Opinion: Gough Whitlam: Farewell to a reformer

Gough_Whitlam_bust by WikiTownsvillian

I’m an avid consumer of the politics of other countries, including that of Australia which borrows so much from our Westminster system yet, viewing its Parliamentary proceedings on-line, some might say its politics are even more robust than our own.
I first became interested in Australian politics at around the time of the original coup when Julia Gillard became Prime Minister after ousting her own Party colleague Kevin Rudd.
Three years and three days later, of course, Mr Rudd got his own back when he took back the crown, albeit to shortly thereafter lose it again when his Labor Party lost the 2013 election.
Since then I’ve read up on a number of other former Prime Minister’s down under, from Bob Hawke to Paul Keating, from Robert Menzies to John Howard. Each, of course, led in their own style and according to their own philosophies and beliefs. But none were as mythologised as the Grand Old Man who has passed away today: E Gough Whitlam, Australia’s 21st Prime Minister.

He may have only led his nation for three short years, but he proved what a great, radical, progressive reformer can achieve even in such a comparatively short time in the grand sweep of Governmental history.  When he took office in 1972, after more than twenty years of Liberal/National Coalition Government (Remember that the Aussie Liberals are, in fact, their Conservative Party), his nation was aching for change, desperate for reform, and ready to be led by a truly great man and a larger-than-life personality.
During his three short years in office he achieved more progressive reforms than some heads (and deputy heads) of Government manage in much longer periods in control.
So eager was he to get things done that, after first winning election, he formed a Government of just two people. He and his deputy Lance Barnard held all 27 Cabinet portfolios!
A short time later he formed a more traditional Cabinet, you may be relieved to hear, but his daring style was to be the great benefit of Australia.
The list of his and his Government’s achievements is truly breathtaking:
He abolished the death penalty for federal crimes, he established legal aid, he abolished university fees (hear hear!), he injected a massive amount of money into a much needed infrastructure-building project which included new highways and railway lines.
He created Australia’s modern Welfare State, he withdrew troops from Vietnam, he recognised the unfairness of Indigenous Australians who, despite being the longest continuing peoples in the World, were-and to an extent still are-treated as foreigners in their own lands.
Indeed a later Labor Prime Minister, the aforementioned Kevin Rudd, would win plaudits for rightly offering a long awaited official apology, on behalf of the Commenwealth of Australia, to what were termed Australia’s indiginous stolen generations.
He introduced the family law Court and ‘no fault’ divorce.
He did all of this and much more besides in just three short years.
I’m sure he’d have gone on to do much more had his time in Government not been unceremoniously cut short, not because of an election defeat nor indeed because of a party room coup of his elected colleagues, but because he was chucked out of office by the then Governor General Sir John Kerr (the Head of State The Queen’s unelected representative ) and replaced as PM by the Liberal Party leader Malcolm Fraser, after Fraser’s representative in the Senate failed to give Gough’s minority Government’s budget Bills support.
The irony was that Gough had originally appointed Kerr to the role, speaking of his ‘siginificant achievements in law and administration.’
Even at this point of greatest political loss for Gough his razor-sharp tongue and inimitable whit were much in evidence. With some irony he said, “May well we say God Save The Queen because nothing will save the Governor General.”
He was right. Kerr stood down in 1977.
As a Republican I’m bound to say that this flagrant display of anti-democratic political vandalism, the deposing of a democratically elected Government at the whim of The Queen’s representative, is just one example of why Australia and indeed Britain should have an elected Head of State.
Unlike many other political leaders, even out of office Whitlam continued to inspire his nation and a new generation of politicians and aspiring leaders, whether for his politics or against it.
He led Labor for a total of ten years, from 1967 to 1977, and, as you might expect, reformed his Party almost as much as he did his country  especially in terms of demanding that women, who until then were mostly found making the tea at Labor meetings whilst the men made the decisions, rightly played a full role.
 Gough and his wife Margaret enjoyed a long and happy retirement together until she died in 2012.
Today Australia’s current political leaders, including Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Labor’s Bill Shorten, have paid tribute to the Great Old Man of Australian politics. But their tributes weren’t the dry and dusty affairs you sometimes get on these occasions, they were fulsome and clearly heart-felt offerings of thanks and respect to a man who not only changed Australia for the better but also changed Australia’s role in the World and the way it was seen and perceived by international partners.
E Gough Whitlam was a remarkable man who lived a remarkable and long life, one that was dedicated to serving others and to progressive, reforming Government.
Many of today’s political leaders, not just in his own Country but in ours and others too, would do well to study his politics, his philosophy and his outlook.
It’s highly unlikely that we’ll see his like again.

Photo of bust of Gough Whitlam by sculptor Victor Greenhalagh. Photo taken by WikiTownsvillianLicense details CC-BY-SA-3.0,2.5,2.0,1.0; Released under the w:en:GNU Free Documentation License.

* Mathew Hulbert is a parish Councillor in Leicestershire.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Just a wonderful tribute, you don’t have to be Labo (u) r to admire the man and what he achieved. He also studied classics under Enoch Powell, and when asked about his somewhat notorious teacher many years later quipped that he was Powell’s pupil not his disciple! Shame politics will not see his like again

  • “.. this flagrant display of anti-democratic political vandalism, the deposing of a democratically elected Government at the whim of The Queen’s representative, is just one example of why Australia and indeed Britain should have an elected Head of State.”

    Yes indeed. This was a disgraceful abuse of power by the establishment operating in the name of The Queen of Australia. It demonstrated that the monarchy was no more “above politics” then, any more than it was this year during the referedum in Scotland.

  • The vast majority in the UK prefer a Monarch as Head of State and have since Oliver Cromwell. It wouldn’t even be worth a vote, many people love the Royal Family, not many even like politicians. There may be no logic in it, but it’s true never the less. Anything that was done in Australia was done in the Queens name, but decided by politicians.

  • Ken Westmoreland 22nd Oct '14 - 4:31am

    You omit to mention that Whitlam also served as Minister for Foreign Affairs for the first year he was in office, and even after that dictated foreign policy, not least on Indonesia and East Timor, over which he played God. Yes, it was the Governor-General who sacked him, but it was the fact that the opposition-controlled Senate which blocked supply and paralysed the government, a power the House of Lords lost a century ago . Given that Liberal Democrats have long advocated an elected Senate in Britain, it’s worth asking if we would want it to be that powerful.

    There is support for a republic on the right in Australia, not on the grounds that it would be more ‘democratic’, but on the grounds that it is impractical and inappropriate to share another country’s head of state. Indeed, in New Zealand, the first Prime Minister to call for a republic was a conservative. By contrast, Britain already has a home-grown head of state, so there isn’t the same nationalist argument.

  • Denis Mollison 22nd Oct '14 - 8:26am

    I’m old enough to remember the anti-Whitlam coup, and being saddened that he did not feel strong enough to either abolish the governor-general or at least call a fresh election; though too remote from Australian politics to guess whether either would have been successful.

    I take malc’s point about the absurd popularity that a hereditary head of state still enjoys in the UK. In Australia, I think it’s a much closer call, in no small measure due to Kerr’s action 40 years ago.

  • Malc and Dennis Mollison
    You both say that there is no logic to a monarchy, it is absurd etc but it is very popular.
    It is not so long ago that Jimmy Savile was “very popular”. Things can change. The “popularity of the monarchy in the UK is skin deep as was seen in 1997 with the Diana death and immediate aftermath.

    Constant reinforcement of the “popularity” of the present queen with “bread and circus” weddings and the taloids providing the sort of celebrity status enjoyed by New Direction is far less permanent than is often imagined.

  • @ Anthony Hook: “Liberals are, in fact, their Conservative Party” They are now but some, such as former PM Malcolm Fraser, dispute that.

    Fraser resigned from the Liberal Party a few years ago. He would certainly characterise the party as conservative now.

  • Wasn’t part of the constitutional crisis that the Governor-General can dismiss the Prime Minister, but the Prime Minister can also replace the Governor General, so there is a fastest finger aspect to their constitutional crises – which of course is not analogous to the UK, as the PM can’t replace the Queen.

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