Booing at a memorial: politeness and political ritual

Politics was very much on display during last week’s memorial service for former prime minister Gough Whitlam. AAP/Brendon Thorne

Last week, I was one of a sea of Australians who rose to remember Gough Whitlam. Fitting its subject, the Whitlam memorial was sweeping. It was as much a grand story of Australia’s evolution since the war as it was a portrait of the life and legend of a towering, verbose ex-prime minister. This was a formal political rite unlike any in living memory.

Thirty-six years earlier, Robert Menzies’ state funeral had featured a Scots’ Church service, led by three “Very Reverends”, with readings from Prince Charles and numerous hymns. Whitlam’s state memorial was held at Sydney Town Hall, featured a journalist MC, an Academy Award winner, two Indigenous elders and eclectic music from Verdi, Berlioz and the Dylanesque Paul Kelly and Kev Carmody.

Menzies’ had the drone of bagpipers, hearkening to the highlands of Scotland. Whitlam’s had the drone of a didgeridoo, hearkening to Australia’s native heart. Each man, of course, had been born to privilege in Victoria.

At the Whitlam memorial, a large crowd was sandwiched between Town Hall and St Andrew’s Cathedral. Fixed on that symbol of modernity, a flat mega-screen, the crowd played “yay or boo” before the memorial to the arrival of former and serving politicians. Cheering was the order of the day, with booing reserved for the two recent Liberal prime ministers, John Howard and Tony Abbott.

NSW state MP Peter Phelps objected that no-one had jeered Labor PMs attending the last prime ministerial memorial, that of John Gorton. The contrast was obvious, but inapt. There was no crowd at Gorton’s memorial. Yet inside each of those memorials, politics was on display.

At Whitlam’s memorial, the Labor-oriented audience inside the hall applauded most high-profile guests but with varying enthusiasm. Speakers then wove stories of Whitlam’s work into pointed comments about equal opportunity and anti-discrimination. At Gorton’s, former attorney-general Tom Hughes sought revenge on Malcolm Fraser, a captive in the audience. Ironically, Whitlam had been at hand to console Fraser during this humiliation.

Forty years before, my father took me to Lang Park to watch a rugby league test. Whitlam had appeared then and been roundly booed. Reputedly, he turned to the well-loved local senator and football administrator and quipped:

I didn’t realise you were so unpopular up here, Comrade!

As a child I thought this funny. My parents, small-business people but Whitlamites, thought it less so.

Four weeks back I was reminded of this. I watched an NRL crowd boo the roof off Olympic Stadium as Abbott was introduced. By world standards, Australia is well-governed, but it is not cool to publicly admit this.

Our politicians’ lot is to wear whatever slings and arrows the demos cares to hurl at them. Political disrespect at Australian gatherings is no cause for cultural cringe. The booing outside Whitlam’s memorial was pure pantomime: after all, crowds spell disinhibition.

Australia does not do large-scale political ritual often, hence it does not do it well. In contrast, Britain has its regular royal pageants, the US its four-yearly inaugurations.

The booing outside the Whitlam memorial was impolite, but Australian politics is rarely otherwise. It was also the passing reflex of an otherwise good-natured crowd that stood for the best part of four hours, most wondering why.

The Prime Minister’s Office was overwhelmed by the demand of those registering to attend, and made no effort to find a larger venue nearby to telecast to the overflow. Yet the red carpet was immaculate, the RAAF fly-past precision-timed and the choreography and symphonic chorale superb.

In short, Australia is used to providing protocol to small coteries of VIPs and celebrities. This is a curious realisation in a country that prides itself on egalitarianism. But that egalitarianism is a cultural artefact that percolates from below rather than being institutionally embedded. It is also one based on an equality of manners, not any equality of wealth or power.

Political ritual, nonetheless, is all around us. Every year or so we trot off to the polls, in the biggest secular ritual of all. It is a low-key one, with little of the razzmatazz of the Olympics, Oscars or even a US election. But Australians seem to care for it that way. We prefer the ritual of the everyday to the ritual of great ceremony.

We are compelled to vote, just as we are compelled to go to school, each act a rite of citizenship in the broadest sense. And fittingly, in the main we vote at schools. Children grow up and return, often as parents, to dutifully pencil their mark on a ballot paper just as they pencilled marks in an exercise book long before. Outside these school and local halls, venues of community, sausage sizzles and fundraising stalls jostle for space with those spruiking their party’s cause.

This week, Brisbane will be overtaken with political ritual as the G20 comes to town. At first glance it seems odd to label the G20 a “ritual”. This is a serious set of powerful meetings, but whatever international co-operation is won, or international exposure milked, the G20 is ultimately theatrical.

Brisbane will be overtaken by political ritual as the G20 rolls into town. AAP/Dan Peled

The G20’s main stage is reserved for leaders and their entourages. They gather to be photographed in local garb, to be received at formal cocktail parties and even to shirtfront each other.

Then there is the off-Broadway show. Demonstrators mime their many causes, the more spectacularly the better to grab fleeting media attention. With policing concerns oozing from a 100-page, bespoke G20 (Safety and Security) Act 2014, locals are either fleeing the scene or lamenting the hubbub.

Death unleashes a host of emotions. Melancholia for a person passed and times past; fear and frustration; acceptance and reconciliation; pride and prejudice. The Whitlam memorial was infused with two forces: celebration and tribalism. Like any old clan, Laborites know how to re-tell and cherish their history and how to resent rivals and nourish grudges.

The sense of celebration was offset by a real sense of mourning. Not mourning for the Old Man, as Noel Pearson dubbed him. Grief was muted. Whitlam was 98 and a richer life is barely imaginable.

It was a rite of self-mourning by Labor; mourning its lost soul rather than the loss of Whitlam. This is a movement that fears its great achievements are behind it. While the Whitlam legacy is rich, Australia is less socially democratic now than it has been since Federation.