Graham Freudenberg AM. Tribute to Gough Whitlam.

Nov 5, 2014

The Honourable (Edward) Gough Whitlam, AC QC

State Memorial Service

Graham Freudenberg AM

Sydney Town Hall

5 November 2014


This is the greatest privilege of my very privileged life.  And I thank the Whitlam Family for it.

Gough Whitlam sets Time itself at defiance.  Can it really be 45 years ago, he stood right here to open his epic campaign in 1969? Is it really 42 years since it was time at Blacktown in 1972 – making anew and forever his own, John Curtin’s clarion call to the men and women of Australia?

We had developed a little ritual between us.  Before a speech he would touch me on the shoulder for luck.  He didn’t forget even amid the tumult of Blacktown. “It’s been a long road comrade, but I think we are there”.  He knew how much the words and the touch would mean to me at such a moment.  You would go to the barricades for such a man.

The Whitlam touch is on us all.  He touches us in our day to day lives, in the way we think about Australia, in the way we see the world. He touches still the millions who share his vision for a more equal Australia, a more independent, inclusive, generous and tolerant Australia.  And a nation confident of its future in our region and the world.

And in that world context – you will forgive an old man’s pride, but the last time he performed that little gesture was in 2001, as we entered the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, the scene of his triumph thirty years before, over fear of China.

But his great stage was the House of Representatives – stage, pulpit, arena.  For a decade, he won memorable victories in the House of Representatives.  In 1975, he fought his mightiest flight, in defence of the House of Representatives, and suffered his worst defeat, on the verge of victory.

First and last, Gough Whitlam was the Member for Werriwa.  More than a place in outer Western Sydney. To him, modern Australia in the making – with all its growing inequalities in “schools, hospitals, cities” – his shorthand for all the social conditions for decent Australian living, including, dare I mention, sewerage in the suburbs.

He saw that only the nation’s Parliament and the nation’s government could bring quality and equality to areas of Australian life, where Canberra had never before dared or cared.

From Werriwa too, came his magnificent obsession with electoral equality, one vote, one value.  He believed with a passion, that this our nation of immigrants must crash through the barriers of intolerance and prejudice about birth or background, race or religion.  This was a new voice, new themes, a new agenda for Australia.

The Whitlam agenda remains part of the Australian agenda. “Contemporary relevance, comrade” – that was his watchword. And if ever he soared too high – or too long – there was always the other member for Werriwa, Margaret, to bring him back to earth.  And Mick Young.

“The fun is where I am, Mungo”.  The irrepressible Mungo McCallum had asked him if he missed the fun of Canberra when Bob Hawke sent him to liven up Paris.

Gough was very serious about making us laugh.  Not least at himself, and his ego.  There was a lot of laughter in the Whitlam years.  Some tears too.  But always, energy, urgency, enthusiasm, for the high and noble calling of political service.  Drive and purpose for his Party and his country.

He believed profoundly in the Australian Labor Party as the mainstay of Australian democracy and equality. And always, there was the sense of living Australian history.  And making it.  In his rich and mellow autumn, he worried occasionally lest he be like King Charles, remembered mainly for losing his head.

Your tributes, your presence here today, attest his true place in the hearts of his fellow Australians.

Paul Keating is right: “There was an Australia before Whitlam, and there was a different Australia after Whitlam”.  He was the bridge. Within the wonderful continuity of our national life, our long parliamentary democracy underpinned by strong political parties, Gough Whitlam built a bridge.

As he put it in 1972: “Between the habits and fears of the past and the hopes and demands of the future”.  Optimism, enthusiasm, confidence – against fear, prejudice, conformity.  That is his enduring message to the men and women of Australia.  Never more than now.

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