Former Prime Minister Gough Whitlam listens to a speech at the launch of a biography on him, A Moment in History, in Sydney on Thursday, Nov. 6, 2008.
Former Prime Minister Gough Whitlam listens to a speech at the launch of a biography on him, A Moment in History, in Sydney on Thursday, Nov. 6, 2008. PAUL MILLER

Whitlam death: The passing of an Australian political giant

HE made history as the only Australian Prime Minister to be dismissed by the Governor-General, but yesterday as news broke of his death, it was former Prime Minister Gough Whitlam's legacy of sweeping social policy reforms that were recalled with reverence.

Mr Whitlam, who was elected Prime Minister in 1972 and dramatically ousted by the then governor-general, Sir John Kerr, in 1975, ushered in free university education and Medibank and championed indigenous land rights among a raft of reforms that dramatically changed Australia's social landscape.

In Canberra yesterday, flags were at half-mast and the mood was sombre in Parliament, Tweed Labor MP Justine Elliot said.

He was the only politician worth dying for, and now he's dead

- Mungo MacCallum

"There's a deep sadness about the loss of a political giant. Both sides of Parliament have made heartfelt speeches about his legacy," Ms Elliot said.

"Gough Whitlam was a Labor hero, a true legend of our times, and a giant in our nation's history," she said.


>>OPINION: Whitlam's legacy still resonates 40 years after the Dismissal

"He changed our country into a prosperous, modern, multicultural nation, where opportunity belonged to everyone."

Locally, Mungo MacCallum, a political journalist with The Australian during the Whitlam years and who this year released his book, The Whitlam Mob, said he was deeply saddened by Mr Whitlam's passing, aged 98.

"He was the only politician worth dying for, and now he's dead. They say no one is irreplaceable, but I don't believe it," Mr MacCallum said.

Page MP Kevin Hogan offered condolences to the Whitlam family.

"Agree with him or not, Gough was a giant in Australian political and public life," Mr Hogan said.

Lismore Mayor Jenny Dowell thanked Mr Whitlam for the opportunity of a free university education.

"I would never have gone to university had it not been for him. Education in those days was available for everyone," Cr Dowell said

"I remember the "It's Time" campaign and the great hopefulness of the era. As a Labor politician myself, there are few I would place up on a pedestal, but Gough is one of them."

Former Page Labor MP Janelle Saffin also credited Gough Whitlam for her university education.

"He was a visionary and he changed society; changed Australia for the better," Ms Saffin said.

Historic: politics: Politicians Prime Minister Gough Whitlam and his wife Margaret Whitlam. Photo: The Queensland Times Archives
Historic: politics: Politicians Prime Minister Gough Whitlam and his wife Margaret Whitlam. Photo: The Queensland Times Archives The Queensland Times Archives


  1. Established Medibank
  2. Abolished tertiary education fees
  3. Announced Woodward Inquiry into Indigenous land rights
  4. Established Legal Aid
  5. Established Health Insurance Commission
  6. Ratified the World Heritage Convention and created the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park
  7. Ended conscription
  8. Lowered voting age to 18
  9. Provided maternity leave to Commonwealth employees
  10. Reforms for equal pay for women
  11. Committed to withdrawing Australian troops from Vietnam - Amended:( In October 1969, during the federal election campaign, Opposition leader Gough Whitlam committed to the withdrawal of all Australian troops from Vietnam after June 1970 if the Labor Party was elected. - source Museum Victoria)  While troops had already been withdrawn from Vietnam by his election in 1972, he acted quickly in abolishing National Service - source Australian War Memorial
  12. Replaced God Save the Queen with Advance Australia Fair as national anthem (confirmed by 1977 referendum),
  13. Abolished the death penalty
  14. First PM to visit China and give China diplomatic recognition
  15. Created the Racial Discrimination Act
  16. Launched an Inquiry into Education and the Funding of government and non-government schools on a needs basis
  17. Established a separate ministry responsible for Aboriginal Affairs
  18. Established the single Department of Defence
  19. Withdrew support for apartheid-South Africa
  20. Granted independence to Papua New Guinea
  21. Established controls on foreign ownership of Australian resources
  22. Increased pensions and benefits for single mothers
  23. Passed the Family Law Act establishing No-Fault Divorce
  24. Initiated Australia's first Federal Legislation on Human Rights, the Environment and Heritage
  25. Established the National Film and Television School; Australian Film Commission and the Australia Council
  26. Launched construction of National Gallery of Australia
  27. Established the Australian National Parks and Wildlife Service, Australian Heritage Commission, Consumer Affairs Commission
  28. Created Telecom and Australia Post to replace the Postmaster-General's Department
  29. Created the Order of Australia Honours System to replace the British Honours system

OPINION: Whitlam's legacy still resonates nearly 40 years after the Dismissal

I CAN'T remember it, but nearly three weeks after my fifth birthday I was on the lawn in front of old Parliament House, sitting on my dad's shoulders yelling "Kerr's a cur" as Gough Whitlam made his famously defiant speech over his sacking by then Governor General Sir John Kerr.

It's unlikely my young brain had any understanding of what was happening in Australian politics at that moment - or, in fact, what a cur was and how it differed from a Kerr - but it's a moment that has surfaced again and again throughout my life since then.

Whitlam, for good or ill, is the giant of Australian politics - more than Menzies, more than Barton, for both the breadth of his vision as Prime Minister and for the spectacular and constitution-bending way he crashed less than three years after his election.

For some, Whitlam is the embodiment of hubris. He was the man whose determination to further socialise the Australian economy created an economic crisis.

For others he has a near god-like status as the man who levelled the playing field for ordinary Australians through, for example, the creation of Medibank - the forerunner to Medicare - and by guaranteeing free education at the nation's universities.

In conservative circles, Whitlam has become a cautionary tale of the dangers of fiscal excess. In Labor circles he provides a cautionary tale too - of the risks of pushing too hard, too fast with reform.

Politics has changed a lot over the past 40 years. The systems of delegation that were at the foundations of the Liberal, Labor and National parties no longer work and, with the power networks of those parties, particularly Labor, clinging to those old structures, whatever faith Australians had in politics in 1975 is today largely gone.

Yet Whitlam goes to his grave continuing to loom large in the nation's mind and continuing to inspire and revile in an ongoing debate that, almost uniquely today, is centred largely on policy rather than personality.


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