John Menadue. Some personal reflections – a light has gone out.

Oct 22, 2014

Gough Whitlam’s death has prompted a quite remarkable bipartisan response in the parliament. And rightly so, for he was a great parliamentarian for over 26 years along with 70 years of public life. His forum was the parliament rather than the street or the protest march.

He had great respect for the parliament and that is why the subversion of the parliament in November 1975, when he had a clear majority in the House of Representatives, hurt him so deeply. But his bitterness was reserved for one person.

Listening to the parliament and reading the other media comments I was again impressed by the diversity and the range of changes which he introduced and how institutions and people were changed by the Whitlam years. The comments were more a celebration of his achievements and his vision than a eulogy. He enlarged and expanded Australia in a way that we had not seen before and have not seen since.

Tony Abbott described him as a ‘giant of our time’. Bill Shorten said that ‘the ALP has lost a giant’. Julia Gillard referred to his ‘highest political courage’. The Governor General called him ‘a towering leader’. Malcolm Fraser called him ‘a great Australian … a formidable opponent’. John Faulkner spoke to the Labor Caucus of ‘Gough Whitlam as a towering figure in our party and in our lives as long as I can remember’.

Gough Whitlam’s remarkable three years in government didn’t come out of thin air. He spent twenty hard years in opposition thinking, planning and working for what he could do in government. It was a rigorous and tough apprenticeship.


Political and personal courage

In my blog yesterday I spoke of Gough Whitlam’s courage, energy and determination to keep going despite the enormous obstacles, particularly from the machine men in the ALP who were more interested in retaining power in the party machine than winning elections and helping those in need. Looking back, I pay tribute to his determination to stay the course when he had so many factional and selfish people around him. Sometimes he could have expressed his contempt for them more diplomatically, but they really were ‘f…wits’ as he often called them.  And there are still some remaining.

One phrase I remember above all others about the problems in the ALP was that ‘the ALP is not a national party. It is a federation of six state parties.’ Progress has been made but the journey he commenced over 40 years ago in party reform towards a national party is still not completed.

Mick Young

Gough Whitlam and Mick Young were unlikely political soul mates but they needed each other. Mick Young was the ex-shearer who knew better than others what it was like to wash your hands in solvol. He was grounded amongst working people, knew the trade union movement well and was active in ALP branches. His feet were very much on the ground. He didn’t have great office systems, but his people and political skills were in his head. Gough said that Mick Young was ‘One of the greatest things that happened to the Labor Party when he became Federal Secretary and National Campaign Manager for the 1972 elections’.  Mick Young had commented that in the past in its campaigning, the ALP had more slogans than candidates! He knew of the dysfunction between the party organisation and the parliamentary leader. But he knew that even ‘It’s Time’ and market research would not prevail without the policy and the vision that Gough Whitlam supplied.

‘Dame’ Margaret and Family

Through good times and bad times, ‘Dame’ Margaret and Gough were together. They had their differences as all strong-minded people would. But their love was deep and abiding. For months after Margaret’s death, Gough would invariably commence our conversation ‘Wasn’t that a great send-off for Margaret?’ Her death was a great blow to Gough.

He remained close to and very protective of his sister Freda who after retirement as Principal of Presbyterian Ladies College became Moderator General of the Uniting Church of Australia. I recall that at Gough’s 80th birthday, Freda said that when Gough left home in Canberra to go to Sydney University ‘the light went out of the house’.

Gough Whitlam and Malcolm Fraser

Gough often said that he and Malcolm Fraser had not had a disagreement for thirty years. It was largely true. Malcolm delivered the Whitlam Oration in 2012 in Parramatta. He commenced the oration ‘Men and Women of Australia’. Gough and Malcolm expressed common views about the importance of an independent Australia within the US alliance. They campaigned together for a Republic, against media monopoly and in favour of land rights for indigenous people.

I remember Gough saying to me in later years that Malcolm was a ferocious political opponent ‘but he never deceived me’. A few months ago Malcolm called on Gough at his Sydney office. He presented Gough with a copy of his latest book ‘Dangerous Allies’. He inscribed in the book ‘Dear Gough, with great respect and great affection, Malcolm’.

Visits in later days and the bearer of the flame

Quite separately and for several years, John Faulkner, Daryl Mellam and I visited Gough in his  office in William Street Sydney. Going to the office three days a week was a very helpful break from Lulworth. His staff, driver Michael, Aaron and Penny were great supporters and in the end, carers. Daryl Mellam invariably brought cupcakes that his sister had made with green and gold icing. I usually brought chocolate mousse although Cathy Whitlam said it wasn’t good for him and she had to wash the chocolate out of his shirt.

I know that Gough particularly valued the regular calls by John Faulkner. Gough had a great affection and regard for John, whom he regarded as the bearer of the Labor flame. John usually obliged by bringing a few bottles of passiona which were very much to Gough’s abstemious taste.

A secular treasure

Excuse me for mentioning it, but when the Japanese emperor awarded me the ‘Grand Cordon of the Order of the Sacred Treasure’, Gough congratulated me but said ‘Comrade, you must understand that I am a secular treasure’.

He meticulously planned Margaret’s funeral and his own. Having been a navigator in Ventura aircraft during the Pacific War, he asked Angus Houston, the then Defence Chief, whether a Ventura could be found to scatter his ashes over Sydney Harbour. Unfortunately, Venturas were no longer flying.

Gough was determinedly secular; even though he proudly and often recalled that he had topped the examination in religious studies at High School but could not be awarded the prize because he was not a believer. He often described himself as a ‘fellow traveller’ in matters of religion. He was taken by Winston Churchill’s description of himself as ‘not a pillar of the church, but a flying buttress’.

By introducing needs based funding for schools he did more to help the education of Catholic kids than priests or bishops ever did.

He enquired frequently about my joining the Catholic Church. He was always interested and never hostile. He often said that ‘the Catholic Church is the big league”. He spoke to me a lot about matters of faith.

He didn’t mind being confused with Saint Paul. At Fred Daly’s Requiem Mass he read the letter of Saint Paul to the Corinthians. The letter is one of the most moving and challenging in any language. It is quite beautiful. ’For now we see through a glass darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known. And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three, but the greatest of these is charity’. After the service a good supporter of Fred Daly ,who probably knew more about the Labor Party than the scriptures came up to Graham Freudenberg, Gough’s speech writer and said, ‘Mr Freudenberg, that was a great speech you wrote for Mr Whitlam’

At Nugget Coomb’s funeral at Saint Mary’s Cathedral in Sydney, Gough said of Nugget ‘all Australians can say in the words of Paul’s letter to Timothy “Well done thou good and faithful servant”’.

It can also be said of Gough Whitlam.

May he rest in peace..


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