*Scroll down to read the full tribute speech in parliament from New England MP Barnaby Joyce.
TRIBUTES are flowing from across the political divide for former Prime Minister Gough Whitlam, remembered as a political colossus, social visionary and friend of regional NSW.
Mr Whitlam, who was elected to the top job in 1972 before being sensationally dismissed from office three years later, passed away today, age 98.
He has been credited with making Australia a more inclusive and compassionate society, delivering free university education and universal healthcare, ending conscription and the death penalty and making Advance Australia Fair our national anthem.
A deeply polarising figure, particularly in conservative strongholds like the New England/North West, Mr Whitlam last visited the region in 1995 as Tamworth’s Australia Day ambassador, also opening the new visitor’s information centre.
Tamworth Shire Council deputy mayor at the time James Treloar said Mr Whitlam’s visit divided the community.
“We got hate mail when people found out he’d be opening the visitor’s centre,” Cr Treloar said.
“But he was just wonderful: enormously intelligent, a great speaker and a fantastic sense of humour.
“He gave greater social justice to Australia than any other person.
“He was a true statesmen who thought about the next generation, not just the next election.”
It was Mr Whitlam’s charisma and towering presence that most struck local ALP life member Bill Forrest.
“I met him that day and everyone wanted to shake his hand,” Mr Forrest, a former ALP candidate, said.
“He had an incredible presence about him and made an enormous contribution to Australian political history.”
Tamworth woman Charna Graham had a more personal recollection of Mr Whitlam, having become friends with him while operating a business next to his electorate office in Liverpool in the early 70s.
“We knew him quite well socially and he was very charming and always a gentleman,” Mrs Graham said.
“When he walked into a room, you knew he was there, and not because he spoke the loudest.”
New England MP Barnaby Joyce praised Mr Whitlam in parliament as man of “bravado and presence”.
“This bravado and colour gave Whitlam presence,” Mr Joyce said.
“This bravado and colour was emblematic of courage, and courage and presence gave nurture to vision-courage, presence, vision and wit.
“Whitlam was a breath of fresh air.
“Whitlam also had a vision of decentralisation. Gough Whitlam showed this vision in pushing the Labor Party to adopt policies that pushed their focus past the outer suburbs of major cities and into regional towns and growth centres of inland Australia.”
MP JOYCEPAYS TRIBUTE TO WHITLAM
I rise to concur with the remarks that have been made. I remember few things from when I was eight, but I certainly remember where I was on 11 November 1975, as I suppose many people in this room do. I must admit that the discussion that happened under the banana palm at Henderson Street, Valla Beach between ourselves and our neighbours showed two distinct sides of a political fence. But why was it that one person could have such an emblematic effect on the Australian people? Why was it that one person had the capacity to draw people out? Why was it that one person had so much presence?
At six foot four inches tall Margaret said that he was the most delicious thing she had ever seen, and it is with great loyalty that their relationship, their marriage lasted for so long and was so self-fulfilling for both of them. But I think to remember Whitlam we have to look at the colour of the person—the wit of the person—and I think the retort from Charlie Jones is one of the classics that remain. Whitlam in describing himself said:
I travel economy and I’m a great man, and I could travel economy the rest of my life and I’d still be a great man. But most of the people around this table—
and that was the cabinet—
are pissants, and they could travel first class the rest of their lives and they’d still be pissants.
This bravado and colour gave Whitlam presence. This bravado and colour was emblematic of courage, and courage and presence gave nurture to vision—courage, presence, vision and wit. Whitlam was a breath of fresh air. He stepped away from the former doctrinaire process of politics. He was a staple that heralded a new political age. He was the new Labor leader. He was a Labor leader from a new form of schooling. He was seen in many instances as Liberal in his views. My parents when they had a choice between McMahon or Whitlam voted for Whitlam. They didn’t the second time. But this was how he was seen: he was seen as visionary.
His courage was evident when, at the outbreak of World War II, he joined the Sydney University Regiment in 1939. He did not need to be called; he joined. His courage was seen when he advanced to the rank of flight lieutenant and was in the 13 Squadron, flying a Lockheed Ventura bomber, I believe.
His courage was present when he stood up for funding for Catholic schools. I would like to quote something from 10 August 1969 at the Sydney Town Hall, when there was a rally and those who stood up against Catholic school funding were heckling him from the audience. He looked at them, to one lady in particular, and said, ‘Go back to Belfast!’ From a person who had been schooled at Knox Grammar, who had grown up on the Protestant side of the fence, it was yet another statement of a person who had real courage and commitment, who would stand against the crowd.
His courage was there when he was threatened with disendorsement by the Labor Party. His courage was there when he resigned on behalf of Brian Harradine, because Brian Harradine was not going to be given a position on executive. He stood to the challenge of a vote and won the vote. This is the reason the person is a giant. This is the reason the person is emblematic. This is the reason the person has character. And this is the reason this person is so well remembered.
Whitlam also had a vision of decentralisation. Gough Whitlam showed this vision in pushing the Labor Party to adopt policies that pushed their focus past the outer suburbs of major cities and into regional towns and growth centres of inland Australia. Gough once said in the parliament:
One of the saddest things in Australia is that whenever one goes to the country one finds a local newspaper and a report of farewell for some teenager or man or woman in his or her early 20s who is leaving for the city.
By which is meant the state capital. It is something that still happens too often today. The results of the Whitlam government’s regional initiatives and that subsequent governments have been mixed. Still, Whitlam introduced changes to regional development policy that persist today. He substantially extended the use of section 96 to provide direct Commonwealth payment to local governments, including introducing a Commonwealth Grants Commission process to make payments to local governments based on need. Under special legislation introduced by the Whitlam government, Australia was carved into 76 regions with different types of regional organisations established in them. One of those was the Western Sydney Regional Organisation of Councils. WSROC still exists today and most local governments are members of regional cooperative societies and surrounding administrations. He established the Albury-Wodonga Development Corporation, the results of which are seen in a population in excess of 100,000 people today.
Whitlam also was a person who saw his future and the future of the nation in education and in his engagement with China with Zhou Enlai. Whitlam was also a person of strong intellect and a student of the classics. He used his prize money from winning the 1948 and 1949 Australian National Quiz Championship as part of his deposit on a house. The other part came from his war service loan. This was a house in Cronulla.
But Whitlam in a way helps us to find who we are. Yes, at times, it became tribal—it became, in some instances, hostile. But he was a person who helped everybody to find where they stood politically. I must admit that there are so many on this side who found their way into politics, as noted by the Deputy Prime Minister, because of an opposition to some of what Whitlam represented. But no-one ever doubted the integrity of his beliefs. No-one ever doubted the strengths of his beliefs. No-one ever doubted his passion. No-one ever had to be told twice as to what he was saying. It was quite clear he knew who he was and he knew where his nation was to go.
A notable anecdote has been given to me by one of the staff in my office. She was working with the Australian high commission in Nigeria in 1980 and recalls a delightful visitor, Whitlam, who after he had left politics came as part of a delegation. She recalled how he was charming and witty as a dinner guest. Coincidentally, a Frenchvin ordinairewas served for dinner with a brand of Agneau Blanc. He declared his gratitude that she had served such an appropriately named wine. He took the empty bottle back to his room, soaked the label off as a memento, and gave it to her. She also received a charming note. That is also a statement of the humility of a person who looks into the heart of someone that is just passing by and makes sure that their life is a better place by meeting them.
After Whitlam came Hawke. Many would say that because of Whitlam came Hawke. Whitlam deserves the honour of our nation as one of the great politicians of our time, one of the great politicians of our era. In so doing we also remember the life of Margaret and offer our condolences to the children of their union: Nick, Tony, Stephen and Catherine. May he rest in peace.
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