Never thought I’d one day reference an article written by Mark Latham; and less still one published by The Australian. Today excuses all.
Gough Whitlam died overnight, aged 98. There have been few more controversial characters in Australian political history, and few also of his stature.
My memories of his tenure as prime minister are pretty dim. I remember the day he was sacked because we were let out of class so the teachers could confer. And I recall snippets of conversation around the place, basically along the lines that there had to be a change.
Read the history and Whitlam’s government was an eventful time. Controversy dogged the government, and it lost credibility in the eyes of many of the swinging voters. My parents, for example, voted him in; they also voted him out when he had his last fling.
Put aside the pr disasters though, and the Whitlam government stands up well. At the time he was accused of economic mismanagement, and leading Australia into debt – a constant political theme ever since, and the enduring trope that Labor have battled from that day forward – “economic irresponsibility”. Reality is a bit different, and in fact the Labor party of back then taxes less proportionally than the Liber government of today (19% as a proportion of GDP; today it’s 21.6%).
It’s very clear now, if it wasn’t then, that the Whitlam government was revolutionary, as Latham points out, and in a very postive way. There may be some question marks over economic matters, but socially Whitlam was instrumental in transforming Australia into a modern and progressive society (Keating nails this in his press release today).
Putting aside all of that, Gough was just a monumental figure in society. He’s been around forever, the much feted statesman with a witty epigram always to the fore. He stood for something, and as a result people then and since have been devoted to him.
At times I have wondered if he was subject to cult of personality, which I’m sure he encouraged. He was a big man in stature, in personality, in vision, and certainly in ego. He was ever difficult to ignore.
Looking back now I understand more. He created hope in people and was the first of the Australian politicians to step aside from the conventional path and to show some authentic vision. He inspired people, and grew their imagination. This is what we need more of today; instead we are encouraged to imagine less.
His sacking as prime minister is one of the most shocking moments in Oz history. We lost him and returned to the straight and narrow, though Australia now had a taste for his kind of political vision. In time Hawke, and particularly Keating, took up that baton.
He had a good innings, as they say. He leaves to re-unite with his wife, Margaret, probably once the most devoted couple in Australian politics. He leaves a great legacy, sadly being undone, bit by bit.