Gough Whitlam (1916 – 2014)


“Everywhere we look in our remarkable modern country, we see the hand and work of Whitlam”

(Bill Shorten, 21 October 2014)

Edward Gough Whitlam was born on the 11th of July, 1916.

Although born in Melbourne, Gough travelled between Sydney and Canberra throughout his schooling life. He eventually followed in the footsteps of his father, the former Crown Solicitor Fred Whitlam, and studied law at Sydney University. But his studies were interrupted during the Second World War, when he joined the Sydney University Regiment and then later the Royal Australian Air Force. It was during this time that he joined the Australian Labor Party.


By 1952, Gough secured the South-Western Sydney seat of Werriwa, and by 1967 he was elected by the Labor caucus as Party Leader.

As Opposition Leader, Gough Whitlam was the driving force of Labor Party reform, aiming to expand their voter base past the working class and unions. “He set about reforming and modernising and making our Party electable. He worked tirelessly to make the Labor Party a viable alternative government,” Senator John Faulkner said.

His hard work paid off, and after 23 years of conservative leadership, on the 5th of December 1972, Gough Whitlam was elected as 21st Prime Minister of Australia.

But Whitlam was impatient for change. Unwilling to wait for his caucus to be selected, he and his Deputy, Lance Barnard spent their first two weeks in office in a duumvirate, juggling 27 portfolios between them.

“We want to give a new life and a new meaning in this new nation to the touchstone of modern democracy – to liberty, equality, fraternity.”

(Gough Whitlam, 1972)

Although only in office for three years, the Whitlam Government implemented one of the most ambitious reform agendas Australia has ever seen. He and his Ministers ended Australian involvement in the Vietnam War; Lowered the voting age to 18; Abolished conscription; introduced Medicare, and made welfare payments available for single mothers and the homeless; implemented equal pay policies, and ratified the Racial Discrimination Act; Gough also brought drastic (but much needed) reform to Australia’s national anthem, environmental protection, Aboriginal land rights, the arts and infrastructure.

Internationally, the Whitlam Government was the first to recognise China’s communist government, a diplomatic relationship heavily relied upon by his predecessors. They also publicly denounced South Africa’s apartheid policy.


But perhaps his most memorable achievement, for Grapeshot readers at least, is his efforts in education reform. Whitlam was a strong support of universal access to education, and within his first year in office, he abolished university and tafe fees, thereby allowing the working class to obtain a higher education.

“Nor shall talented young Australians any longer be deprived of opportunities for university education because of their parents’ lack of means … We believe that university places should be provided wholly on the basis of merit.”  

(Gough Whitlam, 1969)

Unfortunately, Whitlam’s reforms came with a hefty economic price tag. As Graham Freudenberg, the former Prime Minister’s speech writer conceded, “we did too much too soon.”

In 1974, Gough called and won, a double dissolution, securing temporary support for his political policies. The success was short lived. Australia hit an economic slump, and the hostile senate withheld Whitlam the money to implement and finance his reforms.

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On the 11th of November 1975, the Governor-General, Sir John Kerr, dismissed Whitlam and his Government in what still is considered to be one of the most controversial decisions in Australian political history.

“Well may we say ‘God Save the Queen’, because nothing will save the Governor-General.”

(Gough Whitlam, 1975)

Whitlam retired from politics in 1978, after losing the 1977 federal election. However, he by no means shied away from public life. In 1983 he was appointed as the Australian Ambassador to UNESCO and in 1987 was appointed the Chairman of the National Gallery of Australia.

On the 17th of March 2012, Gough lost the love of his life, Margaret Whitlam, just one month shy of their 70th wedding anniversary. And, almost two years later, on the 21st of October 2014, the Whitlam family announced that Gough had died at 2am in his Sydney nursing home. He was 98.

“I’ve never said I’m immortal. I do believe in correct language. I’m eternal; I’m not immortal.”

(Gough Whitlam)