One day in high school my friend and I were being naughty and listening to an iPod during Maths class. Our teacher tapped us on the shoulder and pointed out this poor behaviour and, being cheeky, we replied “but this band is named after our favourite politician”. When our teacher asked about the band and we told him they were called the Whitlams, he was so excited. Gough, he said, had saved his life. You see, the day Gough Whitlam was elected (the 2nd December 1972), our wonderful Maths teacher was due to be shipped off to Vietnam to join the most unpopular war effort. Number one on Whitlam’s agenda as Prime Minister was to withdraw our troops, and he did.
I read more about Whitlam and his time as leader of our country but of course at the height of my interest I was only 16 or 17 years old and hardly able to comprehend the complexities of his term and the time period in which he was leading our country (he was elected 16 years before I was born and dismissed three years later). I once brought him up in conversation with my grandparents, staunch Liberal voters their whole lives, and learnt that our relationship would be better off if I never spoke of the despicable Gough Whitlam again. He was a mongrel who nearly ruined us all.
Two generations of people with totally different opinions, and yet they really do represent the divisiveness of Whitlam’s term. Mired by scandal, intrigue and possible corruption, I can now understand where my grandparents were coming from. However as an admittedly left-leaning individual myself (not far left, just a little!) I do still have a lot of admiration for the reforms Whitlam and his government implemented, particularly with regard to the working environment they had to do it in.
His legacy includes so many turning points in our nation’s evolution but the ones that speak to me are the ones that show a degree of humanity: introduction of universal healthcare, improved access to tertiary education, abolition of conscription and the death penalty, the introduction of no-fault divorces and welfare payments for the homeless and disadvantaged. Some of these social justice issues are currently in Australian political news again as they are under threat and I can only hope that, upon reflection of Mr Whitlam’s life, we are reminded of why his Government brought these policies in to begin with.
A few years ago I read an interview with Mr Whitlam in the Sunday paper where he was asked where he wanted to be buried when he died. His answer? “It doesn’t matter – I’ll only be in there for three days.”
A funny bastard too – that’s how I’d like to remember him.