Young people in Labor talk of the years Gough Whitlam was in power as a golden age of action. Photo: Steven SiewertGough Whitlam dead at 98Changing a nation: What Gough Whitlam did in powerObituary: Martyr for a moment, hero for a lifetime
The outpouring began instantly and flowed through the day. It seemed no friend or follower could resist posting their tribute to Gough Whitlam. In the age of social media it becomes almost insensitive not to, as if the world might note your failure to sufficiently mark the occasion.
What struck me was the universality and intensity of worship from my fellow-travellers under 25. We had no experience of the man – he had barely delivered a public speech in our lifetime – but we were intimately familiar with his work. I spoke with a number of friends, some of them actively involved in politics, others on the periphery, about why.
Karen Chau, 23, migrated here from Hong Kong with her parents in 1997. The first thing they did was sign up for Medicare. That, and the more supportive and inclusive country for which she also credits Whitlam, loomed large in her parents’ decision to make Australia their home. Of all the prime ministers she studied at school, Whitlam was the one she singled-out for further reading.
“What [he] showed was that you could be an idealist, and you can enact those ideas into tangible reforms that leave a legacy and make a difference to people’s lives,” she said.
Shaun Crowe, 25, squeezed into his size-six childhood “It’s Time” T-shirt on Tuesday and wore it to work, where he tutors in Australian politics. “He’s probably the first politician that I looked up to,” he said of Whitlam. “It was the ambition of his person and his politics.”
For Crowe, it was Whitlam’s grand narrative that stood the test of time – seeing Australia “as a project that was worthy of being big”. That meant funding the arts, expanding access to higher education and healthcare, and involving everyone in the journey toward a “new nationalism”.
Young people in Labor talk of the Whitlam years as a golden age of action, when the candle burned half as long but twice as bright. Even those on the party’s right gush about that long-awaited victory in the dying days of 1972, and the injustice of the dismissal – a raw, human sadness about time cut short while there was still so much left to do.
“My grandparents brought me up on the Whitlam story,” said John Harding-Easson, 22, who met the man several times. “My grandma never spoke of something with as much passion.”
There is a reverence for Whitlam that transcends the bitter, sometimes immature divisions among young hacks. Greens admire him, if not as a hero of the left, then as someone who stood for and acted on principles that are absent in the modern ALP.
“A lot of Gough Whitlam’s reforms were the products of social movements of his time,” said Rafi Alam, 22. “But not actively working against the social movements of your time is more than you can say for any other PM in the past few decades.”
Conservative friends posted tributes that were genuinely heartfelt and appreciative. Some remarked, perceptively, that such bipartisan respect had not been granted upon the death of Margaret Thatcher. They all gave credit where it was due.
“A prime minister that not only inspired young people in his own party but inspired a generation of young right-wingers to enter politics and defend important institutions and values like the constitution and the free market,” Dean Shachar, a 19-year-old Liberal, said.
But time and time again, people came back to Whitlam’s social agenda. Social justice weighs on young shoulders in a way that economics does not – we are connected to a sense of fairness long before we are connected with mortgages and interest rates. Women’s rights and equal pay; returning land to Indigenous peoples; the Racial Discrimination Act – there is a consensus among the young that Whitlam embodied their hopes for this country’s future, long before their time.
Whitlam is the reference point for today’s disillusionment with politics. How busy and exciting those three years seem when pitched up against today’s timidity, soundbites and deference to committees, reviews and processes.
For people whose entire memory of politics is the blanket conservatism of Howard and the muddling centrism of Rudd and Gillard, Whitlam is a faint beacon of hope in the rear-view mirror. His legacy dares us to dream – that if a leader of such calibre could exist before, one might yet appear again. That if such zeal had once prospered, albeit briefly, its time may come once more.
Whitlam was remembered on Tuesday as a “giant of his era”, but this is inadequate. He was a giant of my era, too.
This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.