Former prime minister Gough Whitlam dies aged 98


Former prime minister Gough Whitlam has died aged 98.


Former prime minister Gough Whitlam has died aged 98, his family have said in a statement.

His children Antony, Nicholas, Stephen and Catherine said his father was an inspiration for millions.

"A loving and generous father, he was a source of inspiration to us and our families and for millions of Australians," the statement read.

They say there will be a private cremation and a public memorial service.

His wife Margaret died in March 2012.

Tributes have been pouring in to celebrate the life of the controversial leader.

Australian Prime Minister, Tony Abbott described Mr Whitlam as a "giant of his time".

"We remember his lifetime of service to Australia in the Royal Australian Air Force, as a parliamentarian, as Prime Minister and as an ambassador," Mr Abbott said in a statement.

"Gough Whitlam recognised the journey that our country needed to take with indigenous Australians.

"Gough Whitlam’s life was inseparable from that of Margaret Whitlam. Margaret Whitlam was a leading light for women of her generation. Together they made a difference to our country."

Listen: Vale Gough Whitlam


SBS's Kristina Kukolj reports. 


Early life

Edward Gough Whitlam was born July 11, 1916 in the Melbourne suburb of Kew.

The eldest of two children of Martha and public servant Frederick Whitlam, his childhood years were spent between Melbourne, Sydney and Canberra.

Gough Whitlam went on to complete Arts and Law degrees at the University of Sydney. In 1941, with World War 2 spreading to the Pacific he registered with the Royal Air Force.

He was newly married to Margaret Dovey, the daughter of a New South Wales Supreme Court judge, but for most of his three year deployment was based far from home, in east Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory.

Biographer Jenny Hocking says this period had one of the most profound influences on Gough Whitlam's life.

"His wartime service in many ways is one of the defining features of his political and personal development," she told SBS.

"Also, growing up in Canberra, which was a highly unusual experience for a young man and a budding politician. He saw a national's capital take shape around him and it was, of course,a wonderful lesson in what good well-funded federal monies could achieve in terms of urban infrastructure."

"And a third one, one he often pointed to himself, was that as a very young man in parliament he became a member of the Constitutional Review Committee in the late 1950s."

"He was with some very senior parliamentarians on that review and it showed him ways in which the Labor Party's reforming platform could, in fact, be implemented even within the confines of the Australian Constitution."

Political life

Gough Whitlam was admitted to the New South Wales bar, and became active in the Returned and Services League.

He took up membership of the Australian Labor Party, and in 1953 at the age of 37, entered federal parliament after winning a by-election in the Sydney seat of Werriwa.

By 1960, Gough Whitlam would become the deputy leader of the federal Labor Party, at a time when many Australians feared the spread of Communism from Asia.

Despite Labor's opposition to Australia's involvement in the Vietnam War, in 1966 he travelled there to visit Australian soldiers fighting against Communist forces.

Mr Whitlam reinforced foreign policy as central to his vision for the Labor Party when he returned to Vietnam the following year, this time as the leader of the ALP.

Labor came close to winning the 1969 election.

Then in 1971, at the height of the Cold War, with the US and Australian governments still opposed to the idea, he headed a delegation to Communist China.

Australia had already begun withdrawing from Vietnam. It was in the midst of a social awakening, and ready for political change.

Labor returned to power in the 1972 federal election, after more than two decades of conservative governments.

Kep Enderby, the former Attorney General during Whitlam's era, says he was honoured to work closely with the new Prime Minister.

"I suppose it has to be said it was his personality. And he was very gifted," he said.

"He was a very intelligent man. I don't think you can go much further than that. He was eloquent, as a speechmaker. He was beyond equal in this country at that time."

Gough Whitlam's government introduced many policies that dramatically changed the way Australia related to the rest of the world, and equally transformed society at home.

It formally ended Australia's participation in the Vietnam War and abolished conscription.

Diplomatic ties were established with China, a move signalling a pursuit of closer relations with countries in the region.

The Whitlam government legislated rights for women in the workforce, and through the introduction of the no-fault divorce, single mothers' payments.

And it was the first in the world to appoint an adviser on women's affairs to the Prime Minister.

In its first year the Whitlam government passed over 200 bills including environmental protections, greater support for the arts.

Politically turbulent era

They were politically turbulent times, and in 1974 with a half Senate election on the horizon, an upper house dominated by the opposition blocked the passage of several key bills.

Confident of the popularity of his reform agenda, Gough Whitlam dissolved both houses of parliament, and called an election.

He was returned to power, but still without a majority in the Senate.

An historic joint sitting of parliament passed legislation including universal healthcare, and electoral reform.

The re-elected government increased social security support and school funding, and introduced free university education.

It ratified a number of international human rights treaties, and introduced the Racial Discrimination Act.

It established legal and other services for Indigenous Australians, championing self-determination and the right of traditional owners to their own land.

Whitlam ushered in 'multicultural Australia'

In August 1975, at the site of the Aboriginal walk-off at Wave Hill, in the Northern Territory, Gough Whitlam formally handed back land to the Gurindji people, pouring soil into the hands of elder Vince Lingiari.

The Chairman of the Federation of Ethnic Communities' Councils of Australia, Joe Caputo, says Gough Whitlam ushered in a modern multicultural Australia.

"Before that there was the White Australia Policy. Before that there was the acceptance that everybody would come here and assimilate and become all like us, like the mainstream," he said.

"With the Whitlam government there was talk about opening up the world, ensuring the equality of every ethnic group, every individual in this country."

"So, that was the beginning of the acceptance of diversity, and the abolishment of White Australia was a major milestone, and I think no one can forget that."

Constitutional crisis 

The opposition saw Gough Whitlam's government as plagued by economic mismanagement and ministerial scandals.

Under Malcolm Fraser, it provoked a constitutional crisis by refusing to pass budget supply bills in the Senate - leaving the government unable to pay its public servants.

Determined to end the standoff, on Remembrance Day, Gough Whitlam entered the Governor General's office with the intention of calling a half-Senate election.

Professor Hocking recalls the events that followed.

"As he walked into the Governor General's study he was not aware that the leader of the opposition, Malcolm Fraser, had already arrived ahead of him and was secreted in another room at the end of the corridor waiting for this to play out in the Governor General's study," she told said.

"As Whitlam reached for his letter for the Governor General, the Governor General Sir John Kerr said "Before you hand me that, I have a letter for you" and handed Whitlam a letter of his own which terminated his commission and terminated the commission of all of his ministers and, therefore, the government."

"Whitlam later described that as the greatest shock he had ever experienced."

"He said that he shook Kerr's hand more out of habit than courtesy, and as he left Sir John Kerr said "We all have to live with this." Whitlam turned to him and said, "Well, you certainly will.""

Outside Parliament House a crowd gathered to hear the proclamation by the Governor General's official secretary, David Smith.

His final words turned into condemnation in Gough Whitlam's historic reply: 

"Well may we say, God save the Queen... Because nothing will save the Governor General."

"The proclamation which you have just heard read by the Governor General's official secretary was counter-signed Malcolm Fraser, who will undoubtedly go down in Australian history from Remembrance Day 1975 as Kerr's cur."

After losing the election to the Coalition led by Malcolm Fraser, Gough Whitlam stayed on as the Leader of the Opposition for another two years.

In 1978, he ended 25 years as a federal Labor MP.

Life after politics

In 1983, Gough Whitlam was appointed Australia's ambassador to UNESCO in Paris.

He also chaired the World Heritage Commission, and sat on the World Heritage Committee and Independent Commission on International Humanitarian Issues.

He was also chairman of the Australia-China Council, and the National Gallery of Australia, which he founded.

He remained a great Labor hero, who could always command a rapturous reception. He never stopped giving advice, even if it didn't always work out. His last protege was Mark Latham.

In 2007 he and Margaret became the first national life members of the ALP, an honour previously bestowed only at the state level.

Yet East Timor haunted him and in 2007 the 90-year-old had to give evidence at an inquest into the killing of five Australian newsmen at Balibo in 1975.

Whitlam's achievements were mixed.

He reformed Labor and showed it could be a party of government. He changed it from a party of working class struggle to one for the middle class. He understood the importance of the suburbs.

By the breadth of his interests - particularly in the arts and cultural diversity - he made Australia a richer place.  

Future Labor governments benefited from Whitlam's achievements while learning from his mistakes.

They understood the importance of discipline and the centrality of economic management.

Menzies before and Fraser, Hawke and John Howard after all ruled for much longer. But none so personally defined his era through the excitement and theatre he brought to politics, or through the power of his presence and the potency of his ideas.

Source World News Australia

Stay up to date with SBS NEWS

  • App
  • Subscribe
  • Follow
  • Listen
  • Watch