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Tuesday, 20 March 2012
Page: 3624


Mr CREAN (HothamMinister for Regional Australia, Regional Development and Local Government and Minister for the Arts) (16:59): It is with mixed emotions that I speak on this debate of condolence to Margaret Whitlam. Obviously, there is sadness because of the loss of a great woman and a great Australian, but there is also pride in what she achieved in her long life, her public life and her devoted life. She was a great Australian, a loving mother and a devoted and supportive wife, but she was really her own person. She redefined the role of a 'first lady' as a Prime Minister's wife because she saw in it the opportunity it gave not to grandstand but to be effective, to pursue issues, to cut through. She was, indeed, an extremely powerful advocate and, significantly, she made a difference. All of it was done professionally and all of it was done nobly.

I had the privilege of knowing Margaret Whitlam and the Whitlam family over six decades, from the early fifties when I came here with my family as a young boy. We spent a lot of time around the house and at the Kurrajong hotel, which is where we all stayed in the fifties. I remember Margaret Whitlam from an early age because she was very friendly with my mum, who is still alive and who also wanted me to pass on her condolences to the family, which I have done. Margaret took an interest in us as young boys. When we saw her in subsequent times, and they were many, she would remember the conversations that she had had with us previously and she would always ask us about our progress. This was important because she made an impression on young people. Imagine what she was like when she engaged this way with older people, as she did so much in her later life.

Of course, in the sixties there was a lot of excitement. The Whitlams were often at our family home with the development of the campaign that took the Whitlam government to power in 1972. In fact, my very first experience working in an election campaign was the one that saw the bandwagon of Gough to Canberra. It was the Corio by-election in 1967. I was at university at the time and the campaign for free university fees, the opening up of the education system and the enabling capacity of that government, the big issues, were exciting. That which gave me political motivation was more fundamentally about opposition to the Vietnam War, and one of the great first acts of the Whitlam government when it won office in 1972 was to bring the troops home. That was the excitement in the sixties. We spent a lot of time with various members of the family, but Margaret in particular was always around, always interested, always active and always embracing the causes.

The period of the seventies was the big opportunity. There was the excitement of winning government for a Labor government after so many years, which Gough had taken us to. In many ways it was the era that made Australia proud and confident on the international stage. It was the leadership, obviously, of the Prime Minister and the government's pride and confidence, but the two of them together gave presence to the substance. Indeed, my mother and father were on the first visit to China in 1973 where Gough led a delegation. It was a recognition which China has never forgotten, because we were there when it mattered. It was a boldness because it was opposed by Gough's political opponents of the day. It was a boldness that really has stamped us as a country that is prepared to stand on its own feet and be proud in doing it. I know that there were many attempts to reflect the anniversaries of that momentous time. They were important, significant and defining for us as a nation. Whilst Gough was there, with Margaret by his side, it gave, as I said, presence, professionalism, stature and a family dimension to the issue itself.

I had the opportunity to meet with them in Paris a number of times when they were there on the UNESCO post. I was President of the ACTU and had meetings from time to time with the OECD. That too was an exciting time, because there was Gough—in semi-retirement but still representing the big issues of the nation—and Margaret, pursuing all of her interests by his side. When we won government in the eighties we saw them at many different functions, and when I came to this place in the nineties I also had the opportunity. At the turn of the century, when we celebrated the 30th anniversary of the election of the Whitlam government—and that was a big occasion, a big opportunity for memories—Margaret was there, a reminder of her contribution and her commitment.

And that contribution and commitment was significant. As I said before, she did pursue the important issues—issues around the environment and issues of social justice, such as equal pay, which the Whitlam government was instrumental in spearheading in 1972. Significantly, she pursued the arts. To me, as Minister for the Arts, Margaret continued to be a fantastic patron right up until the end. She had been a director of the Sydney Dance Company and very closely associated with and encouraged Graeme Murphy, who now himself is sought after internationally for his creative design and creative prowess. She was the inaugural chair of the national opera conference and was involved with Australian opera, Musica Viva and the State Library of New South Wales.

In summary, the thing about Margaret is that her causes were our causes. She fought the causes because she believed in them. She was a person of passion, a person of dedication and a person of conviction. We look for conviction in our politicians, but to have the partnership of the two of them with that conviction—and a conviction that carried on throughout their life—is the lasting testimony we can acknowledge. She was totally committed. She was dedicated and creative in everything she did, and she very much believed in empowering and energising the individual. She never misspoke, but when she spoke she resonated. You always listened when Margaret had something to say.

As the Prime Minister said yesterday, Margaret was a national treasure and was recognised as that. Two national treasures together is a unique double—but they were a unique double. Her family and those who knew her will miss her. My family will miss her. But she made an extraordinary contribution and commitment to the nation, and it is one that will never be forgotten. Margaret once wrote: 'if I can do some good I'll certainly try'. Well, she did more than try; she succeeded, and she succeeded in so many ways. I offer my sincerest condolences to Gough, who I know is incredibly distraught at the loss of Margaret, and to the family—to Tony, Nick, Stephen and Cathy. We will have the opportunity to remember her still on Friday, at the funeral service. She has made a great contribution to this nation and I am delighted to be associated with the words and the motion of the parliament moved by the Prime Minister.