Gough Whitlam – It's Time to Rest In Peace
by Mark Horner
Sun 26th Oct 2014
Edward Gough Whitlam (”Gough Whitlam”), a former Labour prime minister of Australia, passed away on 21st October, 2014 at 98 years of age. He takes with him his life-long passion for Australia and the respect of millions of his fellow Australians.
On an international level, Whitlam leaves behind an Australia playing an important economic, diplomatic and political role in Asia. On a national level, he leaves behind a legacy of social reform which is embedded in the foundations of Australia's enviable quality of life. And on a personal level, Whitlam leaves behind four children: Tony, Nicholas, Stephen and Catherine. Margaret, his wife and companion for almost 70 years, passed away in 2012 at 92 years of age.
Today, Whitlam is the most talked about Australian prime minister even though it is almost 40 years since the end of his 1972-1975 reign. At first glance, Whitlam was an unlikely member of the Labour party and never a likely future Labour prime minister. He lacked the traditional working-class credentials and that immediately formed a hurdle which took him several attempts to clear in his quest for pre-selection as a Labour candidate. In the main, Whitlam attended private schools. He read classics at the University of Sydney, where he was a pupil of a visiting British academic whose destiny was also politics, namely Enoch Powell. After graduating in classics, Whitlam studied law and went on to practise as a barrister before entering parliament in 1952. Although Whitlam was not a working-class hero, once in parliament, he became a hero to the working-class.
Whitlam brought to parliament an aura and colour which he never lost in defeat or in old age. He was supremely confident, intelligent, quick-witted and possessed a glorious ability to instantly map thoughts into eloquent speech. But no matter how high his star rose he never lost sight of the hopes and needs of the average Australian.
It is befitting that Whitlam was Australia's 21st prime minister because at that time 21 was the number associated with the coming of adulthood. And the overarching theme of Whitlam's reign as prime minister was to push Australia into adulthood. He transformed the Australian psyche from that of an insecure child of a former colonial master into the psyche of an adult secure in its own skin and able to chart a course away from British history and write its own history in Asia.
In 1972, Whitlam led the Labour party out of 23 years of political wilderness into government. He immediately started upon transforming Australia. Some reforms had an immediate affect, including: ending compulsory military conscription, withdrawing the remaining troops from Vietnam, approving sanctions against the South African apartheid regime and abolishing university fees. And many reforms had a long-term effect, including: establishing full relations with China, introducing a national health scheme, legislating the Racial Discrimination Act, encouraging equal-pay between the sexes, recognising Aboriginal land rights, encouraging urban development, replacing British honours with Australian honours and substituting the British national anthem (“God Save The Queen”) with an Australian national anthem (“Advance Australia Fair”).
Whitlam's reign came to an end in 1975 when his government was dismissed by the governor-general, Sir John Kerr. The dismissal is the most controversial and debated event in Australian political history. Views on the dismissal range from the view that the governor-general acted within his authority to dismiss a government that could not adequately secure funds to run government, to the view that the Whitlam government was overthrown in a civil coup.
Although it was the governor-general who removed the Whitlam government from office, it was the marginal or swinging middle-class voters, now disillusioned with the state of the economy and behaviour of some senior ministers, who kept Whitlam from resuming office.
After resigning from parliament in 1978, Whitlam held a number of academic positions and public appointments, including ambassador to UNESCO.
And now, after a full and busy life in which he improved the lives of millions of Australians, it's time to rest in peace.