I was 20 years old when Gough Whitlam became Prime Minister of Australia.
It may therefore be seen that this post reflects my memories of youth – of naive hope, optimism and the enthusiasm of youth.
It was also the 1970’s when change was in the air.
But I do think Gough Whitlam’s time as Prime Minister was monumental in Australian politics. And this definitely has borne out in the past few weeks as Australia has reflected on his life and his contribution to Australia.
I was very keen to watch his memorial service on television this morning.
And I must firstly reflect on the reaction of the crowd outside the town hall as the dignitaries arrived.
It was obviously a Labor crowd, as they cheered resoundingly for the past Labor Prime Ministers on their arrivals such as Hawke and Keating.
And the boos for Howard – and also our current Prime Minister Abbott.
But I was most pleased with their response to Julia Gillard. The crowd loudly showed their pleasure with her – and most impressive was the standing ovation she received when she walked into the hall.
The contrast between the response she received and the one Kevin Rudd was received was palpable.
As Katherine Murphy from the Guardian commented:
“The mourners roared for Julia Gillard, and mumbled ambivalently for Kevin Rudd.”
The blue ties might have won the round but Julia will be the historical winner.
The memorial to Gough Whitlam was definitely powerful and emotive. The speakers were awesome. They reminded us of all that Whitlam achieved in his relatively brief period of office.
Cate Blanchett reminded us eloquently of some of what he worked on
– Free tertiary education
– Equal pay for women
– Supporting mothers benefit
And the establishment of the Women’s Advisor to the Prime Minister and Office for Women.
Mr. Whitlam discusses International Women’s Year with two members of the National Advisory Committee, Ms. Elizabeth Reid and the Secretary of the Australian Government’s Department of the Media, Mr James Oswin (National Library of Australia nla.pic-vn3510683, photo: Malcolm Lindsay)
Noel Pearson’s speech was also passionate and commanding.
“Without this old man, the land rights of our people would never have seen the light of day,” Mr Pearson said. “He truly was Australia’s greatest white elder…”
“I can scarcely point to any white Australian political leader of his vintage and of generations following of whom it could be said without a shadow of doubt, he harboured not a bone of racial, ethnic or gender prejudice in his body.”
It was heartening to see the emphasis on Indigenous Australians in this memorial. For of course one of the most iconic images we have of Whitlam is him pouring the earth into Vincent Lingiari’s hands.
Paul Kelly and indigenous Australian singer-songwriter Kev Carmody performed “From Little Things Big Things Grow” written by them in 1991 telling the story of the Gurindji people’s struggle for equality and land rights.
I understand that real power is not invested in our parliament but that it only operates within the parameters set by the patriarchal, capitalist machine. No real change can occur without dismantling patriarchal capitalism.
But the optimism and enthusiasm, the inclusiveness and the tolerance which the Whitlam government brought to Australia is a time worth honouring.
“He touches, still, the millions who share his vision for a more equal Australia, a more independent, inclusive, generous and tolerant Australia, a nation confident of its future in our region and the world,”
Graham Freudenberg, Whitlam’s speech writer.
It is a stark contrast to the current neo-conservative politics when fear is used to win votes; when winning the next election is the force behind governments, rather than bringing about change;when three word slogans are deemed to be enough, we are right to remember how sometimes some good can happen. And that sometimes courageous politicians can make positive differences in our everyday lives.
“This was the politics of real people: the people who remain engaged, the people who believe, and persist, and endure all the failings and the disrespect and the daily manipulation to insist that politics is and must be a noble cause, periodically inhabited by people of courage.”