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Tuesday, 20 March 2012
Page: 3640


Mr MELHAM (Banks) (18:30): Tonight I rise to offer my condolences to the Whitlam family. Many words have been spoken by many different people about Margaret Elaine Whitlam in the past few days. Some have been spoken publicly and some privately. I have just received an email from one of my branches offering their condolences to the family. What this tells me is that Margaret Whitlam touched so many people throughout her life. People in every walk of life, from every background and, dare I say it, from every political persuasion, have recognised her massive contribution to Australia's public life.

When I first considered the words I would use tonight, my immediate thought was to focus on Margaret as an individual. I wanted to speak of her contribution in her own right, not as the wife of, in her words, 'the old boy'. It seems to me that she represented all that was good about her generation of women and that her contribution was Margaret's unique contribution, not as an accessory to a prime minister. On further consideration, I decided that such an approach would be doing Margaret a disservice, because theirs was from the start a partnership of mind and spirit, and it is impossible to speak of one without the other. Gough and Margaret Whitlam were a formidable combination.

There are some pointers about how Margaret became the person she was in Susan Mitchell's book The Matriarchs, all the more illuminating because the words are Margaret's. Ms Mitchell explains how the interview with Margaret came about. It seems to have been a long process. When they finally met, Ms Mitchell said, 'I found it hard to believe that I hadn't known her all my life.' That, in essence, is who Margaret was. It was difficult to believe after a brief meeting that you had not known her forever.

In speaking of her childhood, Margaret acknowledged the various influences from her family. She described her reaction to attending SCEGGS as different from some of the other girls, who were sooky. Margaret explained, 'I always feel when something ends something new is going to begin, and it's all going to be so exciting.' In her life Margaret experienced many new beginnings and dealt with each with commitment, passion and enthusiasm. I was particularly struck with her description of her time as a social worker. After her marriage she was completing the second year of a social work diploma and doing the practicals on her holidays. She was later employed by the family welfare bureau. She recalled from that time going out as a field officer on home visits to provide advice to members of the community. On one occasion Margaret was visiting a woman in hospital to reassure her about the care of her children and how they were going to be received at a particular home during the mother's illness. The woman asked Margaret whether she would send her children to that particular home. Margaret stated that the question would become her gauge in future decisions. In considering placements, particularly for children, she would ask herself whether she would send her own relatives there.

The esteem in which Margaret was held was expressed well by my sister, Myrna, who met Margaret and Gough on several occasions. In fact, Myrna's thoughts strongly reflect the thoughts of all my family in their recollections of Margaret. In 2010 I celebrated my twentieth anniversary as the member for Banks with a function in the electorate. The Whitlams were not able to attend. However, I asked them to be my guests for lunch on the date of the actual anniversary at a venue of their choice. On 24 March 2010 we four lunched at the Australian 18 Footers League in Double Bay where Margaret was a member. My sister, Myrna, recalls that Margaret presented her with a gift of a beautiful, miniature, purple orchid called 'Little Lady'. Her card read, 'For the woman behind the man. Congratulations and admiration, with fond wishes, from Margaret and Gough, 24 March 2010.' Much to Myrna's delight, that orchid is still thriving today. My sister also kept the visitor's slip, which Margaret signed, to allow us into the club.

That was typical of the impact that Margaret had when she met people. Myrna says that Margaret's generosity of spirit, sense of humour and candour on that day overwhelmed her. She remembers feeling sad when the afternoon came to an end. Myrna also recollects Margaret being very amused by my choice of desert—plain ice-cream. She asked me where my sense of adventure was, and of course I replied that I had none. My sister best remembers Margaret through her comments made this afternoon, 'A very inspirational, down-to-earth woman, who left me with a lasting impression of the type of person I could only ever aspire to be. God rest her soul.'

I offer my personal condolences and those of my family to Gough, Tony, Nick, Stephen and Catherine and their families.