Remembering Gough Whitlam

Gough Whitlam, one of my few political heroes recently died, aged 98.


In 1975, aged 10, I was in grade 5, in Brisbane, Australia. The news that the Labor government of Gough Whitlam had been dismissed by the governor general John Kerr came on the radio in the classroom (teachers of course knew it was imminent). The kids around me cheered. I had no idea why. Our household was a labor-voting household. Years later, I realised it was because I was at a private (Catholic) school, mostly full of kids whose conservative parents wouldn’t have realised that something called ‘society’ was at least partially responsible for their personal success.

Thankfully, history (for once), largely remembers Gough as a man to whom generations of Australians are indebted, not the ignoble governor general.

Some of the of things Gough’s government changed in Australia in just 3 years that affected me and my family, or that I remember from the time or in my teenage years not long after:

  • abolished university fees: this is how I got my engineering degree, worked, paid taxes and contributed to society;
  • created the Medibank universal healthcare insurance system: this is how my family could get affordable healthcare;
  • withdrew troops from Vietnam, the (first) Iraq war of its time;
  • ended military conscription and freed those incarcerated for refusing to be conscripted;
  • replaced God Save the Queen as the national anthem (sadly those of us who wanted ‘Waltzing Matilda’, a song about a swagman who prefers to die rather than bow to authority after stealing a sheep to avoid starvation – a sentiment perfectly embodying the only meaningful definition of Australian character I know of… were to be disappointed)

Things I didn’t remember, or was only dimly aware of:

  • establishment of diplomatic relations with China;
  • introduced no-fault divorce laws;
  • caused Australia to ratify United Nations conventions against racial discrimination;
  • returned traditional lands in the Northern Territory to the Gurindji people: this was before any land rights acts had been draft in Australia;

This was all achieved with with a hostile senate that blocked every possible move, and the background of the 1973 oil crisis, an event that created economic havoc, just as the 2008 depression.

There were mistakes of course: too little attention was paid to the economic costs of some legislation, and no doubt, Whitlam had a weak grasp of economic matters; Australia supported Indonesia’s annexation of East Timor when Portugal left.

When I see what little is achieved by governments in today’s Australia, or the UK, where I have lived for 10 years, I simply shake my head.

Gough went on to fight another election, which he lost, then moved to academia, became ambassador to UNESCO, joined the Australian Constitutional Commission, and in 1987, chair of the National Gallery of Australia, which just goes to show that all wise people eventually discover the same truth: that one can only make sense of later life through art.

Whitlam joined three other former prime ministers in February 2008 in returning to Parliament to witness the Federal Government apology to the Aboriginal Stolen Generations by the then prime minister, Kevin Rudd [Wikipedia].

In sum: because of, and despite the errors and flaws, many of my generation and many coming after see Whitlam as a visionary, a literary intellectual, a passionate democratic socialist, and a hater of medocrity. One cannot wish for more in a political leader.

Thank you Gough, I, my brothers and many of my friends owe you our university educations, some of the best years of our lives.

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