
It may seem now that his success was inevitable, but the course he charted was filled with risks. It took both confidence and courage.
His irresistible attraction to the perfect bòn mót sometimes led him to antagonise those whose goodwill he needed. Beginning an address to the National Press Club with the words “Vipers, ladies and gentlemen” made his targets laugh. Calling the National Executive “the 12 witless men” did not.
He came close to expulsion from the Party, close enough to devise with Margaret the plan that she would run for Labor preselection in the seat of Werriwa if necessary.
Gough’s relentless commitment to victory in the Dawson by-election, ended the plan to expel him – and deprived the nation of Margaret Whitlam MP.
The Party and policy reforms Gough achieved as Leader brought Labor into line with community expectations.
He made the ALP electable.
More importantly, he made the ALP worth electing.
And in 1972, those many years of dedication culminated in a campaign that encapsulated the community consensus for change that Gough had so patiently nurtured – “It’s Time.”
Through all of it, Margaret was always by his side – though never in his shadow. They remained inseparable in the decades after Gough left politics.
Despite the dismissal in 1975, and a second crushing election defeat in 1977, he did not become discouraged, or disillusioned. Gough remained indefatigable, irrepressible, and unflagging.
In the years that followed, among many other roles and activities, he became Australia’s Ambassador to UNESCO. When asked by a journalist what qualifications he had for the appointment, he replied: “Young lady, neither you nor I have the time for that long an interview”.
And always, Gough remained a committed and enthusiastic advocate for the causes he believed in, for Labor’s cause.
Few leaders become their generation’s inspiration.
Even fewer inspire the generations who follow.
Gough Whitlam was one of those few.
He showed us what we, at our best, can aspire to be.
His achievements, in Opposition and in Government, in Parliament and in the Party, are undeniable proof of the power of politics wedded to principle; of the capacity of government to change our nation for the better, and forever.
His extraordinary contribution will remain an enduring example of how dedication, determination, and courage can advance the great cause to which Gough dedicated his long and enthusiastic life; as he himself said:
“to promote equality, to involve the people of Australia in the decision-making processes of our land, and to liberate the talents and uplift the horizons of the Australian people.”