Condolence speech on the passing of EG Whitlam ACQC

  • Speech, E&OE

Edward Gough Whitlam looms large in our political history and in the national consciousness. While his Prime Ministership between 1972 and 1975 naturally features prominently in his political career, it is not often remembered that he was also the Minister for Foreign Affairs in the period 5 December 1972 until November 1973.

He was a person of great passion and boundless energy. Regarded as one of our great orators, his speeches had the power to move public opinion. As Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam was never satisfied with the status quo; he could always find ways to shift and change policy on so many fronts. His 1969 election campaign speech, for example, was more than 12,000 words long and included more than 80 separate policy announcements. This was an indication of what was to come. His policy announcements covered virtually every aspect of state and federal government responsibilities and included such commitments as signing the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, which was ratified under his prime ministership, and building stronger relations with Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia.

Some issues are enduring. Gough Whitlam was never one to shy away from risks or controversy. His decision to visit China as opposition leader in 1971 revealed the courage of his convictions in what was a path-breaking decision at the time. History records his angst at his decision to travel and whether or not he should send a delegation rather than go himself, but he had first argued in 1954 for the normalisation of relations with mainland China–a position then at odds with Labor's official policy platform–and so he took the bold political gamble to visit China at a high point in the Cold War. He was vindicated when it was revealed that the United States National Security Adviser, Henry Kissinger, had also been sent to Beijing by President Richard Nixon.

A clear indication of his approach to foreign policy came in his first press conference as Prime Minister on 5 December 1972, when he said:

The change of government does provide a new opportunity for us to reassess a whole range of Australian foreign policies and attitudes … the general direction of my thinking is towards a more independent Australian stance in international affairs, an Australia which will be less militarily oriented and not open to suggestions of racism; an Australia which will enjoy a growing standing as a distinctive, tolerant, co-operative and well regarded nation not only in the Asian and Pacific regions, but in the world at large.

In an earlier speech, in 1968, titled 'Australia as an Asian nation', Mr Whitlam showed considerable prescience as he argued strongly for the benefits of economic development and growth to be spread throughout Asia, and particularly South-East Asia, to ensure the peoples of our region were able to feed themselves. He said:

Australia's road-building teams in Thailand and–Indonesia–show what can be achieved for under-developed nations through the application of technical skills in conjunction with relatively minor amounts of capital. This is a form of aid particularly suited to a country which is itself an importer of capital and which is still engaged in major developmental works within its own borders. Australia cannot explore the possibilities of such aid too fully.

This is consistent with the contemporary approach of many aid agencies and governments around the world, including the Australian government, as we seek greater levels of economic growth as a means of alleviating poverty and lifting living standards.

Back in opposition, he was a fierce critic of the government's foreign policy. In a parliamentary speech of 1976, no doubt with memories of recent political events uppermost in his mind, he launched into the foreign policy of his prime ministerial successor with all the flourish that only he could muster and for which he was renowned. I will not try to mimic the voice, but I can hear him saying:

For all its veneer of realism and lofty principle, the statement of the Prime Minister … on foreign affairs was one of the most regrettable and reactionary speeches we have heard in this House. … It displayed the same intellectual impoverishment and ideological rigidity as distinguish the Prime Minister's views on domestic and economic matters.

He went on to talk about:

...its mixture of cold war rhetoric and apocalyptic doom saying–all this rattling of antique sabres and blowing of rusty bugles–

After retiring from parliament in 1978, Gough Whitlam continued to serve this nation as Australia's Ambassador to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, and he also chaired the Australia-China Council.

One of the enduring features of his long years as a political leader, ambassador and academic was his partnership with Margaret, his beloved wife of almost 70 years. Like Gough, Margaret was never afraid of voicing her opinions, sometimes to the discomfort of her husband. She said in the 1950s:

I say what I think when I want. I am not a mouthpiece for my husband or for the ALP and it is very frustrating for me when people assume that I am.

Adding to Gough's list of policy ideas, Margaret gave a wide-ranging interview, shortly after her husband had been elected as Prime Minister in 1972, in which she advocated for the legalisation of abortion, marijuana, de facto relationships and equal pay for women. Margaret said that, while she lacked the energy to march in street protests, she was a supporter of the feminist movement. In one memorable speech in response to what she perceived as negative media coverage of her husband, she labelled the members of the press as 'vultures' and 'praying mantises'. The Whitlams were a formidable team. The rich tapestry of their life together is interwoven into our national history. The story of Gough and Margaret Whitlam is one of devotion and dedication–to each other, to our community, to our nation. I join with our parliamentary leaders in extending my condolences to the Whitlam family.

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