Press gallery veterans recall Whitlam era

Press gallery veteran Laurie Oakes was at the Sunnybrook Hotel in Cabramatta the night Gough Whitlam won the 1972 election.
Nanjing Night Net

Then a reporter for the Melbourne Sun, Oakes was writing a book on Whitlam’s campaign and was with the Labor leader and his staffers as the votes were being tallied.

“There was a look of relief on his face when the bloke operating the computer said, I think we can send the white smoke up the chimney now,” Oakes recalls. “He cracked open a bottle of champagne.”

Oakes remembers Australia’s 21st prime minister as a flawed but “special sort of bloke” who had to take on the Labor Party before he could challenge the Liberals.

“He genuinely wanted to change Australia for the better and had big ideas of how to do it,” Oakes said. “That crash through or crash approach he took, took guts.”

Oakes says Whitlam faced a tough Canberra press gallery, but he took the media seriously and was not the sort of politician who relied on talking points.

“He gave good answers to questions, often witty answers,” he said. “He had a wonderful wit.

“If you were wrong, he’d tell you in no uncertain terms.”

Ken Begg was the ABC’s political correspondent during the Whitlam years. He recalls arriving in Canberra as a young reporter in 1972 when there was a sense of change in the air.

“It was an exciting time,” he said. “And for my generation who grew up only knowing one government, a Liberal Coalition, it was a time of extraordinary change.”

Begg remembers feeling intimidated by “a giant of a man … a giant in intellect”.

“If you asked a foolish question you got pulled down very, very quickly,” he said. “I, as a young reporter, was slightly in awe of this man.”

Begg says he learnt more about Australia and issues such as health care and state rights from Whitlam than he did from any other prime minister.

“And, of course, Whitlam’s great humour,” he said. “I think that humour was quite often misunderstood.

“The last time I saw him in the Old Parliament House I was coming out of the toilet. And he turned to me and said, ah, Begg, new office, I see.”

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.


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