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Tuesday, 28 October 2014
Page: 12207


Mr WATTS (Gellibrand) (11:39): Where to start in paying tribute to Gough Whitlam? Given the stature of the man, particularly as an orator and a wit, it is impossible not to feel inadequate to the task. Many members on this side of the House will pay tribute to the pantheon of Gough's achievements, initiatives that changed lives and changed our nation. I want to narrow my focus and pay tribute in this House to the way that Gough changed the Labor Party. Over the preceding week we have seen the history wars play out, both in this chamber and in the broader community about the meaning of Gough's legacy to Australia. Given the nature of his times and his leadership, it would be disappointing if this was not the case.

But we should always remember that Gough was nothing if not a moderniser. The sine qua non of Gough's achievements, the achievement that made all of the rest possible, was the way he changed the Labor Party. Gough Whitlam changed the Labor Party from an inwards looking, sectarian, ideologically obsessed movement into an outwards looking party, focused on the practical measures needed to both secure government and to increase the standards of living of Australians in our cities, suburbs and regions. In this respect, many of Gough's greatest achievements were chalked up during his time as opposition leader.

On this side of the House, we should acknowledge that the rigid, resistant orthodoxies that Gough confronted, the ideological intransigence that he crashed through, was just as often located on this side of the House. Indeed, his description of his leadership style as 'crash or crash through' was made not in reference to Fraser's obstructionism, but to the 1960s Labor Party's resistance to the change that he sought to bring, an intransigence that saw one of my predecessors, Hec McIvor, spend his entire 17 year career in this place in opposition.

Gough was an extraordinary individual, the likes of which we will probably never again see in this place, but the reason that he was so transformative for Australia, was because the Labor Party had been so bad for so long. We had failed Australia for decades before Gough ushered in three years of glorious change. Gough gave the 1967 Victorian Labor Party conference the defining articulation of the Labor Party's reason for being. He reminded us of our mission: to change the country for the working man. He told us that we were not founded to be a protest group. He said: 'The men who formed the Labor Party in the 1890s knew all about power. They were not ashamed to seek it and they were not embarrassed when they won it.'

At this time—the late 1960s, early 1970s—the idea that Gough would be remembered today as a paragon of ideological purity would have been laughable. Gough was bigger than the received ideological orthodoxy of his time. He understood that, unlike the Tories, no Labor opposition has ever been elected off the back of the same ideological agendas as the preceding Labor government. Gough understood better than anyone that Labor must always be a party that is relevant to contemporary times, relevant to the lives and aspirations of contemporary Australians, not engaged in byzantine ideological navel gazing and internal sectarianism. That is the reason Labor won government in 1972, and that is the reason we are remembering his achievements today. For that reason, the thing that I will always remember above all about Gough Whitlam was that he was nothing if not a moderniser. You can say whatever else about him, but that much will remain true.

Because Gough meant so much to members of the Labor Party, I wanted to finish my contribution with some reflections from my branch members on the great man. In deference to the other members in this chamber I will limit myself to one story. Terry Cuddy, one of my branch members told me about a meeting he had with Gough in 1975:

Back in September 1975, I went to Canberra with a high school excursion from Melbourne. We were at ANU on the day, and Gough was set to arrive to deliver a speech. There had been protests about his government and there was a rowdy protest at the Uni by the Young Liberals. Scuffles were going on and there was a robust verbal tirade from the Tories. It was pissing down with rain, thunder and lightning. The word went around that Gough was unlikely to turn up. And then the car arrived, the clouds parted, the sun shone and the birds starting singing. Gough arrived. There were smiles all around, and cheers from everyone—including the Young Liberals.

And really this sums up Whitlam's broader impact on our nation. It was rainy in Australia, there was thunder and lightning, and then the clouds parted, the sun shone and the birds started singing. Gough arrived and there were smiles all around. Thanks Gough.