It’s Time: Goodbye, COMRADES

Edward Gough Whitlam 1916-2014 Gough Whitlam was prime minister of Australia for barely three years, from 1972-1975. He died on Tuesday, aged 98, missing a century by two years. He
25 Oct 2014 10:23
It’s Time:  Goodbye, COMRADES
Gough Whitlam helped change Australia’s view to be more outward-looking

Edward Gough Whitlam 1916-2014

Gough Whitlam was prime minister of Australia for barely three years, from 1972-1975. He died on Tuesday, aged 98, missing a century by two years. He was twentieth century’s most extraordinary Australian.

I’d come to Australia to study for my PhD in May 1974: to work on the writings of Patrick White but I could have done this in York, Toronto, or Austin, Texas . I’d fellowships from these two universities as well as the ANU.

I serendipitously chose the ANU. The reason was that Mr Gough Whitlam had become the Prime Minister of Australia in 1972, after 23 years of Liberal dominance of Menzies’ mediocre governance. Australia was stable and stagnant after the terrible Second World War that had transformed the world forever.

Menzian stupor, for a more royalist and Anglo-centric  Australia, was no longer adequate for a modern nation situated in the Asia-Pacific. The Japanese had shown how vulnerable the island-continent was from Asian forces.

Gough   understood this better than most—he attempted to establish new relationship with Japan, China and Indonesia. Australia had to become part of Asia with its British and European heritage.  But the geographical  and economic realities were more important than historical origins.

Whitlam’s vision of a new Australia touched my political imagination. His idea of Australia, its vibrant and various civilisation in-the-making, its position in the region, were so original that it appeared to take the Australian mind out of the pond into the oceans  surrounding the great island-continent: he was the  Captain Cook of politics exploring new horizons. White Australia was dead in the blue waters. The tyranny of distance was seen as the triumph of the nomads.

There are events that mark one’s life, both with grief and glory. Four such events have become part of my experience: the first was the killing of Kennedy on November 22, 1963. I was a young teacher at the Doon school in Dehradun, India, celebrating my honeymoon.

The second was on 11 November, 1975, in Canberra, when I was reading Patrick White’s novel The Eye of the Storm in my lonely room. A call came after lunch: Whitlam had been sacked! We rushed to the Parliament House. As David Smith, the Governor-General’s secretary, read the proclamation, we were standing behind Mr Whitlam.

As Smith concluded with ‘God Save the Queen’, Whitlam gave his most famous line in Australian political oratory: ‘Well may we say’ God save the Queen’ because nothing will save the Governor-General! The proclamation which you have just heard read by the Governor-General’s official secretary was countersigned ‘Malcolm Fraser’ who will go down in Australian history from Remembrance Day 1975 as Kerr’s cur’.

Sir John Kerr was Whitlam’s choice for Australia’s Governor-General as Zia ul-Haq was Bhutto’s choice for the Chief of the Pakistani Army. Zia hanged Bhutto so mercilessly and died in a plane crash.

The other event that marks me is the assassination of Indira Gandhi—I’ve just been reading about it: As Indira is walking towards her office, the Sikh guard approaches her and points his gun at her chest: Bewildered the Prime Minister utters a single sentence: ‘What are you doing?’

Within seconds 25 bullets are pumped into her delicate body by her two bodyguards.

I sometimes wonder what Kennedy was saying to Jackie when those fatal bullets hit his handsome head. Or What Mr Bhutto thoughts were as he was led to the gallows. Or What Indira Gandhi must have thought as the first bullets hit her fragile body from the guards she’d trusted so implicitly.

A moment can be an eternity depending on what it contains. Judas did it with a kiss.

My fourth experience of such an event happened in Fiji on May 14, 1987, in the Fiji Parliament. I was there. But now the less said about it the better.

Mr Whitlam’s passing away brought these indelible and harrowing  memories to my mind. Especially when I hear and read the outpouring of tributes to a truly towering personality in the large Australian landscape. He was a Gulliver among the Lilliputs:

the tallest tree in the orchard. Yet some politicians did everything to bring him down—they are not mourning the passing away of a giant; rather in his shadow they appear so small and average. One often mourns one’s pettiness. He had not only shown them the light on the hill: he’d, in fact, become the light. And illuminated brilliantly an Australian possibility, albeit too briefly.

Tall poppies had to be cut down to size and the intrigues of the Governor-General, Senators, Fraser and his men, Murdoch’s media, some judges , a few collegues, all contributed to the fall of Prime Minister Gough Whitlam.

As a student, I’d felt that Whitlam would make immense difference not only to Australia but to the region. He wanted Australia to be a big-hearted nation–  it was physically big but could it be bigger in its mental map and make-up also ?He’d attracted a variety of Australians to be part of the most exciting, exhilarating experiment of social democracy Down Under.

Within Australia he became the most reformist, revolutionary Prime Minister: medi-care, free tertiary education, law reform commission, legislation against racial discrimination, family law legislation, legal aid, arts funding, taking the French to international court of justice against nuclear testing in the Pacific,  foreign relations, abolishing conscription, getting Australian troops out of Vietnam, abolition of the capital punishment, aboriginal land rights, introduction of ‘one vote, one value’,  new ideas of social justice, gender equality , reduction of voting age, and myriad other reforms to make Australia an attractive society and a dynamic nation.

Soon after the election on December2, 1972, he held 13 portfolios, his deputy Lance Bernard had 14, until other members joined the cabinet in the new Year. Massive legislation passed through the Parliament.

It may remind some of us of recent and radical changes wrought in contemporary Fiji.

Launching his election campaign in 1972, Whitlam exhorted: ‘Men and women of Australia! The decision we will make for our country on December 2 is a choice between the past and the future, between the habits and fears of the past, and demands and opportunities of the future. There are moments in history when the whole fate and future of nations can be decided by a single decision. For Australia this is such a time.’

Whitlam was not a modest man—he had little to be modest about—and he could have said justifiably: the whole fate and future can be decided by a single person!

He said he was not immortal but eternal. ‘As you know, I plan for the ages, not just for this life’, he’d remarked. As a navigator in the RAAF during the War, he must have touched the stars. When I meet Him, he assured his followers, I’ll treat Him as an equal! His wit was self-deprecatory, and at times withering.

A reporter who was pestering him unnecessarily about abortion was told, ‘In your case it should apply retrospectively!’

In myriad ways, in less than three years, he affected the life of so many in a nation and aroused them from that mutton stupor of the conservatives and tried to remove the wool from their eyes. They finally made him a martyr but he was truly the man for all reasons and seasons for Australia.

Most leaders would have disappeared in the pages of history but Whitlam was always a presence as a diplomat, intellectual, author.  I sometimes attended his book launches –he was an erudite scholar of Greek and Latin and he seldom failed to show it off. His launch speeches, one felt, were longer than the book he was launching!

But, above all, he was a family man. The love-story of Margaret and Gough is the true legend of Australian politics akin to the story of Laura and Voss in that great eponymous novel of Patrick White. They met in 1939 and married in 1942.Their marriage lasted for 70 years. They had four children.

Margaret Whitlam was herself an independent woman of strong views and a distinctive voice. Together they set about changing the image and realities of Australia for the men and women of their nation. Margaret died in 2012.  Whitlam seemed to lose his conscience and companion and that great will to live for the welfare of others once his life-partner was no more.

On the dark day that Kerr’s proclamation dismissed him, Margaret was in Sydney. Later she told Whitlam: ‘You should have torn it up. There were only two of you there. Or you should have slapped his face and told him to pull himself together.’ That would have been the most powerful political slap in history. And well-deserved, too.

Many today will not remember the dismal day when Whitlam was dismissed. But few will forget the day he died. It was a bleak, cold day in Canberra . I remember both days. It seems such a privilege to have come to Australia when Gough Whitlam was the prime minister. One heard him, and read Patrick white—the two genuine but flawed geniuses Australia produced in its 200 years of settlement.

Edward Gough Whitlam and Patrick Martindale White, a prime minister and a writer, both deserve the epithet ‘great’ in their epitaph. They were friends. Both in some measure touched my life and family:

Do not go gentle into that good night,

Old age should burn and rave at the close of day;

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Edward Gough Whitlam , PM, had urged : ‘Maintain the rage, comrades!’

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