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Gough Whitlam: a man for his times whose mark is on our times

Gough Whitlam was a transformational prime minister. AAP/Mick Tsikas

A mark of a great leader is what’s left of the legacy generations later. It’s four decades since the tumultuous Whitlam government, and his large handprint is still all over modern Australia.

Whitlam was a transformational prime minister. He suited and grabbed hold of his special times but also imagined the nation’s future. In just three years, he erected such solid foundations in so many policy areas that they have not just endured subsequent governments but have often been building blocks for them.

In his tribute, Tony Abbott noted the “enduring legacy” of Whitlam’s establishment of diplomatic relations with China, now our largest trading partner. And Whitlam, Abbott said, “recognised the journey that our country needed to take with indigenous Australians. The image of soil passing from Gough Whitlam’s hand to Vincent Lingiari’s is a reminder that all Australians share the same land and the same hopes.”

Vincent Lingiari and Gough Whitlam

In education, health, welfare, environment, social policy, legal reform, the arts and many other major areas Whitlam changed the way things were done, widening opportunity and broadening Australians' outlook. In international affairs – for a while Whitlam was his own foreign minister - Australia turned a new, more independent face to the world.

Time has given perspective, making Whitlam’s achievements shine through more brightly. But for all those, his was a government with big limitations, one of which (ironically) was the PM’s determination to keep promises regardless of rapidly changing economic circumstances.

Whitlam did not give the economy the primacy it demanded. Winning after 23 years out of office, Labor struggled to handle power and Whitlam was not able to effectively manage his team. The strengths of the next Labor government, led by Bob Hawke, included learning from the faults of the Whitlam one.

For a long time Whitlam was defined in retrospect not just by the shambles and shenanigans of his government’s latter days but particularly by the extraordinary way he left office, his dramatic sacking by Governor-General John Kerr, which put such strains, in the short term, on any comity in the political system. (On Tuesday, people took flowers to the steps of Old Parliament House, from which he delivered his famous speech.)

Gradually the balance has shifted; from being a matter of red-hot contemporary passion, the dismissal has become a historical event with little contemporary resonance for younger people. Similarly the chaos of much of those wild, exciting three years has fallen away in memory, to leave the positives as grand monuments.

Whitlam speaking to the crowds outside Parliament House after the dismissal.

The good inevitably dominates tributes when former politicians die, but there has been something different about the words for Whitlam. As today’s players temporarily put aside their squabbling and pettiness, they recognised that this man will always rank among the most notable Australian PMs (which is different from being the best).

Whitlam was charismatic, a symbol and builder of what was modern Labor, a party reaching out to middle-class supporters. In the late 1960s, as he began his run to power, he was helped by the new era abroad and at home. These were years of fresh thinking and political inspiration. It was just after JFK and Camelot. They were also times of division, with the Vietnam war claiming Australian as well as American lives.

In Australia’s cities, urban spread and suburban aspiration brought new issues. Whitlam never blushed to dwell on sewerage, while also focusing on families' aspirations for their children (promising free university education and money for schools) and their desire for security from health costs (Medibank was the forerunner of Medicare).

He might have been something of a political toff (his father had been Commonwealth Crown Solicitor, and Gough attended Canberra Grammar) but he could relate to ordinary people - he lived in Sydney’s western suburbs - and especially to ethnic communities. If the times suited Whitlam, the ALP didn’t: he had to fight ferociously to force even limited structural reforms. He brought courage and an iron will to the battle. It is hard to believe, hearing today’s condolences, that in 1968 Whitlam held on by only a handful votes (38-32) after he put his opposition leadership on the line over a long-forgotten internal stoush involving Brian Harradine.

A still from the iconic ‘It’s Time’ campaign. Youtube

While in opposition he wrestled a frequently recalcitrant ALP, Whitlam often went over the heads of the party to the people. Operating before the 24-hour news cycle and the crude “spin” industry, the Whitlam machine drew from old and new models of politics. It could sell messages, especially to opinion makers, through persuasive argument. But it was also pioneering new techniques. The 1972 campaign brought these strands together with a long traditional policy speech and the razzamatazz “It’s Time” jingle performed by celebrities.

Most things about Gough were larger than life: his physical size, his vision, his distinctive and much-imitated voice, his penchant for calling people “comrade”, and his temper (when he invoked more colourful terms). He could insult and attack with a rapier; when riled his eyes flashed, even bulged; his tongue lashed not just opponents but caucus colleagues.

Above all, he had an ability to endure and believe, regardless of what happened to him.

He regarded his dismissal as a monstrous political assault, and talked and wrote about it passionately. But he did not allow what occurred in the Governor-General’s study on that sunny November morning to eat into his soul. Despite the devastating 1975 defeat, he managed, partly driven by his own exhortation to “maintain the rage”, to lead Labor to the 1977 election, only to be again routed.

In retirement, he never stopped defending The Program, but in other ways he moved on to savour post-prime ministerial life, partly because of his renaissance-man range of interests but also thanks to a perennial optimism.

For a young journalist in Canberra, as I was in the early 1970s, Whitlam was a formidable, rather intimidating, but highly engaging figure. It took me years to brave a question at his weekly press conferences. One feared those Whitlam ripostes (though I think they were mainly reserved for the seniors).

Whitlam and his wife Margaret. National Archives

I recall his suggesting I ride in his car from Launceston to Hobart at the end of the Bass byelection. It had been a dreadful week of campaigning for Whitlam; Labor was headed for a huge drubbing the following day, which would bring the election of Kevin Newman (Campbell’s father). Gough’s mood was dark, but practical too, wanting to know from daughter Cathy, who was also in the car, about breakfast next morning in the Lodge (Margaret, his support in almost everything as well as a great figure in her own right, must have been away).

Food was always important to Gough. At a community function, he’d invariably have an eye out for the lamingtons.

And who else, having just been sacked as PM, would go to the Lodge for his lunch of steak, rather than back to Parliament House to warn his senators the government had been dismissed?

It’s only a bit of a stretch to see that lunch as a metaphor for Whitlam strengths and weaknesses. He would not be blown off course. But he found it hard to change tack when storms hit.

The nation loses one of its most iconic leaders: Whitlam dead at 98

Gough Whitlam addresses crowds after the dismissal.

Former prime minister Gough Whitlam has died at the age of 98.

His family said in a short statement that he died this morning. “A loving and generous father, he was a source of inspiration to us and our families and for millions of Australians,” they said.

One of Australia’s most reforming and controversial leaders, Whitlam’s 1972-75 period in office ended sensationally when he was dismissed by then Governor-General Sir John Kerr.

A divisive figure in government, he became a national icon in his later years.

The Whitlam government, which came to power on the “It’s Time” campaign, ended conscription and introduced major reforms in education, health and social welfare. In foreign policy it recognised China and sought a more independent stance for Australia in the world.

After losing the 1975 election Whitlam stayed as Labor leader in opposition to fight the 1977 election. He quit parliament in 1978, after a few months on the backbench.

Tributes poured in today from both sides of politics.

Whitlam’s portrait in the Labor party room. @KateLundy/Twitter

Prime Minister Tony Abbott described Whitlam as “a giant of his time”.

“He united the Australian Labor Party, won two elections and seemed, in so many ways, larger than life.

“In his own party, he inspired a legion of young people to get involved in public life.

“He established diplomatic relations with China and was the first Australian prime minister to visit China. China is our largest trading partner. That is an enduring legacy.

“Gough Whitlam recognised the journey that our country needed to take with Indigenous Australians. The image of soil passing from Gough Whitlam’s hand to Vincent Lingiari’s is a reminder that all Australians share the same land and the same hopes.”

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten said: “The party that I lead – the Labor Party – has lost a giant … The nation has lost a legend. Like no other PM before or since, Gough Whitlam redefined our country and in doing so he changed the lives of a generation … Our country is different because of him.”

Addressing the Labor caucus, Shorten recalled Whitlam’s battle to reform and transform the ALP: “He shook Labor up … Gough refashioned our party – he drew it out of its narrow partisan divisions into an inclusive social democracy.”

Caucus observed a minute’s silence.

The ‘It’s Time’ campaign remains one of the most successful ever run by an Australian opposition.

Former Labor PM Julia Gillard said she remembered Whitlam as “one of the great Australian characters … I honour Gough as a man of the highest political courage, a giant of his era. He was truly prepared to ‘commit and see what happens’. He transformed Australia.”

The Governor-General, Sir Peter Cosgrove, said Whitlam was “a towering leader of his time who made a significant contribution to the life of our nation and his legacy endures today”.

Malcolm Fraser, who was installed as caretaker PM when Whitlam was sacked, but later became close to him in retirement, joining him to push for a republic, said: “He was a great Australian and he’ll be remembered as such. He was a formidable opponent - that covers it all.”

Parliament was suspended as a mark of respect and there will be tributes at midday.

On his 80th birthday Whitlam said: “I do admit I seem eternal … Dying will happen sometime. As you know, I plan for the ages, not just for this life.

“You can be sure of one thing, I shall treat Him as an equal.”

Julie Bishop shows the boys how it’s done

Julie Bishop says Russian President Putin had responded “very constructively” to her appeal about MH17. AAP/Richard Wainwright

Once again Julie Bishop has demonstrated she can lay claim to be currently the best performing minister in cabinet.

On her recent overseas trip, Foreign Minister Bishop secured an apparently useful meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin to press for fresh access to the MH17 site. Then in Baghdad she made a breakthrough for an agreement to get Australian special forces into Iraq, where they will train and mentor that country’s security forces.

With the winter approaching in Ukraine, it is especially vital to get Australian, Dutch and Malaysian experts back to the crash site for a final retrieval of remains and possessions.

After a conversation on the margin of the Asia Europe Meeting in Milan, lasting nearly half an hour, Bishop said Putin had responded “very constructively” to her appeal. She also urged him to ensure full Russian co-operation with the independent investigation into the downing of the plane, and she said he had agreed.

Bishop, representing Australia at the meeting, was operating in unusual circumstances, just after Tony Abbott’s threat to “shirt-front” Putin at the G20 next month. Certainly her approach was more subtle than the wild words that had come from Australia earlier last week.

Spokesman for the Russian embassy Alexander Odoevskiy says that “it is quite rare that the President talks to a foreign minister – it’s not the day-to-day practice. We can assume he talked to her as representative of the Prime Minister”.

The proof of her persuasiveness will be in Putin’s follow through; that will depend not just on whether he means what he said but also what he can actually deliver on the ground. But at least the vibes seem positive. If some tangible progress can be made before the G20, that would also be useful diplomatically for lowering the temperature around the Brisbane meeting.

Her latest effort in relation to MH17 followed Bishop’s impressive performance at the United Nations Security Council in the wake of the downing, when Australia put forward its resolution.

In Baghdad Bishop certainly did well. Progress on an agreement for the special forces' entry had been bogged down for weeks.

This agreement now seems on track to be sorted speedily - although sources stress there is still further work to be done and some doubt remains about precisely how long that will take. There is now, with Bishop giving the impression it’s essentially fixed, an even greater political imperative to have the last detail tied up as soon as possible.

Bishop was assisted by the timing – the Iraqis finally got in place ministers for defence and the interior. As she told the ABC, this was “an important part of the finalisation of arrangements with the Iraqi government”.

Assuming the special forces get in quickly, Bishop will win kudos for doing what her colleague the Defence Minister, David Johnston, didn’t manage to do earlier.

An interesting test now looming for Bishop will be the government’s decision on whether Australia should sign up to the Chinese proposal to establish an Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, something the United States has been strongly lobbying Australia against. Treasurer Joe Hockey and Trade and Investment Minister Andrew Robb are sympathetic to the Chinese plan; Bishop is suspicious of the bank’s governance arrangements and the danger of China using it to expand its regional influence.

In opposition Bishop, swallowing her disappointment at having to give up the shadow treasurer post after criticism of her performance, settled into the foreign affairs job and started building knowledge and contacts.

In government, the learning curve has inevitably been extremely steep but, unlike some of her colleagues, Bishop has so far climbed it with a mostly sure grip.