Gough Whitlam

I rise today to remember Gough Whitlam, an Australian giant.

I was born the year Gough Whitlam became Prime Minister.

I was only three when he was dismissed. So I don’t remember his Prime Ministership, but I grew up surrounded by his legacy.

I grew up around the corner from where Gough and Margaret lived in Albert Street, Cabramatta.

The year I started kindergarten at Cabramatta Public School Gough opened the extensions that his government had funded.

The same man who poured sand into the hands of Vincent Lingiari helped to pour the concrete that built Cabramatta Public School.

Margaret helped out in the canteen. She also helped run the local pool where I learnt to swim.

When I wasn’t at school, or wasn’t swimming, I was at the Whitlam Library on Railway Parade.

I am the first person in my family to finish school and the first to go onto university. In the Australia that existed before Gough people like my mum and dad didn’t even think about going to university. You did your Intermediate Certificate and went off and got a trade or went to secretarial college.

All of that changed with Whitlam.

Australia changed – my mum tells me it was like switching from black and white TV to colour TV.

Gough’s legacy surrounds all of us – from the National Anthem to Medicare.

It’s hard to imagine Australia now without things like Medicare or multiculturalism, sewered western suburbs or trade with China.

All of that started with Whitlam.

And in that sense we are all Whitlam’s children.

He wasn’t perfect. Far from it. He made a number of mistakes.

But most of the things that he fought for were fundamentally right. The proof of that is that they have endured, and that they are now largely bipartisan.

It wasn’t always that way.

It is easy today to think of things like Medicare as a given. But they didn’t just happen by some kind of political osmosis. They happened because of Gough. Because of his persistence and perseverance.

As Whitlam said in his 1985 John Curtin Memorial Lecture:

“The most successful of my government’s reforms were the ones which were most strongly condemned at their inception, the ones which the Labor Party had to fight longest and hardest to muster first public and then parliamentary support”.

There is a lesson for us in this.

As Gough said in the same speech “persistence, patience, perseverance – these are the watch words for Australian reformers as they take up their daunting task”.

The last time I saw Gough was a few years ago, back in Cabramatta at the site of the old Cabramatta Pool where Margaret used to teach.

Concrete cancer had eaten away at the old pool and Gough was opening a new leisure centre.

We started talking and he told me about his great regret. When he was in his 80s Gough was advised to get surgery on his knees, but he put it off. He told me he didn’t have the courage to do it and now he regretted it because he was stuck in a wheelchair.

Funny. Courage is not something Gough often lacked. And we are all the beneficiaries of that.

In the twelve of his Philippics speeches Cicero said: “The life given us by nature is short; but the memory of a well spent life is eternal”.

It is an appropriate epitaph for a man who would have been as at home in the Roman Senate as he was in the streets of Western Sydney.

Gough is gone, but the memory of his well spent life lives on – in the things he built, in the lives he changed and in the legacy he has left.

He remade Australia.

He extended our imagination.

He made us a better country and a better people.

After such a long and important life, well may we say Rest in Peace.