Former Labor prime ministers Bob Hawke, Paul Keating and Gough Whitlam in 1998. Photo: Steven Siewert Former Labor prime ministers Bob Hawke, Paul Keating and Gough Whitlam in 1998. Photo: Steven Siewert
Malcolm Fraser and Gough Whitlam rally against the concentration of media ownership in 1991. Photo: Steven Siewert
Former Labor leaders Kim Beazley, Paul Keating, Bob Hawke, Bill Hayden and Gough Whitlam Photo: Paul Harris
Former Labor prime ministers Bob Hawke, Paul Keating and Gough Whitlam in 1998. Photo: Steven Siewert
Former Labor prime ministers Bob Hawke, Paul Keating and Gough Whitlam in 1998. Photo: Steven Siewert
The Pulse: Politics as it happensGough Whitlam: full coverageWhitlam: Martyr for a moment, hero for a lifetime
The man who replaced Gough Whitlam in the dramatic events of the 1975 dismissal, former Liberal prime minister Malcolm Fraser, has helped lead the tributes for his former political nemesis.
Mr Fraser has been joined by former Liberal prime minister John Howard, former Labor prime ministers Bob Hawke, Paul Keating, Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard, former Labor leader Kim Beazley, union leaders and Liberal Philip Ruddock, the last current MP to serve with Mr Whitlam, in paying tribute to the Labor luminary.
Mr Whitlam was credited by Mr Fraser, his former rival, with opening new doors in Australia and helping “to show the possibility of a new and perhaps better future” in the arts, foreign policy and other areas of Australian life.
He led the ALP out of the political wilderness after 23 years of conservative rule, and was “not only a hero to members of the Labor Party,” Mr Fraser said.
Mr Hawke said Mr Whitlam’s passing was not a time for sadness as at 98, “Gough was ready to go and his family was ready for him to go” and that the simple truth was “Australia is a better country because of the life and work of Gough Whitlam”.
Mr Whitlam would be remembered for everything from civic improvements that put in place sewerage services in Australia’s newer suburbs, through more equitable health and education services, to his vision as an international statesman – best exemplified by this visit to China while opposition leader.
“If you look at the two fundamental issues which determine the welfare of ordinary people, that’s health and education. He was absolutely profoundly important in transforming both those aspects of the lives of ordinary Australians,” he said.
Mr Hawke said his predecessor as Labor prime minister “wouldn’t appreciate it if we were all here in these next few days saying he was a saint without blemish, adding that he learned the importance of “getting the party into shape” and of strength, “if you had a position, you had an obligation to put that position strongly”.
Mr Keating, who served briefly as a junior minister in the final days of the Whitlam government, said the Labor leader had “changed the way Australia thought about itself and gave the country a new destiny”, helping create a more inclusive and compassionate society that was more engaged in the world.
“He snapped Australia out of the Menzian torpor – the orthodoxy that had rocked the country asleep, giving it new vitality and focus. But more than that, bringing Australia to terms with its geography and place in the region,” he said in a statement.
“Along his journey he also renovated the Labor Party, making it useful again as an instrument of reform to Australian society. He will missed by all who identified with his values and determination to see Australia a better place. But no one will miss him more than his family.”
Mr Howard said Mr Whitlam’s high intelligence, commanding presence and strong beliefs had left a lasting impact on Australian politics.
“Gough Whitlam was prime minister when I entered Parliament in 1974. His ready wit, eloquence and prodigious recall gave him an easy mastery of the parliamentary arena,” he said.
“Fundamental to his policy attitudes was Gough Whitlam’s belief that an activist and interventionist national government was always the appropriate response to Australia’s challenges. Whilst there will always be debate on such a proposition, Whitlam’s commitment to it permeated his actions in government.”
Mr Rudd said Australia’s political history was littered with ordinary politicians but Mr Whitlam had been an extraordinary statesman and an “exemplar for us all”.
“This great man has left an indelible mark on Australia. An indelible mark for the good. And Australia will always be the better for it. In his character lay a deep blend of wide vision, broad intelligence and a boundless heart for the nation,” Mr Rudd said.
The two-time Labor prime minister said that people often forgot Mr Whitlam’s courage in serving with the RAAF during the Pacific War.
“Some also forget his political courage, profound foresight and sheer statesmanship when as leader of the opposition, in the anti-Communist hysteria of the time, he visited China, met Mao and Zhou Enlai, and undertook to recognise China if elected in 1972. Which promptly he did,” he said.
On the domestic front, Mr Whitlam’s “broad vision” had encompassed universal access to education and universal health based on need, not on privilege or the ability to pay.
“Gough’s instinctive embrace of indigenous Australians, and their rights to land, particularly at a time when racism was still alive and well in our country, has made him an unassailable hero in the hearts and minds of our Aboriginal brothers and sisters,” he said.
“Just as his introduction of the Racial Discrimination Act fundamentally reshaped our laws.”
Ms Gillard told Guardian Australia that Mr Whitlam would be remembered for his impact on Australia’s universities, Medicare, family law, land rights for indigenous Australians and improving relations with China.
“As prime minister, I was conscious of walking in Whitlam’s footsteps as our government set about creating a companion to Medicare, the National Disability Insurance Scheme,” she said.
“Every Labor leader and every prime minister who has followed him has wrestled with his legacy. Gough Whitlam transformed so much about Australia and the prime ministership.”
Former Labor leader Kim Beazley, who is now Australia’s ambassador to the United States and whose father Kim Beazley snr served as a minister in the Whitlam government, said the former Labor leader was “without question the most erudite politician we have had lead Australia” and a “timeless figure”.
“He made the modern opposition, through the establishment of shadow cabinet, the creation of comprehensive policy, the willingness not just to pursue the negative but to pursue what people wanted to know – what you would do with the place,” he told Fairfax Media from Washington.
“His government was fraught and struggled but it left many monuments behind it, the changes he made in education, then changes in Aboriginal affairs, the changes he made in health, the changes he made in innovative Commonwealth use of Section 96 grants,” he said.
“While his actual activities ebbed and flowed in the hands of different governments, his approach basically remains as the underpinnings of many of great Australian social initiatives.”
Mr Beazley said he had “millions” of personal memories of Mr Whitlam but the first was when, as a child, he would travel to Canberra with his father in August each year for parliament.
“My father used to be put me in the Speakers’ gallery of parliament, almost as a babysitting service, and Gough would often, if I was sitting there, come across and say hello.”
Liberal backbencher Philip Ruddock, the only sitting federal MP to serve with Mr Whitlam, having been elected in 1973, said that after John Howard, the former Labor PM was the former prime minister to whom he had been most connected.
“My election as the member for Paramatta [in 1973], it was a very adversarial by-election, it was when Billy Snedden was making ground and we got a huge swing. But it was primarily because he proposed Galston as the second airport for Sydney and that caused a great deal of anxiety that could be very easily exploited.”
“He forgave me for beating him. In his very magnanimous way he would say ‘comrade, that’s the way it had to be’…I liked Gough Whitlam, he was a gentleman who believed in what he believed but it didn’t interfere with the personal relationships.”
Mr Fraser said that his predecessor as prime minister had a place in Australian history that was “very special to Gough”.
“He is in some ways almost a mythological figure, he is revered, whatever the success or shortfalls of his government, he has played an enormously important part in Australians life and that can’t be taken from him,” he told Fairfax Media.
“In the arts, opera theatre literature, music he opened up possibilities that seemed to be new and exciting”.
“He went to China at a time when the visit took some courage, China was still very much on the outer, [US president Richard] Nixon’s visit hadn’t taken place, but he laid the foundations for a new and more productive relationship.”
Mr Whitlam was larger than life and a tough opponent in and outside of the parliament, who had not born a grudge for the manner of his dismissal, Mr Fraser said.
“He was a formidable parliamentary performer and one of the significant debaters of his time … Gough was one of the leaders. It was a time when there were people who had their own character because of who and what they were. I think the Parliament today has less personalities in it, people who don’t seem to shine – people read speeches rather than making them.
As for the events of 1975, Mr Fraser said he “never had the feeling he carried personal animosity to me as a result of 1975”.
“As we met at different forums, mostly overseas initially, the ice began to break and we established a friendship. We supported the independence of The Age from the back of a truck overlooking Fitzroy Gardens together. We found that we had a number of issues where we had a common view – on refugees, independence of the media, but also we had a common idea of Australia as a country that could play an active and productive role as a middle-ranking power cooperating with others.”
“It was only later we developed a closeness and a friendship, after we left the parliament.”
And in the years after both left politics, Mr Fraser said, the pair had not discussed the events of 1975 as “those events were passed, he knew and I knew what the facts were”.
“There wasn’t a great deal of point really. There were enough things to discuss between us that were relevant and significant and more up to date than 1975.”
“If he had a fault it was trying to do too much too quickly, which made it difficult to implement everything. That’s possibly a product of being out of office for 23 years, which is not healthy for democracy. It’s better that governments change more often than that.”
ACTU president Ged Kearney called Mr Whitlam “a once in a generation leader” who was driven by a vision for a greater Australia.
“Gough Whitlam sensed that Australians wanted something different and he harnessed that and ushered in a period of great social, cultural and economic change in Australia,” Ms Kearney said.
She listed recognition of China and equality for women and the first peoples of Australia among Mr Whitlam’s achievements.
Ms Kearney also paid tribute to the partnership of Gough and Margaret Whitlam.
“Gough and Margaret were a terrific team and together they made an enormous difference to generations of Australians.”
Ms Kearney said while Mr Whitlam was only prime minister for three years, he continued to contribute to the nation over his lifetime.
“Gough Whitlam’s legacy is one of a fairer and more just society and it is our responsibility to instil this in generations of Australians to come,” Ms Kearney said. Gough Whitlam’s memorable quotesWhitlam’s China masterstrokeWhat others had to sayGrowing up in the Gough eraThe man who reached for the skyHis legacy to educationA life in photos
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