More than The Dismissal
Photo Courtesy of: smh.com.au
I HAVE SOMETHING in common with those millions of Australians under 40. I did not live in this country when Gough Whitlam was Prime Minister.
But, like those who did, our lives have all been shaped by the way his vision, his drive, his presence, changed Australia forever. And that includes the good, the bad and the ugly.
History will remember him as the only elected Prime Minister thrown out of office (wrongly in my view) but, as a sad and swamped Twitter reminds us today, he changed everything from university education (free under Gough), to universal health care, no fault divorce, indigenous land rights. And he ended our involvement in the Vietnam War.
And he bravely went to China to meet Chairman Mao long before President Nixon did and
that parting of the bamboo curtain was probably the greatest
foreign policy triumph of any PM or Opposition Leader. We are still relishing that diplomatic and economic prescience today.
At home, Whitlam also presided over economic policy awash with some disastrous socialist experiments that bred not one but two ‘gimme’ generations of dole bludgers and welfare recipients with the ingrained belief that ‘the guv’ment owes me’.
Despite that, I agree with American author Gore Vidal who wryly wrote: ‘It was an unusual experiment for Australia to choose its most intelligent man as PM. It will not, I fear, be repeated’. Not sure how that would sit with Rhodes Scholar Bob Hawke or Paul Keating but Gough had a towering intellect that more than matched his height. And he often reminded you of that.
a few memories
As I said, I did not live here under a Whitlam Government and was not here for The Dismissal, so will let others paint the 98-year-old’s political obituary. But a few memories from abroad where I was living through the tumultuous, and exciting Whitlam Years and our paths did cross in New York and Washington and Ottawa. And Nashville!
Back then American insularity was still rampant. Still is. As an Australian living in New York, I was used to our country being confused with Austria.
I remember being at a White House dinner for Billy McMahon and, even as President Nixon was about to stand up to welcome the PM, he leaned across an open microphone to whisper: ‘Do you pronounce your name “McMann or McMarn?”’ Didn’t even know his Vietnam ally’s name.
So I wasn’t surprised when I heard a radio newsreader earnestly announce that ‘Australian Prime Minister Ego Whitlam arrived in Washington today’. That’s how ‘E. Gough Whitlam’ looked to him in print.
(Actually, our American profile was so low and usually considered so un-newsworthy that a prime ministerial visit often didn’t even rate a mention on the evening news. Billy Big Ears was only guaranteed coverage when Sonia wore that thigh-spy split dress to the White House.)
I was impressed with Whitlam in the lead up to one American visit when he was Opposition Leader. He got me to arrange a breakfast for him with the then-radical consumer advocate Ralph Nader. I thought he must be genuine if he was taking consumer affairs seriously.
trip to Nashville
And then there was his trip to Nashville. We were all on a prime ministerial Qantas jet with Gough and Margaret up the front and the media zoo down the back on a trip that included Washington, Ottawa, Los Angeles – and Nashville.
Gough was not a country and western fan (at least to my knowledge) but we detoured to Nashville because The Great Man wanted to see the American replica of the Parthenon.
I have two lasting memories of that: Gough, in mock reprimand, when I elected not to leave the plane to see the fake Greek ruins. ‘Not coming ashore, comrade?’
And Laurie Oakes and the late Ian Frykberg waddling back on board with new prized possessions: a big black Stetson each. A bastardised version of the Blues Brothers.
Talk about ‘shake your tail feather’.
And that’s what Gough Whitlam did to this somnolent, restricted, British-to-its-boot-heels outpost still struggling to find a relevant place in the world after the Menzies era. And 23 years of Liberal rule.
Even his haters, and they were legion, would have to concede that. He more than shook our tail feather.
He will not be forgotten.