Thoughts on Whitlam

A younger Annabell Turnbull of Ethos CRS sits at the feet of Whitlam second from the right

A younger Annabell Turnbull of Ethos CRS sits at the feet of Whitlam second from the right.

Gough Whitlam’s memorial service was held last year. Seven prime ministers were in attendance and paid their respects. Noel Pearson delivered a wonderful eulogy. He spoke in a way that made us pause and for a moment think more deeply about the nature of public life as manifest in the public life of one man.

Asking ‘What have the Romans ever done for us?’, Pearson gave us a list of initiatives by government that Whitlam led, which included Medibank and
the Trade Practices Act, no-fault divorce in the Family Law Act, the Australia Council, the Federal Court, the Order of Australia, federal legal aid, the Racial Discrimination Act, needs-based schools funding, the recognition of China, the abolition of conscription, the law reform commission, student financial assistance, the Heritage Commission, non-discriminatory immigration rules, community health clinics, Aboriginal land rights, paid maternity leave for public servants, lowering the minimum voting age to 18 years and fair electoral boundaries and Senate representation for the territories.

Gough Whitlam proved to us that we are capable of doing great things. All it takes is unrelenting hard work and stamina and an ability to imagine a different future and a preparedness to ignore unfair criticism.

This does not mean that all things that Whitlam did or the government he led were great. No government is without flaws. And the business of government and politics almost always ends in tears.

Those who remember 1972, 75 still shake their heads at much of the weirdness and much of the recklessness of the government. Proper and measured process in government was abandoned; a Cabinet minister tried to arrange loans to the tune of billions of petrodollars; how to competently manage the economy was given little thought; a deputy prime minister blazoned his love for his receptionist across the front pages of the major dailies; the trade union movement and their ministerial supporters thought no wage claim excessive.

Many of these complaints, however, are no longer relevant. As a polity we do things better: government processes have improved; economic thinking is more sophisticated and economic management more important; the love that ministers feel for young women or men or animals is, thankfully, kept hidden; and the union movement, while some of the wilder clans are still brutish, pays a positive role in the life of the nation.

Gough Whitlam also taught us that ideas in politics mattered. And that positive change can be brought by a leader who was prepared to articulate and argue and reason an argument and then trust the better judgement of the electorate.

You can watch Noel Pearson’s eulogy here.

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