As for many others, the death of Gough Whitlam has sparked a great deal of reminiscing and nostalgia for me. Those heady years of Gough assuming leadership of the ALP then winning the 1972 election were the time of my own political awakening.
I grew up in a Labor voting household in the northern Brisbane suburb of Boondall. My knowledge of things political came mainly from the Courier Mail, which I read every morning before heading off to school then later to university. My first idea that the world was not as portrayed in the Courier Mail came strangely from my first tutorial in a 3rd Year Engineering subject at University of Queensland (UQ).
The tutor brought with him to class a book that he suggested that we all should read. To our surprise the title was not “Design of Structures” but “Vietnam and Australia” – the report of a fact finding mission to Vietnam by a Australian student delegation. Six of the class of 60 bought the book and this book had a profound impact on me.
I began attending the daily lunchtime meetings outside the Relaxation block at UQ and heard speakers give a very different view on current events in Vietnam to the mainstream media. A number of the speakers were Vietnamese and they spoke at great personal risk – their criticism of the corruption and failings of the South Vietnamese Government would no doubt cause them problems on their return to that country.
I joined the Vietnam Moratorium Movement and marched in both the Moratoriums held in 1970 and in the 1971 Moratorium. It was in 1970 that I first became aware of Gough Whitlam who was then leader of the ALP opposition in Federal Parliament and was on record as opposing Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War.
It was through involvement in the Moratoriums that I became aware of the world outside Australia. The same tutor who sold me the book on Vietnam gave a talk about his recent vacation experience in Papua New Guinea on a project sponsored by the Australian Union of students (AUS). I went to Papua New Guinea on my long vacation at the end of 1970 to be part of a leadership camp for Papua New Guinean High School students, held in Mount Hagen and sponsored by the AUS.
It was during that visit that I first met Gough Whitlam when, as Leader of the Opposition, Gough was touring Papua New Guinea and attended a public meeting in Mount Hagen to listen to people’s views on the topic of self-government. My next encounter was in 1972 when I went with my father to listen to Gough speak at the Homestead Hotel in Brisbane.
With thousands of others at that meeting, we were inspired by Gough’s vision of Australia that was outward looking and independent of the dictates of the US or the UK. From that meeting I had taken an “Its Time” bumper sticker which, not having a car, I proudly stuck on my briefcase.
Several days later I had an interesting brush with another political luminary of the time. As a newly graduated Civil Engineer I was working for the Queensland Government and my office was on the 10th floor of the Executive Building in George Street. On the 15th floor of the same building was the office of Premier Joh Bjelke-Peterson.
Coming to work that day, I got into the lift to go up to my office and who should follow me into the lift but Premier Joh. Though I had been working in the building for eight months that was the first time I had actually seen him. I remember raising my briefcase to chest height so that the sticker would be clearly visible. I am not sure if Joh saw it or not – he made brief eye contact then followed the usual lift protocol of turning to face the door. I exited at the tenth floor wondering if my action had been a wise career move.
In the lead up to the 1972 Federal election, I spent afternoons and weekends letterboxing for ALP candidate Frank Doyle in my North Brisbane electorate of Lilley. On December 2 1972 I was camped with friends on the banks of the Noosa River and I still remember our celebrations as news of the ALP victory came over the transistor radio. Lilley was one of the seats held previously by the Liberals that was won by the ALP in that election.
My next personal encounter with Gough was in Malaysia in early 1975. I was working as a lecturer at Universiti Pertanian (University of Agriculture) as part of the Australian Volunteers Abroad program. Gough was visiting Malaysia and Australian residents in Kuala Lumpur were invited to a reception at the Australian Embassy. My lasting memory is the sight of Gough and Margaret Whitlam standing alongside Malaysian PM Tun Razak and his wife – both of whom were quite short and of slight stature. I was amused to see a number of Malaysian people at the reception craning their necks to see if the Whitlams were standing on a raised platform.
I keenly remember that fateful day 11 November when news reached us of the Dismissal. I shared a small flat on the university campus with Greg, another Australian volunteer. A colleague Graham roared into our front yard on his motor cycle and yelled out to us “The bastards have sacked Gough”. The three of us encouraged all the Australians we knew to vote in the ensuing election. Needless to say we were devastated at the result.
So much has been said in the past week about Gough’s legacy. A ironic sign of his greatness is that currently we have a government apparently dedicated to dismantling the advances made by his government. We have a PM and Foreign Minister prepared to do whatever it takes to keep the US happy, an Education Minister hell bent on removing all traces of equal opportunity in our higher education system, a Treasurer committed to increasing inequality in our society, an Environment Minister who is quite happy to have the Barrier Reef destroyed on his watch, a health minister keen to bring back user-pays health care … need I continue?
Gough for all his perceived arrogance never lost his sense of humour or the ability to laugh at himself. Our current leaders –Labor leaders included – take themselves oh so seriously. This for me is perhaps the scariest thing of all.