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Tuesday, 28 October 2014
Page: 12185

Mr CHESTER (GippslandParliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Defence) (10:10): I join with the member for Ballarat and others who have already spoken in relation to this condolence motion. I am humbled to speak in relation to our 21st Prime Minister, the Hon. Edward Gough Whitlam, known universally as Gough. On behalf of all Gippslanders, I would like to extend my condolences to the Whitlam family, particularly his children—Tony, Nick, Stephen and Catherine—and also the Australian Labor Party. Our political parties are a bit like our extended families and Gough was the patriarch of the modern Labor family.

I would also like to acknowledge the members and senators from all sides who reflected so fondly on the memory of Gough Whitlam. I think we saw last Tuesday parliament at its absolute best. The condolence motion spoken on by the opposition leader, the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister and others reflected very favourably on the way this House can pull together at appropriate times and rise to a higher standard, and I think the Australian people deeply appreciate it when we manage to reach those levels.

It was a celebration of a momentous life, and there is no question or any suggestion that Gough Whitlam ever adopted the small-target strategy which seems so popular in modern politics. Gough lived life large and to the full, and it is a great credit to him and his family that he was able to excite political debate at a time when the Australian community was desperate for someone of his ilk. So it is important that we use these events—and I cannot for a second suggest it is a sad event, because I think it is actually a celebration of a magnificent life—to recognise former leaders of our nation, particularly one who lived to the ripe age of 98 and continued to make a contribution well into what other people may regard as retirement years, often at great personal sacrifice and sacrifice from his family as well.

I do not think this is a time or a place to be running a report card on the former Prime Minister, on how we think he performed, either at the time or afterwards. I even saw on the weekend a media outlet encouraging people to give him a score out of 10, which I think is a great disservice to a Prime Minister. Whether he was 'Australia's greatest Prime Minister' or 'not our best Prime Minister' I do not think particularly matters. It is not for us mere mortals to make those assessments of a man of Mr Whitlam's great ego, if you like, as reflected on by other members last week.

Everyone will have their own opinions, but I think we can focus on the things that we do agree on—and that is, that he was a giant of political life in Australia. He was a powerful motivating force who sought to make a difference, and I think that is a great contribution. What really matters, I think, is that Gough Whitlam showed great pride, determination and passion for Australia and he pursued his policy agenda. He knew what he wanted and he set out to achieve that agenda with great passion and vigour.

I think these are the qualities that the Australian people are looking for today, perhaps even more so than in the past. They want to see members on both sides of this chamber coming here with a clear vision, a determination to participate in the great contest of ideas this parliament provides for, and pursuing their agenda with passion but with respect for each other. I think we can have a robust contest in this place—at all times we have a robust contest—but we can maintain a level of wit and good humour which I think Gough Whitlam demonstrated on many occasions.

I think there can be few more appropriate examples of members who have come to this place with a clear vision of how they wanted to shape the nation, in their mind for the betterment of the nation. I do not think we need to agree, as I said, on his success or failure, but surely we can agree that he was determined to make a difference. He had a relentless optimism and a belief in our nation.

I think the media, perhaps unfairly, over the last week or so have used the passing of Gough Whitlam to reflect on the inadequacy of current politicians and the current parliament. I would encourage the media to be a little bit less churlish in that regard. I am not going to stand here and lecture the media, but I think they could be a little bit less churlish. Rather than make comparisons with Gough Whitlam and his era and use the occasion to reflect adversely on members of the current parliament, take the time to meet many of the members in this chamber, on both sides of the House, and you will find many extraordinary community leaders who are doing some great work in their individual electorates. No-one gets elected to the House of Representatives without some ability. We may dispute the choice of the individual electorates. We may fiercely contest the next election and then try to defeat those individual candidates. But no-one makes it to the House of Representatives without some level of ability, something that appeals to their electorates. I think we have a shared passion and commitment to our individual regions. I encourage the media in that regard. Rather than reflect on the adequacy of current members of parliament, get out there, meet some of these people in their electorates and understand the work they do on a daily basis.

It is an opportunity for us to reflect on the great contribution that Gough Whitlam made to the Australian Labor Party in particular. It is an opportunity to recommit ourselves as members in this place to working together whenever we can. I accept there are many occasions when we do not agree. But, whenever we can, it is an opportunity to work together on some of these significant national projects of importance and to demonstrate the respect and personal integrity that we need to stand in this place and to have that great contest of ideas.

If there is one great legacy for Gough Whitlam—and take aside all the individual policy areas which we may dispute—it is that he excited a generation of young people to get interested in politics. His ideas excited debate in the community. He motivated young people in particular to show an interest in the great public debates of our time. He encouraged a generation to become engaged in the political process. As I learned last week, to my great surprise, that included our own Deputy Prime Minister. Warren Truss, the member for Wide Bay, remarked that many on this side were inspired to get involved in politics for the opposite reason. They thought it was necessary to stand up against some of the things that he stood for. I did indulge in a bit of tweeting at the time. I could not quite imagine my great leader and great friend the Deputy Prime Minister out there chanting slogans and manning the barricades with billboards. But you learn something every day. It is true that the member for Wide Bay was excited to enter politics through the activities of Gough Whitlam, though of course on the opposite side of the political agenda.

There were many great speeches last week and I will not go through them all now in terms of the contributions that people made. But I think the point made by the Leader of the Opposition that he articulated again last week was a very valid one. Gough's ambition went beyond his desire to service our nation. He wanted to transform it completely and permanently—and he did. And, as members here gather throughout the year, I say we all accept there are things we need to improve in our nation, that it is an ongoing process to continue to work wherever it is possible on the reforms that are required. I do not accept for a second that any government is perfect, nor do I accept that any government is a complete failure. I look at the previous government, the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd years, and I see some reforms which occurred in that time frame which I think will be reviewed quite positively by the electorate in the longer term. Perhaps the failure of that government relates more to the capacity to pay for some of the reforms when they were made. But there is ongoing reform required in issues related to education; child care; aged care; health services; making sure that people who are socially or economically disadvantaged have the support they require; making sure that we support older Australians in an ageing population; and, in an area where Gough Whitlam himself was an enormous reformer, Indigenous affairs. Particularly on the issue of land rights, that work continues today. I do not suggest for a second that we are anywhere near finished that journey, but I believe the Whitlam legacy in that regard has been a positive one and I am confident the members on both sides, members of good faith, are heading in the right direction in relation to Indigenous reforms and making sure that our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people get the support they need to be full and complete participants in our great nation.

So the work of government is never done and there is still need for enormous reforms, but I congratulate the Australian Labor Party and its patriarch of the modern era, Gough Whitlam, for the work they undertook in that tumultuous time. No-one is suggesting for a second they were not divisive days. No-one is suggesting for a second it was a perfect time. But it certainly did excite political interest in our nation.

Just briefly and in conclusion, I want to remark on a story that was retold to me by some of my local electorate residents. As far as I can tell, during his relatively short term in government Mr Whitlam only had limited opportunities to the visit the electorate of Gippsland. I did manage to find a speech where he was at the Gippsland Field Days. This was in 1974 at Lardner, near Warragul. This is not quite in my electorate but in the electorate of McMillan nearby. I would suggest it would have been a pretty tough crowd for a Labor Prime Minister. There were reports of heckling and jeering farmers armed with tomatoes. There were no reports that Warren Truss was in the crowd, but it was a tough crowd for a—

Mr Tehan: What about truss tomatoes?

Mr CHESTER: I acknowledge the member for Wannon. He would have hardly been a twinkle in his mother's eye at that stage!

It was 1974. But, with his usual charm, humour and robust debating style, he held his own and apparently placated the masses. He even thanked the crowd for receiving him so warmly. So I think that as Tony Abbott, the Prime Minister, said last week:

In person, it was hard to disagree with and impossible to dislike such a man …

I am sure his presence left an impression on the masses that gathered that day in 1974.

Finally, it would be remiss of me not to mention, as the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Defence, the contribution that our former Prime Minister Gough Whitlam made to the Royal Australian Air Force. Mr Whitlam signed up with the RAAF in 1941 and started training as a navigator/bomb aimer in May 1942. He was later posted to the RAAF No. 13 Squadron, operating out of the Northern Territory, Dutch New Guinea and northern Western Australia, often flying very long sorties. He served with distinction, as he went on to serve with distinction in this place, and the war experience no doubt emboldened his sense of public duty and the service which he maintained throughout his career both as a barrister and later as a parliamentarian.

It takes courage to be a RAAF officer. It takes courage to enter this parliament and to stand at the dispatch box and contest the great ideas that our nation needs to contest for its future. It was a brave decision by Mr Whitlam as opposition leader to visit China in 1971, and history will judge him very kindly for making that decision. Just look at our relationship now with our northern neighbours. It is a type of courage in decision making that we should all aspire to. As the Prime Minister said, there is a lot to be learnt from the giants of those times. As the Deputy Prime Minister said, some of the big changes Gough Whitlam influenced during his tenure are widely accepted now. He had the courage of his convictions and he acted upon them.

I will leave the final comments to the member for Sydney, who reflected that Gough Whitlam, in his own words, might be considered 'eternal but not immortal'. Certainly, when it comes to the story of our great nation, Gough Whitlam will always hold a special place. I commend the condolence motion to the House and I again extend my condolences, on behalf of the people of Gippsland, to the Whitlam family, its friends and the Australian Labor Party.