Former Australian Prime Minister Gough Whitlam has died at age 98. One of the most colorful leaders in recent memory, he has been remembered by both sides of politics as a legendary figure for Australia. His reforms were the product of a mere three years in office and have resonated across the country since they were begun. Beyond his own border, however, Whitlam was a force in the international world of politics, creating a relationship with China that has endured to this day. Despite being a staunch Labor leader, both main political parties have expressed their admiration of him and his accomplishments.
His time as prime minister was characterized by political drama that makes today’s Australian political climate look tame by comparison. Despite popular reforms, his political woes led to a dissolution of his government by the governor general, the British monarchy’s representative in that commonwealth country. His time as leader was cut short due to the Opposition’s refusal to pass a budget bill, which meant that new election would have to be held. Whitlam remains the only Australian prime minister to experience that fate.
Despite his short term, Gough Whitlam presided over what is considered a golden age of Australian politics. In many respects, that is due to the reforming force that he was and the changes that he spearheaded. Domestically he helped the country move towards equal pay for working women and men, as well as the important reform in Aboriginal land rights. He also helped provide free access for everyone to universities, which enabled many people to access higher education who otherwise were prevented from doing so. A generation of students who were the first in their families to attend university owe that achievement to his efforts. He also instituted the Order of Australia, the country’s first system of honors that did not derive from the British Commonwealth, as the only honor system for the country.
In the last 40 years, Gough Whitlam’s influence, who at age 98 is the country’s longest lived prime minister at his death, has been felt throughout Australian politics, right down to the current day. No where is his influence as important in the trade relations with China which he first began. He worked in the international community to advocate that the communist Chinese government be recognized and it is for that effort that he will be most remembered by the world at large. While his loss is a personal blow for Australians, for the world it is a loss of a friend and leader who did much in only a short time.
He was by all reports a charming man with strong opinions, including opinions on the ideologies that prevail in his country’s politics. In one of the many memorable quotes he offered up, he once commented on the nature of conservatives and liberal reformers. “A conservative government survives,” he noted, “essentially by dampening expectations and subduing hopes. Conservativism is basically pessimistic; reforming is basically optimistic.” It was that view that led him to be one of the foremost liberal reformers of his time and kept him optimistic during his own political troubles. But it may also represent the current feeling in Australia at the moment as under a new Conservative government a malaise has descended on many people. As one commenter noted in the Sydney Morning Herald, Gough Whitlam’s time offers an “invidious comparison with what our nation has become.” In that respect, the sadness at the death of Gough Whitlam at age 98 may be as much for the lost feelings of his time as for the loss of a good and accomplished man.
Opinion By Lydia Bradbury