Remembering Whitlam

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Gough Whitlam was the first prime minister I was aware of. Actually, I recalled yesterday that I had seen every Australian Prime Minister since (up until the current one) in the flesh. What other country is that possible?

I saw Whitlam for the first time, in the flesh as it were, when I was 5 year’s old. It is one of my earliest memories. We were at Coogie Beach. I thought we were there for the clown show but, in fact, we were there to hear Whitlam speak. I remember him shouting at the crowd — that is what one of his speeches sounded like. It is clear in my mind today as I thought about it ever since.

A year or so later, he was part of another very early memory. I remember a newspaper on November 12th 1975 with the headline “Dismissed.” I asked my father what that was about and he told me that the PM had been sacked. I asked why and he said that he had lied. My parents, you might guess, were not Whitlam supporters.

Fast forward another 7 years or so later and I watched the wonderful ABC Mini-series, The Dismissal. It was before the Hawke election. There is a moment in many people’s lives when their political leanings are set. I personally think there is a large element of choice to that — especially for people who have not known personal suffering in their childhoods. That series was my moment. It made me left leaning and pro-economy at the same time. The Whitlam government was both (think pipelines not saving rainforests). I softened each of these since then (in fact, on the environment, I flipped from my 14 year old days). But that series was the moment and I was outraged that it had happened. Suffice it to say, I was no fan of Fraser; at least, not until recently when he joined Twitter and became the voice of reason in Australian politics.

Everyone has a politician that is formative to them. For me, Whitlam was that person at a ridiculously young age. He may have been PM for only 4 years of his 96 but what a 4 years it was.

[Update: my parents tell me that they voted for Whitlam on at least three occasions. So I guess I was wrong about my inference there.]
2 Responses to "Remembering Whitlam"
  1. A couple of minor points. Gough lived to 98 and his term as PM was just on 3 years, not 4.
    I among many others joined the ALP after the dismisal, having supported its election to office in 1972. Over the ensuing 10 years I for one discovered how morallly corrupt and venal the party really is. That experience forged my political leanings ever since.

    Gough did forge a new landscape for Australia, although much of what his government did achieve has since eroded away. His greatest weakness was his ego – he was never a humble man. In hindsight I recognised that although a reformer he was an inept manager, surrounded by some equally inept managers.

    The singular achievement of his government is that it laid a foundation for the Hawke goverment. Some of its best ministers were blooded during 1972-75 and others were driven by the experience.

    Gough was a notable man, and history will most probably treat him more gently than perhaps is justified.

  2. Reg Withers died soon after Whitlam. Nobody even noticed. Perhaps there is justice after all.

    Also, I think Joshua underplays the Whitlam government achievements. He was more than a warm up act for Hawke. Moreover, Whitlam’s reforms were mainly social while Hawke’s were mainly economic. So I think of them as complementary.

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