Gough Whitlam shaped my life more than any other politician. His government’s investment in higher education meant my father got a pay rise and our family could afford the house I grew up in from the age of five. The introduction of equal pay for women meant that Mum’s wages were on a par with Dad’s throughout my teenage years, which was tremendously important for our family finances and for the message it sent to her two sons. I was one of the last to benefit from a free higher education as an undergraduate, during the 15-year window of opportunity his government opened in 1974. Because of Whitlam, I was able to vote in my state election in 1986 and the federal election in 1987, three years earlier than I otherwise could have, and was able to vote for senators when I later lived in the ACT. I grew up singing “Advance Australia Fair” at school, not “God Save the Queen”.

As an undergraduate I studied political science (almost by accident, because history clashed with my other subjects), and learned more about his government, barely a decade after its dismissal. I became a republican then, and voted for a republic in 1999, thanks to Gough. The fascinating story of his government was one of the things that kept me doing pol sci right through to my honours year and beyond, leading eventually to an academic career. Whitlam recognized China, made Papua New Guinea independent, paved the way to Aboriginal land rights, introduced universal health care, extended the welfare system, and ratified the World Heritage Convention, which ultimately saved the Franklin River. Here’s a cartoon of mine from 1987, comparing him with then-PM Bob Hawke and then-Treasurer Paul Keating (though I’d be kinder to Keating today, my second-favourite Australian prime minister):

Gough Whitlam

In 1988 Gough was in town, speaking on that year’s constitutional referendums at Tas Uni, and thanks to one of my lecturers I was lucky enough to interview him for our student mag. I’ll never forget his imposing presence, his steely gaze and his opening words, that there would be no discussion of the events of 1975 during our interview. No, sir. (I can’t say I blame him. How many times would he have been over that ground by then? And who’d want to do it all again with some student?) Still one of the most memorable moments of my student years.

If anyone deserved to live to ninety-eight, it was Gough. To think that his time in government was from the ages of 56 to 59: so much for becoming more conservative as you get older.

Thank you, Edward Gough Whitlam.

21 October 2014 · People