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Tuesday, 28 October 2014
Page: 12209

Mr GRAY (Brand) (11:50): The death of Edward Gough Whitlam is a time to celebrate the aspirations that Gough brought to public life. Gough showed us that a political life can make a difference.

My first memory of Gough Whitlam is from television and radio in the late 1960s and early 1970s. I was in primary school in Whyalla, South Australia, living in state housing. My dad worked at the local steel works and my mum was a cleaner. We used to watch TV or listen to the radio just to hear Gough.

While the Gorton and McMahon governments were descending into chaos, Gough was calm, dominant and determined. He used humour to win arguments. He used scholarship to gain perspective. He learned from history and he taught great lessons. Gough's style, energy and agenda spoke to us and we listened.

Gough Whitlam's impact on Australian politics began with the renewal of his party. He gave confidence to the faithful that Labor could be more than a party of opposition and complaint. Gough listened, learned and built a framework for modern Australian politics. He broadened the appeal of Labor beyond the traditional union-working class base. And he prepared Labor for government, developing shadow ministers, policy agendas and a modern world view.

He had a legendary memory, I introduced my wife, Deborah Walsh, to him, he kissed Deb and asked how Rosalie was—Deb's mum—who Gough would have met some 20 years before. Gough was, indeed, a terrific politician.

Through 20 difficult years of division and opposition Whitlam built his program, piece by piece. A modern Australia was his program, his project and his passion. He used the parliament to effect great change and as Prime Minister he used government to implement that change. He introduced a system of universal health care, abolished university fees, recognised Aboriginal land rights, supported equal pay for women, embraced multiculturalism, cut tariffs and agricultural subsidies and he celebrated Australia's identity.

He was the first Australian prime minister to recognise the People's Republic of China. He met Chairman Mao and created the diplomatic trade ties that have underpinned our relationship with China today. Gough poured a handful of desert dirt into Vincent Lingiari's hand as a symbol of dignity, prior ownership and Aboriginal land rights. Gough understood the importance of images and the media. He rose to dominate the political landscape at a time when his presence was most needed. He reimagined the role of government in Australian society, and he did it all with incredible confidence.

His government was disrupted by the 1973 oil shock and instability in global commodity and currency markets around the world, and at home unemployment began to rise. His government was not his equal. My father-in-law, Peter Walsh, was a Labor senator elected in the 1974 double dissolution election. Peter said Gough's ministers let Gough down. They were not up to Gough's standards. This taught us all great lessons about governance, lessons that were learned by Hawke and Keating. Without Gough, there could not have been a Hawke or a Keating government. Australia is now more tolerant, fair and equal because of Gough Whitlam. Following the tumultuous sacking of the Whitlam government, Gough urged his supporters to maintain public order and protest at the ballot box. He was forever a democrat.

Gough's wife, Margaret, was his equal, his ballast and his partner. She would moderate, manage and support him. We loved Margaret. Peter Walsh told me once that Gough inspired great loyalty. He remembered walking with Gough through the corridors of Old Parliament House to the opposition party room that November day in 1975.

In the middle 1980s, Gough was not fashionable in Labor circles. His book The Whitlam Government explained and defended his government. Eventually, Gough won that battle too, not just to be history but to tell it. Gough built his government and was the strength of that government. When it fell, he fought for it and he defended it against his opponents; he wrote its history and made it great. It is an epic story.

In many ways, Gough was the kind of politician that we need to see more of: humorous, educated, enlightened, courageous, engaged, resilient and persistent. Gough was a leader for the ages, a leader who cared for the rights and dignity of Aboriginal Australians, a leader who understood Northern Australia, a leader who cared for the arts, a leader for ideas, a leader who made us proud to be Australian and a leader who, although he loved Australia, still wanted to see it changed. He was a leader who made us proud to be Labor.