Remembering former Labor Prime Minister Gough Whitlam

Gough Whitlam receiving Italy's highest decoration, the Grande Ufficiale dell'Ordine al Merito della Repubblica Italiana, from Italian Ambassador to Australia in 1999.

Former Prime Minister Gough Whitlam has died, aged 98.

(Transcript from SBS World News Radio)

"I suppose I fell under his spell. But so did most of Australia at that time, too."

Retired Federal Attorney General Kep Enderby remembering a leader and a friend.

Australia's 21st Prime Minister Gough Whitlam has died in Sydney, aged 98.

By many accounts an unrivalled visionary who returned Labor to power after more than two decades in opposition, he set Australia on a path of reform, the legacy of which still lives on today.

Mr Whitlam led the country through a period of massive social change from 1972 to 1975 before his controversial ousting by Governor General Sir John Kerr.

Kristina Kukolja looks back at his life.

(Click on the audio tab above to hear the full report)

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 formative years were spent between Melbourne, Sydney and Canberra.

Gough Whitlam went on to complete Arts and Law degrees at the University of Sydney and, with the Second World War spreading to the Pacific, in 1941 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. 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."

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 resistance 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 says he felt honoured to work closely with the new Prime Minister as his Attorney General.

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

Australia's first female Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, paid tribute during the inaugural Whitlam Oration, at the University of Western Sydney in 2012.

"The moderate who moved us beyond the old state aid debate. The statesman who turned our face north towards China. The moderniser who changed Labor's organisation and ideas. The pragmatist who swore that only the impotent are pure. A sophisticated and funny man, a fighting Labor leader and Prime Minister who modernised, and moderated and reformed. We know Gough in multitudes and yet we know only one Gough -- above all, a restless reformer."

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

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

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 Vincent Lingiari.

"I want to promise you that this act of restitution which we perform today will not stand alone. Your fight is not for yourselves alone and we are determined that Aboriginal Australians everywhere will be helped by it. And I want to give back to you formally in Aboriginal and in Australian law ownership of this land of your fathers."

The Honorary President of the Federation of Ethnic Communities' Councils of Australia, Pino Migliorino, says Gough Whitlam ushered in a modern multicultural Australia.

"He was the advent of change. Certainly, in terms of moving Australia forward. He had a far more open approach. If you like, he actually created the fundamentals of multiculturalism. His support of Al Grassby as a minister in his cabinet. The promotion of cultural diversity as a value in Australia very much was started by him. Of course, it was during the Fraser government afterwards that we actually institutionalised multiculturalism through the Galbally report, but without him that would never have happened."

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

And 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.

Biographer Jenny 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. And 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, of 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.

Mr Smith's final words were turned into condemnation by Gough Whitlam in his historic reply.

"Well may we say, God save the Queen... Because nothing will save the Governor General. (cheers, applause) The proclamation which you have just heard read by the Governor General's official secretary was counter-signed Malcolm Fraser (booing from crowd), 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.

He would never forgive Sir John Kerr.

But seemingly, he found it in himself to reconcile with Malcolm Fraser.

Life after politics brought prominent public roles.

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.

Then in 2012, his beloved wife Margaret died.

Jenny Hocking says Gough Whitlam was devastated.

"She was his rock. She was his stabilising force. She was the person who would take no nonsense from him. She could speak with him in ways that nobody else could or would dare. At the same time it's very interesting that whilst she was a bridge to what we understand as a more modern political wife in that she had her own identity, she spoke her own mind. Soon after Whitlam came to office she gave a speech in which she said marijuana should be legalised, abortion should be legalised, women should be paid to be wives and mothers because one of the worst aspects of being a wife and a mother was having to ask your husband for money. All of these comments made a great deal of interesting press coverage over the next few days. Whitlam just said: 'Margaret has her own mind and she will speak it.' "

Advancing age and declining health meant Gough Whitlam made fewer public appearances in his final years, though he continued to attend his Sydney office.

Tributes have highlighted his unwavering dedication to Australia, even after leaving the government.

Kep Enderby says the man he admired as an charismatic leader and good friend changed Australia forever.

"Australia would have been a much worse place without him."

 

 

 

 

Stay up to date with SBS NEWS

  • App
  • Subscribe
  • Follow
  • Listen
  • Watch