I was only five years old when the government of Edward "Gough" Whitlam was uncermoniously sacked and consigned to the political wilderness from whence it came and it is not an event I remember-despite the famous speech on the steps of Parliament House by the deposed Prime Minister in which he gloriously roared his famous statement, "Well may we say God save the Queen, because nothing will save the Governor General."
Today, many are mourning the passing of this great man and most, quite rightly, are remembering his towering achievements as Prime Minister in his three years in office rather than the ignominious dismissal which saw his government crumble. And rightly so. Even current conservative Prime Minister, Tony Abbott has managed to make an intelligent and respectful statement on the passing of Gough Whitlam. Wonders will never cease!
Whitlam's legacy stands for all to see. Universal healthcare, free education, no fault divorce laws, indigenous recognition, diplomatic relations with China, an end to conscription and our nation's involvement in the Vietnam War are just part of the change he introduced as he dragged Australia out of the moribund state it had found itself in after 23 years of conservative rule. Unfortunately, a combination of inexperience, arrogance and economic illiteracy and, I might add, bastardry and subterfuge by the Liberal Party in cahoots with the Governor General of the day, Sir John Kerr, saw this shining light distinguished in too short a time. But what a time it was!
Much has been written about "The Dismissal" and whether or not it was legal and the minutiae of those distant events is not something I am going to go into today. But I will say this. Whitlam's failure on November 11, 1975 proved what a great Australian he was above and beyond all else which has been said. Whitlam alone preserved parliamentary democracy and rule of law that day. A lesser man may well have torn it pieces.
Whitlam could have put up a fight. Recently, another former Labour Prime Minister, Paul Keating, who had just been elevated to cabinet in the Whitlam government declared that the dismissal of the government of the day in 1975 was nothing short of a coup d'etat and if it had been him he certainly would not have gone quietly.
Whitlam chose another path. He chose to let democracy take it's course, to go to the people and let them decide. Perhaps he thought right was on his side and the electorate would see it that way too. Perhaps he believed that parliamentary democracy should be respected more than it was on that miserable day in Canberra so long ago. In any case there were no guns produced. No one marched on Government House and strung Kerr from the rafters. The army stayed in their barracks and the police did what they were told. Labour government was washed away in an election landslide and although Gough had misjudged the mood of the people he had saved Australian democracy. This is where his true greatness lies for me.
Many will mourn Gough Whitlam's passing. Some will scoff at his memory. But no one can deny his place in Australian history. A giant has fallen and a nation will mourn his loss.
Vale Gough. You won't ever be forgotten.