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Memories of Gough

  • 22 October 2014

Gough Whitlam once asked me why there were so many social reformers to emerge from Queensland in the early 1970s. I told him it was simple. We had someone to whom we could react: Sir Joh Bjelke Petersen; and we had someone to inspire us: him. 

I have written elsewhere about Gough’s contribution to Aboriginal rights, human rights and international law. Here, I reflect on the man who inspired me so affectionately, so supportively, and with such a sense of fun. 

What he did for me, he did for countless other Australians who dreamt of a better world and a nobler Australia. Even his political opponents are forever in his debt for having elevated the national vision and for having given us a more complete and generous image of ourselves. 

On Sunday I happened to visit the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. I took the afternoon tour of American art. With pride, our guide ended the tour with Jackson Pollock’s painting No 10. I was able to tell her it was not a patch on Blue Poles, purchased by a visionary prime minister down under who copped all hell for spending a six figure sum on just one painting. That was our Gough. We are forever in his debt.

I will share three vignettes.

In 1980, I took a busload of boys from Xavier College to Canberra on a politics tour. Andrew Peacock was their local member. They gave him a hard time because of Malcolm Fraser’s boycott of the Olympics. I was anxious for them to meet Whitlam who was by then a visiting scholar at the Australian National University writing his large tome on the Whitlam years. 

The boys, many of whom came from households very sympathetic to the politics of B.A. Santamaria, were testy. Why did I want them to travel across town to meet a 'has been'? They had met their fill of politicians up at Parliament House. 

Gough wowed them. First he gave them morning tea, then he fielded their questions. The burly Dan Hess, with a passing wink to his school mates, asked, 'What was it like to be sacked?' Gough drew back and then moved forward, telling the young Christian gentlemen that the events of 1975 had to be seen in the context of the decline in traditions and institutions in our society. He then asked a rhetorical question in conclusion, 'For example, how many of you boys from