By Mungo MacCallum
Last week’s magnificent memorial service for Edward Gough Whitlam provided many wonderful moments: sublime music, uplifting oratory, arresting insights, Whitlamesque wit and humour and heartfelt appreciation of how much was done, and how much could have been – and how much is still to do.
It gave us more than two truly memorable hours to treasure. But for me the single line that resonated most powerfully came early in the piece from the welcome to country by the wise Wiradjuri woman, Aunt Millie Ingram. She offered her own personal take on the man: ‘He took us seriously’.
And there, perhaps is the essence of the genius of our 21st prime minister, and the reason he will be remembered and revered more than many of the predecessors and successors who served for far longer terms for far less enduring impact. He took everyone seriously, everyone.
As Noel Pearson attested, it could be said without a shadow of a doubt that this old man never harboured a bone of racial, ethnic, or gender prejudice in his body. From the dispossessed first Australians of the outback to the battling immigrants of unsewered Cabramatta, he treated every person he met with dignity.
And by doing so he empowered them: he made them realise they mattered, that they could make a difference. For any politician, it would be a rare talent. Coming from one born in 1916 in a comfortable essentially conservative middle-class background, it was virtually unique. Hence his legacy.
And it was an extremely practical legacy, a tireless devotion, as his friend and protégé John Faulkner pointed out, to politics and principle – not one or the other, but both. For many the mix was and is an odd one, almost a contradiction in terms: principles and ideals are all very well in their way, but must inevitably be subordinated to the realpolitik of the main game.
But Gough Whitlam never saw it that way. His abiding principles were clear; his speech writer and amanuensis – almost his doppelganger – Graham Freudenberg articulated them in a nutshell: a more equal Australia, a more independent inclusive generous and tolerant Australia, and a nation confident in our region and the world.
They were broad ranging and profound, not like the nit-picking formulae of so many who became his opponents. For many in the old Labor Party, every detail was sacrosanct: the old guard forged in the fires of the 1950s split regarded their prescriptions as immovable and inviolable. Elections were irrelevant, ideological purity was all. So when Whitlam reminded them that certainly the impotent were pure, the invitation to a challenge to reform and modernise was a personal threat: they resisted to the end.
But Whitlam knew that politics was an honourable calling – provided always that it was subordinate to policy. It was a means, not an end in itself: the tactics of the game must never become the game itself. Many politicians believed and still believe that it is all about winning, that gaining office is the ultimate goal. For Whitlam it was always the first step – an important, even necessary first step, but no more than a beginning on the path to fulfilment of the principled vision.
His own path was marked with milestones of great achievement and, inevitably, failure; but the setbacks never deterred him. His resolution and his optimism were unquenchable. He had total faith in the future and more importantly in the people. He believed that if the case for reform could be explained rationally and sensibly the voters too would find the policies irresistible.
So he worked not with spin, fear, slogans, ambushes and broken promises but with education and persuasion – sometimes at tiresome length. At times the pace of change, and occasionally the parliamentary tactics, could be bewildering, even unpredictable: but the platform was always spelled out well in advance, often years in advance. Even those who disapproved of it could hardly claim they had not been warned.
And he wanted them to take part, not only in approving the policies themselves – although that would not do any harm – but the ideas that informed them. The Whitlam legacy is one of reason, respect and a deep commitment to the theory and practice of the democratic process; not a kneejerk compulsion to marking a ballot paper every few years, but an ongoing commitment in the issues and the debates of the times.
The citizens of the body politic – all of them, not just the lucky few – should share with their representatives an understanding of how and why they were being governed and be genuinely involved in making the choices. Hence his passionate conviction of one vote, one value: when they walked into the polling booth, he and Aunt Millie were, at that moment, on a totally equal footing.
He despised privilege in all its forms; even during his time as prime minister he avoided as far as possible the paraphernalia of retinues and bodyguards. It was not uncommon to find the Whitlams queuing patiently for tickets to the theatre or cinema on one of their rare nights off.
He was, as Kerry O’Brien recognised, a big man – big in stature, in ideals, in ambitions, in words and in actions. But in spite of the often misunderstood self-deprecatory bombast, he always recognised that, in the end, he was only a man. He never needed a slave to whisper in his ear at his hours of either triumph or disaster.
This was the Whitlam who Aunt Millie, and so many anonymous followers, made their devotees: he took them seriously – often more seriously than he took himself. And as the celebrants inside and outside the Town Hall showed last week, it was a memory they cherished and would like to revive in the grim days of what passes of the politics and policies of today. Nostalgia is all very well, but as Edward Gough Whitlam implored to the last: comrades, maintain your enthusiasm.
He has been memorialised and will long be memorialised; but now it is time to give this old man a well-earned rest. Vale, Gough Whitlam, RIP.