(Image Credit: Whitlam Institute)
Gough Whitlam became Leader of the Opposition in February 1967. From that moment – at the age of 11 – I became truly, madly, deeply passionate about politics. In 1969 I argued with all my schoolmates, almost all from conservative families, about how important it was that the ALP should win the approaching federal election.
It was close, but not close enough.
By 1972, the vibe had changed.
On 2nd December, my mum and I were staying with my aunt in Roseville, Sydney – another very blue-rinse Liberal household. My aunt and her husband (an obstetrician) threw an election party that evening. The place was crawling with conservatives, the TV was on full blast, much liquor was consumed and, as the evening progressed, the faces of hosts and guests became longer and longer . . .
. . . while mamma and moi had to look as serious as possible, though we wanted to dance, to scream, to hug everyone and say, At last!
What he achieved in just under three years in two terms as Prime Minister was outstanding. From Senator John Faulkner’s tribute on the occasion of Gough Whitlam’s 92nd birthday:
Gough Whitlam has been a towering figure in the Australian Labor Party for longer than I can remember. When I first joined the ALP Gough was Leader of the Opposition. My first federal election campaign was 1972: I felt as if I spent every weekend of that year knocking on doors. I freely admit, it was quite abnormal behaviour for a teenager! But that campaign, which became part of Australia’s political history by sweeping away 23 years of conservative government and making ‘It’s Time’ part of our language, was one we all knew mattered. The excitement and enthusiasm of that election will never be forgotten by any of the countless party members and volunteers who knew that the surging tide of Labor support was not only about a change of government, but about changing the country – for the better.
And ladies and gentlemen, we were right.
The list of the Whitlam Government’s legislative reforms is familiar to all of us:
– improving the position of women and our indigenous population;
– introducing Medibank, the precursor to Medicare;
– needs-based funding for schools and free university education;
– introducing the Trade Practices Act;
– ending conscription;
– diplomatic and trade relations with the People’s Republic of China.
In Opposition, in Government, and in decades since, Gough has remained indefatigable, irrepressible, and unflagging.
For more than six decades in politics, Gough Whitlam has aimed at targets higher than personal success or vindication. His energy and enthusiasm combined with the continuing powerful relevance of his goals have made him a hero to many Australians – including to me – and an iconic figure in Australia’s
political landscape . . .
On 11th November 1975 I was at home, studying for an exam (Succession, I think) the next day. I put the radio on to hear the news, and could not believe my ears. At first I thought it was a joke.
(Image Credit: National Archives of Australia)
Then I realised that something huge had just happened, so I raced down to (old) Parliament House in my VW. So yes, I was there – even if it was after that speech:
Bill Shorten has put it well:
Gough Whitlam offered us a vision of what Australia might be — a modern, multicultural nation, where opportunity belongs to everyone.
Free university education and universal healthcare. The Racial Discrimination, Aboriginal Land Rights and the Family Law Act. Protection of the Great Barrier Reef from oil drilling.
Gough ended conscription, the death penalty and he made Advance Australia Fair our national anthem. He put our suburbs at the centre of national debate.
Gough Whitlam spent his entire political life reaching for higher ground – he redefined our country and changed the life of a generation, and generations beyond.
He inspired us all in some way and he will continue to inspire us.
There will be more tears shed for Gough Whitlam today than perhaps any other leader in Australian history.
Our thoughts are with his family – a family that has given so much to our nation. Especially Margaret, a great Australian in her own right.