A few thoughts on Comrade Whitlam

Gough and Margaret Whitlam, by Timeshift 9 (Creative Commons)

Among the many fine tributes to E. Gough Whitlam delivered in Parliament today, on the day of his death, the Member for Watson in Whitlam’s beloved Western Sydney, Tony Burke, mentioned one thing that brought back a fond memory for me.

Burke said that in Labor circles, it had long been considered a very great honour to be the tall, younger man on whom Whitlam leant for assistance as he left one of the countless Party functions he attended.

I once served as a human walking stick for the former Prime Minister, and I also felt honoured to been able to offer this giant of Australian public life some brief assistance. Not at a Labor Party function, though; but a rather more conservative occasion – an alumni dinner for the Sydney University Law School.

After studying there, Whitlam went on to become a QC and to make laws; I went on to a career of occasionally getting arrested and making jokes about political figures. A few of my Chaser colleagues and I were on stage making jokes that night. I felt somewhat intimidated by such an august audience, but I’m sure we managed a few gags at Whitlam’s expense, as we did some of the others luminaries who attended, including Malcolm Turnbull.

At the end of the night, I found myself sitting at the same table as the Whitlams. Throughout the evening, I’d observed an endless succession of guests walking up to Gough and paying their respects. Each one expressed their affection with great emotion, and each one received Whitlam’s undivided attention as they did so. And each separate, no doubt extremely similar conversation nevertheless seemed to give him enormous pleasure.

I got the sense that his life had been like this for many decades since he’d left politics; that everywhere he went, he was praised for the legacy of his three short years as Prime Minister. In those years, I imagine, his reforms had planted countless seeds whose fruition decades later gave him great delight.

After all, the areas of his government’s most significant reforms, like health and education, are emotive ones for voters. Doors to educational opportunity being opened and hefty bills being waived are not the kind of things one soon forgets.

Of course, some will point out that the extent of his government’s largesse in these matters was part of the economic legacy that was been questioned ever since 1975. But regardless of one’s view of the policies, what could be more understandable than the profound gratitude of those who benefited from them?

That night, I had just managed to have a brief conversation with Whitlam himself – I’m not sure what about – when his wife Margaret decided that it was time to return home. She tried several times to get his attention from across the large round table where she was sitting, at some distance for some reason – perhaps to avoid the constant stream of Gough acolytes.

He didn’t notice her entreaties for several minutes, due either to the state of his hearing or his great enjoyment of the tributes being paid; probably both. It was relatively early in the evening, but I got the sense Gough could have gone on all night discussing the things he’d done thirty years earlier.

After her entreaties were ignored for several minutes, Margaret decided to take direct action, and picked up a bread roll. She tossed it at her husband from two or three metres away, and, ever the athlete, scored a direct hit. Her countenance had been quite grumpy while she was trying to attract Gough’s attention, but upon making contact, her face broke into a grin.

Somewhat reluctantly, Whitlam acknowledged that it was time to go, and asked for my assistance, as the nearest hefty gentleman. I was only too happy to oblige, and he leaned on me as we left the room and slowly moved towards his waiting car.

I had no idea what to say to a former Prime Minister who was propping his still-considerable stature on my shoulder, and so resorted to paying the same manner of tribute that others had been offering all evening. I told him that my father had always maintained that but for the Whitlam government, his life would have been profoundly different.

Dad was 19 when Whitlam was first elected in 1972, and on the verge of the Vietnam draft. Furthermore, having avoided conscription, he was able to attend medical school, now that it had been made free. My mother, too, was hugely grateful that her teaching bond was forgiven by the government, allowing her greater flexibility in her career.

My parents married the year after Whitlam was elected, and I was born in 1977. Who knows – perhaps this would not have been the case if my father had been sent to Vietnam?

My grandfather had a rather more direct relationship with Whitlam, who appointed him Governor of the Reserve Bank in 1975 despite my grandfather not exactly being a Labor comrade. In so doing, Whitlam followed the tradition of Deputy RBA Governors taking over the top job, which was an interesting and not necessarily expected decision given his Government’s disregard for tradition in other areas of economic management.

What’s more, thanks to Whitlam’s decision to recognise China, my grandfather had the privilege of being part of the first official trade delegation to the PRC in 1973, before Whitlam himself visited as Prime Minister. I’ve heard a few stories about how vastly different China seemed back then.

I know far too little about the Whitlam government to pass any kind of meaningful judgement on the whole of its record: I was born two years after its unexpected termination. But its enduring social legacy speaks for itself, and its economic difficulties are still debated today. Certainly the Khemlani affair strikes me as being one of those not infrequent occasions where Australian politics defies satire.

I studied Whitlam’s dismissal in that same law school that we both attended, and it was hard to avoid the view that a system where Prime Ministers and Governors-General can effectively remove one another is a problematic structure, lending itself at times of instability to a race to be first to pull the trigger. It’s a great credit to the restraint of the players in our political system that there have not been more moments of instability like 1975.

What is hard to dispute is that the Whitlam government’s legacy has been vastly disproportionate to its duration. John Gorton was PM for roughly the same period, dating from the era of the 1968 worldwide student riots to 1971, but I suspect very few Australians know much about his government. I just read the relevant Wikipedia entry – there’s not all that much there, even though it ran for a longer period.

It’s a curious fate to have spent nearly 40 years reliving the details of the three years of your life spent as Prime Minister, and perhaps one which Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd will also share. It’s fortunate for Whitlam that he remained immensely proud of what he achieved in such a short time, and that so many others around him seemed to share that view.

I’ve noticed a few comments today saying what a pity it is that we only pay tribute to the likes of Gough Whitlam after they die. That sentiment often feels appropriate, but perhaps not for our 21st Prime Minister. What I saw that night in 2003 gave me the impression that for decades, he must have been able to bask in the same kind of adulation I saw at that dinner whenever he left the house.

Malcolm Turnbull concluded his tribute to his late constituent by paying tribute to the Whitlam marriage, and it does seem to have been a partnership of rare intimacy, mutual respect and affection of the sort to which many aspire and few achieve.

From what I saw that night at the law school, I’m very confident that whenever he got too big for his boots – which, let’s face it, may well have been often – Margaret was at hand to bring him back to earth. Occasionally with the assistance of bread rolls.

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