SPEECH - Death of the Hon. Edward Gough Whitlam AC QC - Motion of Condolence

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THE HON TANYA PLIBERSEK MP

DEPUTY LEADER OF THE OPPOSITION

SHADOW MINISTER FOR FOREIGN AFFAIRS AND INTERNATIONAL DEVELOPMENT

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SPEECH

DEATH OF THE HON. EDWARD GOUGH WHITLAM AC QC - MOTION OF CONDOLENCE

HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES

TUESDAY, 21 OCTOBER 2014

 

 

Thank you Madam Speaker.

I’d like to pay my respects to the family of Gough and Margaret Whitlam and I start by acknowledging, Catherine, Nicholas, Tony, Stephen, their partners and their families.  The wonderful support and love they have shown their parents for many years.  And of course Gough’s dear friends who will miss him so greatly. 

I have often thought it fitting that Gough Whitlam was Australia’s 21st Prime Minister.

Because with Gough as Prime Minister, Australia came of age.

An Australia that once thought small was asked to think big.

An Australia, once closed and inward-looking, opened to the world.

Gough rejected those old ideas of what Australia should be and led us to what Australia could be.

The Australia that Gough Whitlam was born to in 1916, almost a century ago, was a very different place.

We were at war in support of mother England.

Australian women had only relatively recently secured the right to vote.

And Indigenous Australians were shamefully excluded from our national life and even from our national census.

Gough’s life, nearly a century long, charted the evolution of our nation from one of insularity and dependence, to one of openness and confidence.

Gough only had three short years in Government.

But they were I think, arguably, the most transformative three years in Australian political history.

Free university education - my family, my brothers and I, and I think many people on Labor’s side, and no doubt many on the other side too, were the first in their families able to afford a university education.

You could get a university education based on your intellect, your hard work, your desire to go to university, rather than your parents income.

Universal healthcare.  Medibank, now Medicare.

Rights for women, support for sole parents, homeless Australians, and for “new Australians” as they were then called. He made room for us all in our nation.

Who can forget that image of Gough Whitlam pouring the sand into Vincent Lingiari’s hand?

…starting a process of giving land rights to Indigenous Australians who had waited so long and worked so hard to achieve that gain.

Gough’s commitment to equality for women, was best embodied in the wonderful relationship he had with his beloved wife, Margaret.

A relationship which spanned nearly 70 years of marriage.

Yes, Gough’s reforms for women were landmark.

They included the election of the first Labor woman to the house of representatives, Joan Child in 1974.

His partnership with Margaret was such a driving force of that drive for equality for women.  Gough respected her, he listened to her views, he treated her as an equal in every way.

When she died, a few months short of 70 years of marriage he said: ”We were married for almost 70 years…she was a remarkable person and the love of my life.”

On hearing of Gough’s passing today, many people have described Gough as a giant of our nation.

And he was.

He was a towering figure.

He had the ability to deliver soaring rhetoric, but his actions were down to earth.

He was a very warm person on a one to one basis.

I remember when my parents first met him they were almost embarrassed to talk to him because they admired him so much - he was so incredibly warm and welcoming to them, particularly to my mother.

His ability to talk at an international level about issues of enormous complexity and convince an audience on the one hand, and on the other speak person to person to any Australian and make them feel respected and included.  A phenomenal ability.

From helping to sewer Western Sydney, to his reforms to health and education.

It was that ability to merge the idealistic and the pragmatic that made him such a great leader.

He delivered so many great reforms that mattered so much to the everyday lives of Australians.

His work in the suburbs of Sydney, not just the sewers but the work that he and Margaret did together building libraries and swimming pools.

Those things mattered to Gough as well.

They mattered to the people he represented, and they mattered to him.

They were the great motivator for him, the thing that made him work so hard as a member of Parliament.

But as well as that phenomenal drive to improve the lives of Australians, at that suburban level, in Western Sydney in particular, he also saw himself, and saw Australians, as citizens of the world.

He turned Australia into an outward looking nation.

He ended conscription, he brought our last troops home from Vietnam.

He delivered independence for Papua New Guinea.

He said at the time:

“By an extraordinary twist of history, Australia, herself once a colony, became one of the world's last colonial powers. By this legislation, we not only divest ourselves of the last significant colony in the world, but we divest ourselves of our own colonial heritage. It should never be forgotten that in making our own former colony independent, we as Australians enhance our own independence. Australia was never truly free until Papua New Guinea became truly free”. 

Most enduringly perhaps, Gough helped us find our place in Asia.

He visited China of course, as Opposition leader – leading the world.

And as Prime Minister he established diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China – where to this day he is still remembered with great affection.

Gough united with Malcolm Fraser to campaign for a republic, part of his long term push to cement Australia’s independence.   As Prime Minister he changed the national anthem from God Save the Queen to Advance Australia Fair, and he dispensed with the British honours system.

He was a fine ambassador to UNESCO and he was part of our successful bid for the Sydney Olympics - both he and Margaret were.

Malcolm Fraser said about him “he wanted Australia to be an independent player on the world stage. He didn’t want Australia to be the subject of any other nation.”  His whole career expressed that.

Gough’s legacy both domestically and on the world stage is now so deeply ingrained in our national character that we sometimes take it for granted.  We forget, perhaps, how fierce the battles were.

All of our Prime Ministers have served our nation with great loyalty and distinction.

But, there will always be something special about Gough.

He had an ego, that’s true.  And he was the first to make fun of himself for that.

He said in the early 2000s: “I feel I am eternal but not immortal."

As always, as he would say, he was right about that.

His contribution to Australia has changed us, fundamentally and permanently. But you know, the great man, still came to branch members’ Christmas parties, he still did Labor Party fundraisers for me and for many of my colleagues.

And he would turn up without fanfare. There was one year we had our Christmas party upstairs at a pub and he needed assistance up the stairs.  I said to him “Gough, if you’d told us you were coming, we would have had the party anywhere just to make it a little bit easier for you to attend”.

He waved away that consideration and said “comrade, I’m just a humble branch member now”.

He also, I think, had Margaret to keep him in check. I remember one of these fundraisers where he was speaking and he got onto a favourite topic of his - the single gauge railway.  It ended with Margaret banging her stick on the ground saying “enough now, Gough, they’ve heard enough, sit down!”

They loved each other very deeply and each of them made an enormous commitment to the service of our nation.

They will be deeply missed by their friends, by their family, and by our colleague, John Faulkner, who had a very special friendship with Gough Whitlam.

The outpouring of grief that we are witnessing today is not just mourning for a man, but for everything he represented.

He had a clear vision of the country that he knew Australia could be, and he had the ability to project that vision to the world.

More than anything else, Gough’s memory should inspire us to have courage in politics.

           …a reminder that often the most important reforms are the hardest.

But as we’ve seen today from the unprecedented public response to his passing, it is those reforms that Australians cherish, and it is those reforms that will outlast us all.

Gough, my friend and comrade, rest in peace.

ENDS


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