Anyone who has heard of Graham Freudenberg, and most aware Australians have, think of him not so much as an individual , but in association with the great men, the massive political personalities whom he served.
People think especially of Gough Whitlam, the biggest personality of them all, and also of Neville Wran and Bob Hawke. In Australia’s political culture, and in our social history, you don’t get bigger names than those. It is both totally remarkable, and heartening evidence of his strength of character and intellectual brilliance , that working with those giants, Freudenberg was not overshadowed. He did not compete. He did indeed work in the shadows, as the speechwriter, the scribe. But each of the leaders he worked with saw him as a partner. Whitlam was always clear that Graham was his co-worker, not only in the crucial , exacting business of finding the right words and rhythms to express his vision to the rest of us, but as well, a partner in conceiving and developing the vision. Most Australians have never met Graham or had the chance to spend time in his company. It is their loss that they may not be aware of how powerful his work was, or what remarkable closeness of equals he developed with men so outwardly different and dominant. Freudenberg was physically a small man, not readily noticed, always in in the background , always working. If you were lucky enough to know him, you quickly appreciated his warm charm, massive intelligence and touching generosity of thought. Despite his shadowy existence, he was completely confident in his capacities and in the value of his contributions to the best work of Labor governments over 40 years.
It is rare these days, or perhaps ever to encounter an individual who is prepared to devote all their energies to one specific and often invisible activity, in this case political speechwriting. Now, people move continually from task to task, even within political work. Those who work for leaders often regard this as the first step to a political career of their own or a prestigious move to the private sector. Not Graham. He was a wonderfully equipped scholar, and a superb writer of 20th century history, a relentless acquirer of knowledge of depth and breadth .The limelight was not his ambition, but there was nothing diffident about him, his views, his arguments, his wit or his style in interaction in small or big conversations.
His biography of Whitlam, A Certain Grandeur was published in 1977, when the national drama, some would say tragedy, of the Dismissal was still fresh and raw. This work established the proper scale and perspective from which to assess the importance of Whitlam’s work , and has remained a high benchmark of political biographies.
It is hard, almost impossible to imagine Whitlam without Freudenberg. It is hard to imagine many of Labor’s big moments over the last 40 years if Freudenberg had not been there, crafting, inspiring, extracting the best of thought and feeling from our Labor leaders.
It is important to note that Labor appreciated and honoured Graham. At a testimonial dinner for him a couple of years ago, the guests included I believe all living former Labor prime ministers and premiers; countless Ministers, advisers, journalists, staffers, and as many of the rank and file who could fit in. It was great night for a great man.
I am elated when I think of Graham’s contribution to all that I value in public life. I am deeply sad when I think that he will never again turn up at one of our convivial gatherings of true believers, quietly , pertinently reminding us of facts and incidents, usually concerning Whitlam, that enriched and extended the story and often provoked eruptions of hilarity . He was an essential and treasured part of the fabulous human drama that for me is political life. Graham, I will miss you .
Susan Ryan served in the Hawke cabinet and was Age Discrimination Commissioner 2011-2016. She has been a member of the Labor Party since 1971