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Tuesday, 28 October 2014
Page: 12208

Dr CHALMERS (Rankin) (11:43): I am proud to stand here in the House of Representatives to celebrate a great Australian life. I was also proud to mark Gough's passing with my colleagues last Tuesday as we walked down to pay tribute at Old Parliament House on the steps where Gough made such a famous declaration and where he did his work in the old House of Representatives just down the hill. I am also particularly honoured to be joined in the chamber today by two great branch members from the Rankin electorate, Jeanette and Kevin Condran, who are in the gallery today. They are branch members of longstanding. They are part of the mighty Logan North branch, one of the greatest branches of the Labor Party anywhere in the country if I may say so! But they also lived in Gough's electorate of Werriwa. They lived in Green Valley. When Gough was the member for Werriwa but before he was the Prime Minister they used to drink beer with him at the Mount Pritchard Workers Club in Gough's electorate. Jeanette was a steward for the ETU and Kevin for the AWU. They used to spend time with Gough when he was their MP and before he was our Prime Minister.

Gough Whitlam was a leader, of course, but he was more than that. We have had many leaders in Australia, and some of them have been great, but we have only ever had one Gough and we only ever will. I like to think of him as a sculptor: his leadership, an act of vision and creation—a sculptor who imagined a perfect outcome and who pushed and prodded and polished and scraped and sanded to make it a reality.

Like other sculptors, the big man's masterpieces were subject to the criticism of those with smaller minds and smaller motivations. Sculpting required him to get his hands dirty as well; he was not too good nor too pure for that. At times, his was an untidy creation. He built, not a statue, but a nation; Australia as we know it—more modern and more confident than the one it replaced; more assertive and yet at the same time more generous. It was not a statue that he sculpted, of course: not a monument but a movement—a mission—one that inches forward still today. It is a movement and a mission that finds new purpose: in constitutional recognition of our Indigenous brothers and sisters; in marriage equality; in an Australian republic; in equal pay for equal work; in universal health care; in affordable higher education; in needs based school funding; and whenever we need to maintain our rage and enthusiasm, and wherever one Australian is treated less fairly than another

There is hardly an aspect of the modern Australian nation that Whitlam did not play a role in imagining and creating. For everyone whose life he changed, for all of us called to politics and public service and for the change makers in so many other fields of endeavour, his mighty and distinctive voice will echo through the ages, just like the melodic and distinctive voice of Paul Kelly will. In his famous tribute, Kelly sings of Whitlam:

Eight years went by, eight long years of waiting

Till one day a tall stranger appeared in the land

And he came with lawyers and he came with great ceremony

And through Vincent's fingers poured a handful of sand

That is one of the truly great Australian songs—real goose bump material, and it is about Gough.

I was thinking of it on Saturday as I took part in the Walk Together event, which finished on Carmody Street in Woodridge in my electorate. You see, Kev Carmody was Paul Kelly's collaborator in the writing of that song, From little things big things grow. They wrote it together—two great Australian poets, one white, one black—and later they performed it together as well.

I stood there in the middle of that proud parade of multicultural Australia on Carmody Street, thinking of the nation Gough found and the one that he left: the nation I was born into the same year he retired from the House of Representatives. I did not properly meet him beyond a handshake or two at campaign launches and national Labor conferences. But he taught my generation and the generations that followed something very important: that you can love your country and still desperately want to change it. In fact, he taught us that changing your country is the ultimate act of patriotism when that change is well considered and well motivated.

He also taught us that politics can be entertaining but it should never be trivial. We have heard some really funny stories about Gough in this condolence motion. But most of all we have heard of his achievements: free of trivia, free of pettiness, free of day-to-day polls and political commentary. And in recognising Gough Whitlam's extraordinary and selfless life we recognise that he could have instead lived a life of anonymous and comfortable privilege. Nobody forced him to join the Air Force to serve, but he did. Nobody forced him to dedicate his life to others, but he did. Because when he surveyed the Australia of mid-century, when he grasped the 'Menzian torpor', as Keating described it, he knew what needed to be done. He sculpted a new nation. Every Australian is strengthened by that creation, that contribution, and by his life.

I can only imagine how proud his family are of him—we all are—as they lay the great man to rest in eternal peace.