Former prime minister Malcolm Fraser said Gough Whitlam was in some ways a mythological figure. Photo: Justin McManusSix former prime ministers helped lead tributes to Labor legend Gough Whitlam on Tuesday, highlighting his contributions to Australian life in the arts, civil society and on the international stage.
Former Liberal prime minister Malcolm Fraser, who replaced Mr Whitlam in the dramatic days of the 1975 dismissal, credited his former rival with opening new doors in Australia and helping “to show the possibility of a new and perhaps better future” after leading the ALP out of the political wilderness of 23 years of conservative rule.
“He is in some ways almost a mythological figure, he is revered, whatever the success or shortfalls of his government, he has played an enormously important part in Australians’ life and that can’t be taken from him,” he told Fairfax Media.
Mr Whitlam was a formidable parliamentary performer and a tough opponent, Mr Fraser said, but he had “never had the feeling he carried personal animosity to me as a result of 1975” and nor had the pair discussed those days as “he knew and I knew what the facts were”.
“As we met at different forums, mostly overseas initially, the ice began to break and we established a friendship … it was only later we developed a closeness and a friendship, after we left the Parliament.”
Bob Hawke said the simple truth was “Australia is a better country because of the life and work of Gough Whitlam”.
The longest-serving Labor prime minister said Mr Whitlam would be remembered for everything from civic improvements that put in place sewerage services in Australia’s newer suburbs, through more equitable health and education services, to his vision as an international statesman.
“If you look at the two fundamental issues which determine the welfare of ordinary people, that’s health and education. He was absolutely profoundly important in transforming both those aspects of the lives of ordinary Australians,” he said.
Paul Keating, who served briefly as a junior minister in the final days of the Whitlam government, said the Labor leader had “changed the way Australia thought about itself and gave the country a new destiny”, helping create a more inclusive and compassionate society that was more engaged in the world.
“He snapped Australia out of the Menzian torpor – the orthodoxy that had rocked the country asleep, giving it new vitality and focus. But more than that, bringing Australia to terms with its geography and place in the region,” he said in a statement.
“Along his journey he also renovated the Labor Party, making it useful again as an instrument of reform to Australian society. He will missed by all who identified with his values and determination to see Australia a better place.”
John Howard said Mr Whitlam, who had been prime minister when he entered Parliament in 1974, was possessed of high intelligence, a commanding presence and strong beliefs that left a lasting impact on Australian politics.
“Fundamental to his policy attitudes was Gough Whitlam’s belief that an activist and interventionist national government was always the appropriate response to Australia’s challenges. Whilst there will always be debate on such a proposition, Whitlam’s commitment to it permeated his actions in government.”
And Kevin Rudd, who like Mr Whitlam led Labor out of a long stint in the political wilderness, said Mr Whitlam had left an “indelible mark on Australia” and “Australia will always be the better for it”.
Mr Whitlam’s courage in serving with the RAAF during the Pacific War was often forgotten, Mr Rudd said, as “some also forget his political courage, profound foresight and sheer statesmanship when as leader of the opposition, in the anti-Communist hysteria of the time, he visited China, met Mao and Zhou Enlai, and undertook to recognise China if elected in 1972. Which promptly he did,” he said.
On the domestic front, “Gough’s instinctive embrace of indigenous Australians, and their rights to land, particularly at a time when racism was still alive and well in our country, has made him an unassailable hero in the hearts and minds of our Aboriginal brothers and sisters,” he said.
“Just as his introduction of the Racial Discrimination Act fundamentally reshaped our laws.”
Julia Gillard said Mr Whitlam would be remembered for his impact on Australia’s universities, Medicare, family law, land rights for indigenous Australians and improving relations with China.
This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.