Labor leader who brought radical change to Australia

Gough Whitlam: July 11th, 1916 - October 21st, 2014

 

The towering, patrician Gough Whitlam, who has died aged 98, made his mark in a dynamic and chaotic era of Australian politics. His legacy is to some extent overshadowed by the dramatic nature of his dismissal as prime minister. Yet in three years Whitlam managed to forge himself into the key figure in the shaping of modern Australia.

As prime minister he pioneered reforms in Aboriginal rights, multiculturalism, university education and healthcare. And, though he had detractors in and outside Labor, he managed to turn a demoralised and divided party into a relevant political machine, preparing it for power not just during his tenure but in the 13 years of continuous Labor government that began in Australia in 1983.

Despite his reforms, Whitlam had been vulnerable to attack thanks to various scandals and miscalculations and a lack of numbers in the senate. In early 1974, the upper house had rejected 19 government Bills and Whitlam looked for ways to boost Labor in the chamber.

Night of the long prawns

But he did not secure the resignation before announcing the date of the poll, which meant the seat could not be contested. Opposition senators inveigled Gair to a quiet area of Parliament House and kept him hidden away from Whitlam’s staff, feeding him drink and prawns.

In what has gone down in history as the night of the long prawns, Gair, who was party to the fiasco, resigned the next morning – when it was too late for Whitlam to manoeuvre his own man into the seat.

A very close general election in May 1974 saw Whitlam re-elected but he still failed to win the all-important majority in the senate. Later in the year, amid economic slump and financial scandal he had to sack his deputy prime minister and lost another key minister.

In October 1975, the Liberal opposition leader, Malcolm Fraser, used his numbers in the senate to block the government’s budget Bills until the prime minister called an election.

Dismissed

Edward Gough Whitlam was born in Melbourne. His mother, Martha (née Maddocks), used his middle name to stop schoolmates calling him Eddie.

He shone at Canberra grammar school and in 1935 entered the University of Sydney, where he studied arts and law. There he met Margaret Dovey, whom he married in 1942. After wartime service in the air force he completed his law degree and, in 1947, qualified as a barrister. In a byelection in 1952, he won a safe Labor seat in Sydney.

The Labor Party’s roots lay in the shearers’ strikes of the 1890s, which were brutally put down. Its sympathies were with the so-called battlers of society. But a bitter split in the party in the 1950s kept it in the wilderness until Whitlam’s victory in 1972 caught the mood of change with the slogan “It’s time”.

Whitlam’s government might have been short-lived but it left an indelible impression on the public imagination. His early reforms included ending conscription, freeing jailed draft resisters and taking the sales tax off contraceptives.

He boosted ties with Asia, recognised China, introduced the health system that later became Medicare, brought in free university tuition and expanded justice for Indigenous Australians by granting land rights. Many, however, found it hard to forgive him for not standing up more strongly for the East Timorese against the territorial ambitions of Indonesia.

Whitlam left politics in 1978 after a spell on the backbenches and spent much of the next decade overseas as a visiting professor at Harvard and as Australia’s ambassador to Unesco in Paris.

Political royalty

He was a great lover of the theatrical. When introduced to Alan Jay Lerner, of the musical writing team Lerner and Loewe, Whitlam joked: “Your Camelot lasted a lot longer than mine.”

Margaret died in 2012. Whitlam is survived by three sons and a daughter.