A closer look at Noel Pearson’s eulogy for Gough Whitlam

Noel Pearson’s speech has been hailed as one of the great Australian political speeches. What were its stylistic characteristics? AAP Image/Fairfax Pool, Peter Rae

Gough Whitlam was a prime minister unsuccessful in three of his five federal election campaigns, including 1975’s extremely divisive contest. Somehow, though, his death has sparked an outpouring of kind words that may be most remarkable for their bipartisanship.

A long parade of politicians and other public figures has volunteered to encapsulate the “lessons” that “Gough’s legacy” supposedly “teaches” them.

Noel Pearson gave a eulogy at Gough’s memorial that directed our gaze to Rome, to the outback, to the farce that never ceases in public life, and to the precious value of justice. Leading figures in Australian politics and media have hailed it as one of the great Australian political speeches.

Gough Whitlam has inspired great rhetoric: several of the speeches that had already been given about the former prime minister were many cuts above the general grade of Australian political rhetoric.

Tony Abbott was conspicuously generous, especially in his acknowledgement of Gough’s generosity. Tanya Plibersek offered a heartfelt tribute to “reforms” her party would not dare to advance now.

Malcolm Turnbull’s memorial to Gough and Margaret Whitlam was unlike anything Australian parliamentarians have delivered to Hansard in my lifetime: a prayer for his former constituents, now resident on Mount Olympus.

Noel Pearson’s eulogy for Gough Whitlam.

Pearson came to praise Caesar on Wednesday, certainly not to bury him – thinking of phrases Gough himself must have read and discussed many times – but not to claim him for a particular factional interest either:

Raised next to the wood heap of the nation’s democracy, bequeathed no allegiance to any political party, I speak to this old man’s legacy with no partisan brief.

Pearson spoke most trenchantly about a political achievement that has lived on since Gough’s government – and has now outlived him, its author, too: the achievement of legislation to counter racial discrimination, culminating in the 1975 Racial Discrimination Act.

The audience for Pearson’s eulogy spilled into the streets. AAP Image/NEWZULU/PETER BOYLE

The villain of Pearson’s speech was former Queensland premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen. His acts of “spite” against Aboriginal Queenslanders were only countered by legal actions which relied on that Act, Pearson said:

If there were no Racial Discrimination Act, that would have been the end of it. Land rights would have been dead, there would never have been a Mabo case in 1992, there would have been no Native Title Act under Prime Minister Keating in 1993.

Pearson delivered these remarks at Sydney Town Hall under two huge projections of that famous photograph at Wave Hill. In it, Gough stands under the bluest of blue skies, pouring his faith in good government into Vincent Lingiari’s hands and declaiming the high phrases that Pearson quoted:

I solemnly hand to you these deeds as proof in Australian law that these lands belong to the Gurindji people and I put into your hands this piece of earth itself as a sign that we restore them to you and your children forever.

Cutting the reverential mood – this has quickly become one of the most-quoted turns in Pearson’s eulogy – he tried to sum up the immensity of Gough’s policy achievement by reference to Monty Python’s Life of Brian:

Apart from Medibank and the Trade Practices Act, cutting tariff protections and no-fault divorce in the Family Law Act, the Australia Council, the Federal Court, the Order of Australia, federal legal aid, the Racial Discrimination Act, needs-based schools funding, the recognition of China, the abolition of conscription, the law reform commission, student financial assistance, the Heritage Commission, non-discriminatory immigration rules, community health clinics, Aboriginal land rights, paid maternity leave for public servants, lowering the minimum voting age to 18 years and fair electoral boundaries and Senate representation for the territories.

Apart from all of this, what did this Roman ever do for us?

I have not yet sourced evidence of Gough’s views on Monty Python, nor of their views on him. Clearly he was not shy of comedy and satire, though. Many have noted his fondness for sending himself up. He appeared in Bruce Beresford’s film The Adventures of Barry McKenzie (as himself). He also received a very poignant note from Spike Milligan on the occasion of his dismissal in 1975.

Pearson called Gough “Roman” three times in the speech, if you count inclusively, knowing it would have tickled him. But “this old man” he played 10 times. It is a more personal and endearing term. Revealingly, it is an epithet he also applied to John Koowarta.

In that, we can hear how Pearson wants Gough Whitlam remembered in an epic history of 20th century campaigners for justice in Australia: Koowarta, Lingiari, Mabo, and their ilk. It is Gough as a hero worthy of Australia’s first peoples. This makes a compelling story and a moving tribute, even if some will resent its assumption that history is made by “great men”.

Meanwhile, Pearson’s speech clearly offered something that much of Australia’s civil society was ready to grab hold of. Megan Levy’s article yesterday captured the published consensus squarely by calling it “one for the ages”.

The Twitter feed she reproduced towards the end of her article also underscores the way the speech seized people’s imaginations, but social media across Australia and more broadly were groaning at the seams with similar examples.

Levy quotes Dominic Knight, who tweeted, “Am I the only person hearing something of the slow, resonating cadences of Dr King as Noel Pearson speaks?”. According to one opinion poll, King’s I Have a Dream is the one speech in all human history that has impressed the greatest number of Australians, so we can all see how this comparison counts as a merit point.

On the one hand, this media response has been a fairly harmless example of a type of group-think that draws much criticism of political reportage. As Matusitz and Breen have sharply put it:

Large groups of reporters cluster around a news site, engage in copycat reporting by using and sharing news information, and lazily refrain from confirming the data.

On the other hand, it certainly underlines Gough’s most appreciated mark on Australian public life: his brilliance as a performer. It is very hard to find any responses to his death that do not mention this aspect. Unsurprisingly, those who want to mark the occasion feel a need for suitably impressive oratory to commemorate it by.

In other words, Pearson’s brilliant achievement in this eulogy was to emulate the brilliant achievement of Gough. Greatness of style reprises greatness … of style.