Frank Brennan.  My tribute to Gough

Oct 21, 2014

Gough Whitlam once asked me why there were so many social reformers to emerge from Queensland in the early 1970s.  I told him it was simple.  We had someone to whom we could react: Sir Joh Bjelke Petersen; and we had someone to inspire us: him.  I have written elsewhere about his contribution to Aboriginal rights, human rights and international law.  Here, I reflect on the man who inspired me so affectionately, so supportively, and with such a sense of fun.  What he did for me, he did for countless other Australians who dreamt of a better world and a nobler Australia.  Even his political opponents are forever in his debt for having elevated the national vision and for having given us a more complete and generous image of ourselves.  On Sunday I happened to visit the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.  I took the afternoon tour of American art.  With pride, our guide ended the tour with Jackson Pollock’s painting No 10.  I was able to tell her it was not a patch on Blue Poles purchased by a visionary prime minister down under who copped all hell for spending a six figure sum on just one painting.  That was our Gough.  We are forever in his debt.

I will share three vignettes.

In 1980, I took a busload of boys from Xavier College to Canberra on a politics tour.  Andrew Peacock was their local member.  They gave him a hard time because of Malcolm Fraser’s boycott of the Olympics.  I was anxious for them to meet Whitlam who was by then a visiting scholar at the Australian National University writing his large tome on the Whitlam years.  The boys, many of whom came from households very sympathetic to the politics of B A Santamaria, were testy.  Why did I want them to travel across town to meet a “has been”?  They had met their fill of politicians up at Parliament House.  Gough wowed them.  First he gave them morning tea; then he fielded their questions.  The burly Dan Hess, with a passing wink to his school mates, asked, “What was it like to be sacked?”  Gough drew back and then moved forward, telling the young Christian gentlemen that the events of 1975 had to be seen in the context of the decline in traditions and institutions in our society.  He then asked a rhetorical question in conclusion, “For example, how many of you boys from Xavier College would ever contemplate becoming a Jesuit nowadays?”  No one answered, but the remark had some impact on the now Fr Edward Dooley SJ.

In 1981, Gough was awarded an honourary doctorate of letters.  I had written congratulating him on his receipt of an honour which was both appropriate and ideologically sound.  I did not hear back from him for some months, and I had no expectation of any response.  Then some months later again, he worked his way across a crowded room to speak to me.  We both had the advantage of being considerably taller than most of our companions in a crowd.  He asked, “Did you get my letter?” I told him how pleased and honoured I was.  He asked, “Did it arrive with Vatican stamps?”  Indeed it had.  He had instructed the embassy officials in Rome that the letter had to be posted from the Vatican.  The envelope bore the crest of the English College.  The letter commenced with words to this effect: “It is with great pleasure that I write you this, my first letter from the Romans, and I do so from the most fashionable address in the eternal city.”

In late 1997, I landed at Sydney airport, having flown in from Broome, and was about to make my way back to St Canice’s Church in Kings Cross.  Gough and the good “Dame Margaret” (as he liked to refer to his beloved) were there.  He offered me a lift in their government limousine.  On arrival at the church, I asked whether he liked mangoes as I had some splendid ones from the Kimberley.  He replied, “I do, and Dame Margaret loves them.”  A few weeks later, I was preparing for the funeral of Nugget Coombs in St Marys Cathedral Sydney. There had been a little tension in the background between Prime Minister John Howard’s office and Aboriginal leader Patrick Dodson about what should be said in Dodson’s eulogy about Aboriginal self-determination and conflict with government. It was at the height of controversy over the Wik ten point plan.  Some last minute changes were made to Dodson’s text.   With only minutes to spare, I made it out onto the front steps of the cathedral to welcome the official mourning party including Mr Howard, Mr Dodson and Sir William Deane.  The TV cameras were in close proximity.  Then up the steps came Gough oblivious of all controversy.  He grasped me firmly by the hand and with that glint in the eye said, “Father, the mangoes were magnificent.”  It was a blessed moment.

During the service, Gough, who was fond of describing himself as “a fellow traveller – not so much a pillar of the Church but rather one of those flying buttresses you find on European cathedrals”, came up onto the sanctuary to deliver his own eulogy.  This is how he commenced: “Prime Ministers like to describe themselves as the servants of the people. The most striking claim of the Supreme Pontiff is to be the servant of the servants of God. If, in this setting and as the last of the seven Prime Ministers whom Coombs served, I were to suggest an epitaph for him, it would be “the servant of the servants of the people.”  Everyone laughed; we were all at ease; Gough was in command.  He concluded that eulogy with words I now apply to him:

At some time or in some place or in some way the life of everybody in this gathering and in our country would have been touched by Nugget’s manifold activities and enriched by his talents. He was given many talents. He produced great dividends on them. All Australians can say, in the words of the parable, “well done, thou good and faithful servant”.  

We can all join a chorus of “Amen, Alleluia” to that.  Farewell loyal friend of many, dedicated leader of the nation, and visionary servant of the people in the great south land of the Holy Spirit.

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