When I heard the news of Graham Freudenberg’s death last week I wept. Not just for the passing of this generous, passionate, erudite and supremely eloquent man, but for the dreams and hopes that were shared by those of us who worked for Gough Whitlam as Leader of the Opposition from 1967 to 1972.
There were just six of us. Nominally Gough’s press secretary, Graham was his consigliore, advising on strategy and writing the great parliamentary and campaign speeches. Notionally principal private secretary (AKA ‘chief of staff’), I was his resident policy wonk and second-string writer, administering and expanding the great network of policy advice that my predecessor, John Menadue, and the Sydney University sociologist, Sol Encel, had initiated. Peter Cullen (later Dick Hall) was the assistant private secretary. There were two secretary/stenographers, Barbara Stuart and Carol Summerhayes, and a receptionist, Irena Kuznick (later Pat Todd and later again Lorraine Dwyer).
We were a close-knit group, working long hours in Canberra while Parliament was sitting, or otherwise wherever else the campaign trail might take us. When Parliament rose for the night, Graham’s day was just beginning. Fortified with cigarettes and beer, he would settle in with Carol to dictate the great speeches that for all time would be attributed to others.
Alternatively, there would be late night socialising and briefings with Press Gallery journalists – veterans of the stature of the Sydney Morning Herald’sIan Fitchett or rising stars such as Max Walsh, Laurie Oakes, Eric Walsh and David Solomon .Come morning, Graham would turn up very late looking tired and dishevelled. Gough might grind his teeth in mock frustration but refrained from remonstrating. Graham told many that he would not outlive Byron, who died at thirty-six, but surpassed him by surviving to eighty-five. Others for whom he wrote after Whitlam included Neville Wran, Bob Hawke, Bob Carr and Barry Unsworth.
Peter and Dick were our trouble-shooters, maintaining the office’s party and trade union links and dealing with the throng of individuals and interest groups who increasingly clamoured for Gough’s attention. Barbara’s duties included the constant booking, cancelling, re-routing and re-booking of air travel and accommodation reservations that accompanied our forays into every town and hamlet across the continent where an audience for the exposition of policies might be available. Commonwealth drivers, airline clerks and motel receptionists throughout Australia had a name for us. We comprised collectively – Gough included – the ‘Whitlam Wanderers’.
It pained Gough that his staff had mostly chosen to educate themselves in unconventional ways and were therefore – as he reminded us in moments of exasperation – ‘educational dropouts’. Even so, our deficiencies were not without their uses. Criticised by an embittered Arthur Calwell as having ‘an office full of long-haired intellectuals’, he was able to respond that ‘none of his staff were graduates and one of them was bald’. Canberra insider Max Newton’s newsletters ridiculed Graham, Peter and me as ‘Whitlam’s Winken, Blinken and Nod’, but John Gorton was heard to complain that Gough was better served by us than himself as Prime Minister by the combined resources of the Commonwealth Public Service.
Much of Graham’s time was spent writing speeches for other people, but views of his own were set out increasingly in addresses such as that at a 2017 ALP Dinner in his honour and books including his 1976 ‘A Certain Grandeur’, 2005 ‘A Figure of Speech’ and 2008 ‘Churchill and Australia’. More recently he has been immortalised by Peter Cullen’s daughter, Ruth, in her magnificent documentary ‘Scribe’.
A life well lived. A friend and colleague to be mourned. A record of service to the public interest rarely equalled, never to be forgotten.
Race Mathews is an ALP life member and a former chief of staff to Gough Whitlam, Federal MP and Victorian State MP and Minister