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Monday, 19 March 2012
Page: 2136


Senator PAYNE (New South Wales) (15:58): I rise on behalf of the coalition to support the motion moved by Senator Faulkner and to offer my own and the coalition's condolences to the entire Whitlam firmly, and to the many friends of Margaret Whitlam, following the death of Margaret Whitlam AO last weekend. I acknowledge the eloquence and heartfelt words of Senator Faulkner in the stories and recollections that he gave to the chamber today. I think the intimacy that was revealed in Senator Faulkner's words, and the importance that we all know Margaret Whitlam had not only in Senator Faulkner's life but also in the lives of many of those opposite, is very much felt by us here this afternoon. I sincerely acknowledge those remarks.

She was a woman passionate in her pursuit of social causes and in her advocacy for those less fortunate, for those interested in education and for those with an engagement in the arts. I saw Margaret Whitlam over the decades as a prominent Australian woman. In making these observations this afternoon on behalf of the coalition I acknowledge her first in that capacity and then in her capacity as the wife of an Australian Prime Minister, for I believe that is how many, if not most, people saw her. As the wife of a Prime Minister, she was enthusiastic. She was energetic and—I believe well described as, not in a critical sense but in a simple observation of her approach—outspoken. She was a devoted mother and a devoted community worker. In her own right she was a frequent guest speaker, a broadcaster and a columnist, as we have heard today. The insights that she provided, not just into life in the Lodge but into life as the wife of our Prime Minister and the many travels that they took and the things that they saw, were, as I understand it, devoured by her devoted readers.

She was a passionate advocate of the rights of all women and of Australian women in particular. I know, as Senator Faulkner acknowledged, her service on the International Women's Year advisory committee marked a very important step in her participation in those particular matters at a more public level in Australian society. As an active member of the Labor Women's Conference, I am sure that she became a mentor to many of those engaged in the Australian Labor Party. I suspect that I do not even need to ask, because I would not be able to count them if I tried.

Her accompanying of the Prime Minister on his extensive travels—those first trips to places that she had not visited before, like China and Japan, India and North America and Europe—were the stuff of folklore, through her writing of them in her column on many occasions. Her hosting of official events at the Lodge was highly admired by those who attended.

I think Senator Faulkner did not acknowledge her participation as a panellist in the then popular television program Beauty and the Beast for some years leading up to the 1972 election, when her husband became Prime Minister. Beauty and the Beast saw, I suspect, more than its fair share of political participants of one colour or another, but that was another of her many firsts.

As I said, the insights that she gave to readers really opened up the character of the leading family of Australia over many years. It was her pursuit of social causes and it was her advocacy of education and the arts which very much marked her participation in those areas of the Australian community. It was not until I actually began to read the list this morning that I realised quite how prolific that contribution had been—and not from someone who had nothing else to do, by the way. The Sydney Dance Company; the Sydney Teachers College; the Sydney College of Advanced Education; the Law Foundation of New South Wales, as Senator Faulkner acknowledged; the ACT Council of Social Service; the National Opera Conference; Opera Australia itself; Musica Viva; the International Women's Year; the International Literacy Year; the College of Seniors; the Microsurgery Research Council; and, finally, the Australia-Ireland Council—all of those organisations and many unnamed benefited from her contribution. Unsurprisingly, in 1983 Margaret Whitlam received the Order of Australia for her tireless work in the community.

As Senator Faulkner has also mentioned, I—and I am sure many others in the chamber and other Australians—will never forget those evocative photographs of her in her Empire Games swimming costume, ready to compete for Australia. The pictures at Bondi in particular say so much about women in Australian sport, as well as all of her other contributions.

I know that she engaged with the community in Western Sydney, most particularly through the federal seat of Werriwa, in a way that probably had not been done before and will remain most firmly held in the minds of many of those who met her over those years.

All of the obituaries written in the last few days, all of the contributions in the Australian media, note her sense of humour. I suspect that you cannot live with Gough Whitlam for 70 years without having a fairly well developed sense of humour. I make that observation as a distant observer, but I suspect it stood her in very good stead. In the way of Sydney events, now and then once I entered the political sphere I would see her and Mr Whitlam at a number of events. It is not often I am the short girl in the room, but on those occasions beside Mrs Whitlam I most often was.

Some years ago for some time I participated actively in the Australian Republican Movement—much to the concern of many on this side of the chamber, I know, but they seem on most days to have gotten over it. I remember vividly—and I cannot recall whether or not Senator Faulkner was there—a group photograph being taken of the Australian Republican Movement on the steps of the Opera House. It must have been more than 10 years ago now. Both Margaret and Mr Whitlam were in attendance to commemorate with this photograph. It may have even been for the year 2000. We were all to be in serried ranks up the stairs of the Australian Opera House. Given that it was only about 10 or so years ago, age was already having its impact on their capacity to stand for a long time, particularly to stand on those extremely narrow Opera House stairs. So Mrs Whitlam turned around to see who she could find and she said: 'Senator, you're tall. You'll do. Come here.' So, under instruction, I moved up the few rows of stairs and stood between them as an anchor so that they did not fall down the stairs. Heaven only knows what would have happened if one of them had tilted just slightly one way or the other. But it is a very pleasant memory for me, and I always was glad that she was able to put aside political proclivities to allow me to be their anchor on that particular day.

To Mr Whitlam, to their children, Tony, Nick, Stephen and Catherine, on behalf of the coalition we extend our deepest condolences. It is an honour for me this afternoon to have the opportunity to acknowledge the life of Mrs Margaret Whitlam, AO on behalf of the coalition.