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Tuesday, 20 March 2012
Page: 3638

Mr FITZGIBBON (HunterChief Government Whip) (18:17): It is a great pleasure to join with the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition, the member for Griffith, the member for Wentworth and all members who are making a contribution to this very important condolence motion in honour of Margaret Elaine Whitlam AO. There are many ways to describe Margaret Whitlam—intelligent, compassionate, talented, sincere, generous, benevolent, witty and honest—but, based on my dealings with her, I believe the best description of all is 'tough'. She was a tough woman. It was a brave person who challenged her in any way—and I am sure former Prime Minister Gough Whitlam learnt that on many occasions.

Being the wife to any PM is of course a tough gig. It takes great strength to both stand by your Prime Minister—in this case your husband—and to deal with public criticisms of him, his government and the broader family. More and more, including in Gough's time, the media intrude greatly into the family behind the scenes of office. Gough was a great reformer and, as a result, picked plenty of fights; being a great reformer is, by definition, also about picking fights. It is well known that the greatest fight of all was that which occurred in 1975. Throughout that turbulent period Margaret was Gough's rock and held herself in a most dignified way.

Margaret Whitlam lived a very long life and had been around for a very long time. I am one of those in this place—there are quite a few of us, of course—who had the pleasure of knowing her, not very well but sufficiently well, I think, to appreciate her and to understand her. My maternal grandparents lived in Bellingen, just inland near Coffs Harbour. I remember she and Gough visited to open a nursing home when I was only a child. I still vividly remember that day, not meeting them but seeing them and watching the very significant fuss that surrounded them on the visit to that very small town. Even though I was a child, I remember how tall they both were and therefore how big they were in stature as well as in reputation. They were certainly very warmly received on that occasion. That is my first memory of the couple.

I also have this vague memory of accompanying Margaret to the Cessnock Town Hall, which no longer exists. I have been trying to remember all afternoon when that was and why she was in Cessnock. She was alone. Gough was not with her. She was there to make a speech of some sort. After the speech I was very busily making sure that I took the opportunity to introduce her to as many people as I could. She had a real crack at me, in a very grumpy way, about working her too hard in that respect. The point I make is how upfront and determined she was about letting me know she was not too happy about all this hard work I was giving her. Beneath that, however, there was also an appreciation of having had the opportunity to meet with so many of the local people. They certainly appreciated her.

Gough is, of course, still with us. He is almost 96. I spoke with his son Nick on Saturday. Obviously Gough is far frailer now than the Gough we have all known so well. We all think of him this week. It was a very long partnership. He must be feeling this loss very sadly and deeply. I extend again my best wishes to him. Nick, who I have come to know well I am proud to say, is a great guy. I have not had the opportunity to get to know other members of the family but you only need to know Nick to know that Margaret and Gough gave him a very fine upbringing and that they are very decent people. They will be feeling this loss very deeply.

Margaret Whitlam walked tall—literally and figuratively. She was a great Australian, not just famous for being Gough Whitlam's wife but famous in her own right. She was an individual, someone who had her own causes, who argued her own cases and criticised when she thought criticism was deserved. She was a sporting hero. She was learned. I end where I began: she was intelligent, smart and witty. She was all of that. I join with others in mourning her loss and thanking her for her very significant contribution to this country and again in extending my deepest sympathy to Gough and the rest of the family.