Farewell Gough Whitlam – an intellectual giant

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Gough Whitlam: 11 July 1916 – 21 October 2014

 

Yesterday Gough Whitlam died at the age of 98.

I listened to our local ABC radio station (702) all day, as the anecdotes and eulogies flooded in from listeners, friends and colleagues. It was a rollercoaster ride of happiness and sadness. I had lived through perhaps the greatest political episode of Australia’s history, and the contrast with today’s politics was so stark. I can’t imagine any other political leader receiving such an outpouring of admiration and affection, perhaps with the exception of Whitlam’s nemisis, and (later) great friend, Malcolm Fraser.

Although Gough was only Prime Minister for three years, he towered over politics in Australia from the time he took over as Labor Opposition Leader from Arthur “Cocky” Calwell until his death.

In 1967 the Labor party had unsuccessfully sought government for 18 years. Calwell was sincere, but unelectable, but at the same time an unassailable party leader for some reason. You only have to listen to his speeches to realise why the party was little more than a sad joke to so many:

Then Whitlam strode onto the scene: erudite and imposing and a boundless enthusiastic vision for Australia. He spoke extemporaneously using a brain apparently many times the size of a normal person. His election debates with William McMahon were stunningly entertaining and visionary,  while I could only cringe with embarrassment watching his opponent McMahon.

From a country tied to the shirt tails of Great Britain, Gough gave Australians the confidence to believe in themselves.

Two factoids:

  • The Whitlam’s marriage is the longest of any politician anywhere.
  • Gough’s lifespan overlapped the life of every other Australian Prime Minister.
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