Edward Gough Whitlam, the 21st Prime Minister of Australia (1972-1975), turned 97 a few days ago, on 11 July. Unlike my father in law, Noel, I have always had a liking for Gough, especially his wit, humour and breadth of knowledge. During his period in government Gough polarised the nation, a division that intensified after the dismissal of his government.
Gough Whitlam with later Labor Prime Ministers Bob Hawke (right) and Paul Keating (left)
For overseas readers and younger Byters who have been born since those events, the Whitlam Government came to an end when sensationally dismissed by the Queen’s representative in Australia, the Governor General, Sir John Kerr.
Whitlam, right, and Sir John Kerr, on the way to Kerr’s swearing in as Governor General. Kerr was a Whitlam appointment.
Labor held a majority in the Lower House, the House of Representatives; the Opposition, led by Malcolm Fraser, controlled the Upper House, the Senate. With the polls showing that Labor would be defeated if a general election were to be held, Fraser sought to bring Labor to such an election by delaying voting on supply, that is, the authorisation for money to be paid to the Government. There are “conventions” followed in Parliament which, although not having the force of law, are considered sacrosanct. One such convention was that the Upper House would not block money Bills. Fraser believed that if the Government did not have money to govern – to pay its debts, employees, public servants etc – Whitlam would have to give in and call an election. Whitlam refused. It became a matter as to who would cave in first. Whitlam refused to call an election, citing that a popularly elected government should be allowed to govern and not be brought undone by underhand means. Fraser responded that the Government had lost the confidence of the Australian people and had been involved in questionable activities, that the Prime Minister should call an election and let the people decide. Many of Fraser’s own colleagues disagreed with his stance and actions.
(The issue is complex. Under the Westminster System there is a convention that a government which has lost Supply should call an election. However, Supply had not been rejected by Fraser, just delayed).
Surprisingly, the Governor General, Sir John Kerr, sacked the Government and installed Fraser as a caretaker (leading Whitlam to declare that it was “the first time that the burglar had been appointed caretaker”). It was considered, up to then, that the Queen would follow still another convention, that she would not involve herself in the domestic political affairs of a country with its own parliament; Kerr disregarded it. At the subsequent election Whitlam and Labor were defeated, Fraser becoming PM.
Whitlam was well known for his intellect, for his literary skills, for his belief in himself and his confidence in his abilities, and for his wit. He was often referred to as arrogant.
At a book launch in 2005, Gough Whitlam 89, holds up the original copy of his dismissal letter he received from then Governor General Sir John Kerr on November 11 1975.
Former foes and enemies Gough Whitlam and Malcom Fraser.
Malcolm Fraser delivered the 2012 Gough Whitlam Oration on 6 June 2012 at Riverside Theatres Parramatta. His speech called for greater cooperation between political parties and also covered issues of immigration and foreign affairs including the nation’s alliance with the United States and our relationship with China.
Some Whitlam moments:
The original “It’s Time” advertisement that helped Whitlam win the 1972 election, featuring well known entertainment personalities from the time and snapshots of Gough at varying ages:
Gough and 'Little Pattie' Amphlett (a recording artist but also known for being thye cousin of the Divinyls' Chrissy Amphlett, who dies in 2013)
An ABC News summary of the events leading up to and including the 1975 dismissal of Gough Whitlam's Labor Government:
Some past Bytes Gough Whitlam anecdotes:
The hard “c”:
“ A useless bastard like you”:
Killen and St Paul:
Whitlam on the steps of Parliament House, 11 November 1975, after the reading of the proclamation dismissing his government, the famous ‘maintain the rage’ speech
Queen Elizabeth 11 with the Duke of Edinburgh, 1976, Sir John Kerr on the right and Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser on the left. (Paul Keating once described Fraser as looking like "an Easter Island statue with an arse full of razor blades”).
A few other Gough Whitlam anecdotes, from Barry Cohen’s book Life with Gough, regrettably out of print:
During the Bicenntenial Year (1988) various MP’s, former colleagues and their spouses were invited to a VIP cruise to watch the Australia Day sailpast of the Tall Ships on Sydney Harbour. All who were there witnessed one of the greatest spectacles in Australian history.
Among the guests were David Connolly (former Liberal MP for Bradfield), his wife Monique, and Gough and Margaret Whitlam. At the conclusion of the cruise and as the guests were leaving, the Whitlams appeared to be delaying their departure from the vessel and were holed up in the stern. Concerned that something might be wrong, David asked if there was a problem.
‘No, Comrade,’ he replied, ‘but there is no way I will leave the vessel before that guest departs.’ Connolly turned and realised he was referring to Sir John Kerr.
‘I learnt my lesson the hard way,’ Gough added. ‘I will always walk behind him.’
SOURCE: David Connolly
After the death of Sir John Kerr in 1991, Gough commented:
“It is clear that any Governor-General would be most unlikely to act as Kerr did. The consequences to him and his family would be distressing. You would end up in contempt and isolation just as Kerr did.
Frankly, he rooted himself as much as he did us."
SOURCE: Sydney Morning Herald, 13 April 1991
THE GRAND FINAL
It was late in 1974 and Labor’s popularity had started to wane. The late Ron McAuliffe, a tough but Runyonesque character was both a Queensland Labor Senator and President of the Queensland Rugby League. Known as the ‘Senator for Rugby League’, he decided that both the code and the leader’s image would be enhanced if Gough launched the Brisbane Rugby League grand final. Although Gough’s interest and knowledge of sport was less than zero, he agreed to his colleague’s request.
Arriving at Lang Park the two representatives of the workers’ party walked toward the centre of the ground where the teams were awaiting their arrival. The twenty thousand plus crowd gave them one of the noisiest and most unpleasant receptions ever accorded visiting dignitaries. The mob hissed, booed and jeered while throwing beer cans, meat pies and other assorted missiles. Ten minutes elapsed before they had exhausted their viciousness and spleen to the point where Gough could perform his duties.
As they walked back towards the members stand, the Prime Minister turned to the shaken Senator: ‘McAuliffe,’ he sniffed imperiously, ‘don’t you ever invite me to a place where you are so unpopular.’
Prime Ministers Bob Hawke, Gough Whitlam, Malcolm Fraser, Paul Keating and Kevin Rudd at the 2008 apology to indigenous persons.
Happy birthday, Gough.