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Memories of Gough


Gough Whitlam dies from SkyNews

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 Xavier College would ever contemplate becoming a Jesuit nowadays?' No one answered, but the remark had some impact on the now Fr Edward Dooley SJ.

In 1981, Gough was awarded an honorary doctorate of letters. I had written congratulating him on his receipt of an honour which was both appropriate and ideologically sound. It was some months before I heard back from him, having had no expectation of a response. Then some months later again, he worked his way across a crowded room to speak to me. We both had the advantage of being considerably taller than most of our companions in the crowd. 

He asked, 'Did you get my letter?' I told him how pleased and honoured I was. He asked, 'Did it arrive with Vatican stamps?' Indeed it had. He had instructed the embassy officials in Rome that the letter had to be posted from the Vatican. The envelope bore the crest of the English College. The letter commenced with words to this effect: 'It is with great pleasure that I write you this, my first letter from the Romans, and I do so from the most fashionable address in the eternal city.'

In late 1997, I landed at Sydney airport, having flown in from Broome, and was about to make my way back to St Canice’s Church in Kings Cross. Gough and the good 'Dame Margaret' (as he liked to refer to his beloved) were there. 

He offered me a lift in their government limousine. On arrival at the church, I asked whether he liked mangoes as I had some splendid ones from the Kimberley. He replied, 'I do, and Dame Margaret loves them.' 

A few weeks later, I was preparing for the funeral of Nugget Coombs in St Mary’s Cathedral Sydney. There had been a little tension in the background between Prime Minister John Howard’s office and Aboriginal leader Patrick Dodson about what should be said in Dodson’s eulogy about Aboriginal self-determination and conflict with government. It was at the height of controversy over the Wik ten point plan. Some last minute changes were made to Dodson’s text.  

With only minutes to spare, I made it out onto the front steps of the Cathedral to welcome the official mourning party, including Mr Howard, Mr Dodson and Sir William Deane. The TV cameras were in close proximity. Then up the steps came Gough, oblivious of all controversy. He grasped me firmly by the hand and with that glint in the eye said, 'Father, the mangoes were magnificent.' It was a blessed moment.

During the service, Gough, who was fond of describing himself as 'a fellow traveller – not so much a pillar of the Church but rather one of those flying buttresses you find on European cathedrals', came up onto the sanctuary to deliver his own eulogy. 

This is how he commenced: 'Prime Ministers like to describe themselves as the servants of the people. The most striking claim of the Supreme Pontiff is to be the servant of the servants of God. If, in this setting, and as the last of the seven Prime Ministers whom Coombs served, I were to suggest an epitaph for him, it would be 'the servant of the servants of the people.' Everyone laughed; we were all at ease; Gough was in command. He concluded that eulogy with words I now apply to him:

At some time or in some place or in some way the life of everybody in this gathering and in our country would have been touched by Nugget's manifold activities and enriched by his talents. He was given many talents. He produced great dividends on them. All Australians can say, in the words of the parable, 'well done, thou good and faithful servant'. 

We can all join a chorus of 'Amen, Alleluia' to that. Farewell loyal friend of many, dedicated leader of the nation, and visionary servant of the people in the great south land of the Holy Spirit.

Frank BrennanFrank Brennan SJ, professor of law at Australian Catholic University, is presently Gasson professor at the Boston College Law School.

Topic tags: Frank Brennan, Gough Whitlam, federal politics, Joh Bjelke-Petersen, Nugget Coombs, John Howard



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Existing comments

Hi Father Frank I enjoyed the 3 vignettes very much and I appreciate you taking the time to do a quick story on Gough.

brian stacey | 21 October 2014  

Thanks for sharing personal moments about a wonderful PM and a great Australian with us. RIP Gough and blessing to you Frank.

Jeff Bradley | 21 October 2014  

Many thanks for sharing your recollections with us. Inspirational, visionary who did change Australia. May he rest in peace.

Janice Glass | 21 October 2014  

Thank you for sharing these wonderful stories. Australia has lost an extraordinary Australian.

Marie Ryan | 22 October 2014  

Yes, the term Olympian could be applied to The Great Gough. He had a Zeus-type majesty about him. And a sense of vision that no Australian leader since then has ever embodied. Such a pity the 1974/5 recession cruelled his and the Labor Government’s chances to continue to transform Australia into a just and equitable society where “the light on the hill” would have been a little closer for us all. Though he was an atheist, one would like to think that he is now holding court in the Fields of Elysium, suitably robed like Cicero, another great republican, draped in a flowing white toga, fringed with purple lace, a crown of laurel leaves bedecking his great domed forehead, expounding on the glories of antiquity with like-minded companions. ..

Dennis | 22 October 2014  

Fr. Frank I have admired and appreciated your comments on many issues from afar. I was deeply moved by your memories of Gough which echoed to me the sensitivities of a wise and kind man. May he be enjoying 'mangoes' in the heavenly kingdom and much more! Yvonne harte

Yvonne Harte | 22 October 2014  

Lovely piece thanks

Greg San Miguel | 22 October 2014  

Thank you Father Frank: Gough made a strong and positive difference to our national life and my life. Here's to an Australia worthy of the vision of such people.

John Cranmer | 22 October 2014  

A lovely reflection about a dear friend, Frank. Gough will be remembered as a reforming Prime Minister, a Labor statesman, a great wit and a fine family man. I liked Paul Keating's words on 7.30 Report last night too.

Pam | 22 October 2014  

Unfortunately Gough wasn't so generous and gracious towards my family and never once in 40 years bothered to contact Mum about her son's murder at Balibo East Timor on his watch in 1975

Paulie Stewart | 22 October 2014  

Thanks Father for adding your welcome insights that interestingly and personally point up some of the many facets of Gough Whitlam - a great, towering, larger than life character in the firmament of Australian politics. Australia is a better, different country because of the service rendered it by Gough and his place is secure in it's momentous history. RIP Gough Whitlam, our very colourful, respected and great former Prime Minister.

Terry Fitzgerald | 22 October 2014  

A better world? A nobler Australia? Not so for many children who have suffered through the "no fault" divorce laws introduced during his time as PM that provided an easy way out for many who wouldn't do the hard yards.

Pat | 22 October 2014  


Peter Goers | 22 October 2014  

There is no doubt that the old-time left (or preferably old timers!) within the NSW Labor party viewed this rising star, smart lawyer Gough Whitlam, with suspicion when he first appeared alongside Arthur Caldwell at party meetings in the late 50s. But he more than proved himself to them and to the Nation to be a great leader and visionary. His legacy lives on today and we are most grateful for his revision, no, his shaking of the Australian political scene. The 1975 “coupe” hit the true believers very hard and deeply – it seemed like the whole of ANU came to a standstill that morning as groups formed around campus to mull over the events unfolding around Parliament and Government Houses. As Keating rightly said it produced a long lasting and deep split between the rival parties. Rest now Gough.

Jim Boland | 22 October 2014  

Frank, this is great to read. I heard one story which may be apocryphal. Apparently, a prominent Catholic politician urged Gough to become a Catholic, suggesting that he might like to be buried from St Mary's cathedral. Gough asked how much it would cost to be buried in the cathedral itself. The politician said a tomb there might cost a lot. 'But,' said Gough, 'I'd only need it for three days.' RIP.

Michael McGirr | 22 October 2014  

Note wrong spelling inprevious entry: it should be coup, without the "e", although one could make a "play-on-words" here!

Jim Boland | 22 October 2014  

thank you for so beautifully placing this man in our world. I am a member of the working class generation who was able to access education and opportunity because of what he did. it is also a reminder that such greatness of vision and action is possible in politics. I want another one like him please. we are surrounded by little men at present - we have a need of big men and women who can lead us, and remind us of what we are capable of doing as a nation.

Helen Kane | 22 October 2014  

Thanks, Frank, for helping us reflect on Gough's contribution to elevating our national vision - a contribution that has passed the test of time. RIP.

Denis Fitzgerald | 22 October 2014  

Thank you, Father Frank. Your personal vignettes give something more than an insight into the wit of Gough Whitlam: they also displayed his wisdom in describing himself as 'a fellow traveller – not so much a pillar of the Church but rather one of those flying buttresses you find on European cathedrals'. Although an Atheist, as 'a flying buttress', he was acknowledging his support for the [load-bearing] pillars of the Church Establishment. Perhaps his skills extended to civil engineering, as well.

Bob Groves | 22 October 2014  

Very moving and entertaining, Frank. My sympathy to you on the loss of one who, apart from his inspiration at a distance was obviously also a personal friend.

Brendan Byrne | 22 October 2014  

Thank you for this personal reflection Frank. Gough was indeed a true leader,visionary,intelligent,passionate about justice and he remained dignified, therefore dignifying all in his care.I admire Malcolm Frazer greatly too and feel we lack and desperately need of these qualities in parliament today.We are shaped by his generous spirit.

Catherine | 22 October 2014  

How lovely to read your reflections of Mr Whitlam. I felt great loss and sadness at the announcement of Gough's death. One of the reasons is because 'it's time' for another brave and forward thinking leader. I do hope such a leader comes along in the not too distant future.

Catherine | 22 October 2014  

Amen to that, Frank. We shall not see his like again. Vale, Big Man

Alison Cotes | 22 October 2014  

Thank you,Father Frank.Vale Gough, who made it possible for working class girls from Moonee Ponds to attend university.Where are such champions now?

Anne Ramsay | 22 October 2014  

Outside of politics, Gough was apparently a pretty good bloke as Fr Brennan's anecdotes testify. Curiously my own life story intersects here, as I am friends of the (then) seminarian in the English College, a genius of history, who gave Gough a tour of Rome on the occasion he wrote to Fr Brennan. In the 1990's that same friend (now ordained) who had not heard from him for about 20 years, was the subject of a phone call out of the blue after 10.00pm: "X, Gough here." He, pen in hand, wanted Fr X to remind him of the precise chronology of the split in the 1950's, which I (and Gough) know Fr X would have been able to rehearse on a day by day basis. Let not these personable anecdotes distract from the big picture. Gough's government was the worst ever in Australia's history until Rudd/Gillard came along. I don't blame him entirely for the mistakes of his colleagues, but he must share some of the responsibility. His thumping election defeat in 1975 wasn't a vote for the coalition. It was a vote to draw back from the abyss. Unfortunately, as indicated above, with some of the initiatives of Gough's regime such as no-fault divorce, we've been unable to climb out. RIP.

HH | 22 October 2014  

Nothing like a good Queensland mango Frank. I enjoyed the article - thanks

steve sinn | 22 October 2014  

A fitting tribute of our most open, visionary and transformative Australian leader. Our Nation privileged to have been led and touched by him. Gough was a servant and sought equity and justice for all. He broke barriers. He is widely respected and remembered fondly by Australia’s First Nations peoples (FNP). Gough created the pathway to Aboriginal land rights. A most difficult and as vital task today. The current attacks on Aboriginal land (in the name of mining & economic development or ‘so-called’ employment opportunities / private home ownership] must be recognised for what it is and must cease. Australia’s FNP are denied any true say in policies that affect them. True Self-determination has long been denied them. Treaty [/ies]- so long ago promised by those whom followed in Gough’s footsteps- are inevitable, see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nU_H0oIQy60 My dream, that the party whom Gough served get back on track and return to core principals. And, that bipartisan inhumane and punitive policies that attack the human dignity and the spirit of people be dismissed. FNPs are intricately connected / bound to their lands. Take away the land and humanity and we destroy the spirit and potential of this great Southland and of ‘All’ her people. May Gough's legacy and vision be reinvigorated and radiate across this land.

Name | 22 October 2014  

Thanks Frank, beautiful tribute to a truly great Australian.

Barbara Broad | 22 October 2014  

Frank Brennan you should be the Archbishop of Sydney [ with respect to Pells appointment] I would think LEADER is your title and WASTED is my thinking of the Catholic Church of Australia. I am finding the history of the 115,000 Aboriginals shop in South East Qld. The Hate they still have of the Police and the Contempt of the LNP are that of Old Joh and Flo. They look to people like you to LEAD them out of the Desert. You are a Great Aussie. Thank god whoever SHE is for Frank and Gough

Francis Douglas | 22 October 2014  

When you think back to the late 1960s it is not hard to see why Gough is revered. It is not an exaggeration to say he gave the impetus to reform the ALP and changed the way Labor was seen by the Australian community, from a party of opposition to a party of reform and progress. In the process he exposed the small mindedness of the conservative coalition and in particular Prime Minister McMahon, the most inept leader Australia has had. The contrast in 1972 could not have been more extreme. Gough had faults as PM, most notably the huge mistake of Khemlani which contributed to his downfall, but the faults are miniscule compared to the achievements of his government. His respect for Australia's democratic process in the 1975 outrage was a contrast to his opponents at the time, and his capacity to make peace with old opponents like Fraser is a lesson for us all. I hope the spirits of Gough and Margaret are enjoying the view from the top of Olympus.

Brett | 23 October 2014  

One of Gough's less well known initiatives was the implementation of the Child Disability Allowance which was a fortnightly payment of a small amount of money to parents of children with disabilities. It was not enough to do a great deal with but I used to encourage mums to pay for babysitter and go and have their hair done. A small luxury in their difficult lives. It has lived on and I believe, without any proof, that it is an inspiration for the NDIS. Bravo Gough! Rest in Peace with Dame Margaret (and the God you did not acknowledge to others).

Joan Winter OP | 23 October 2014  

frank a nice reflection and of course as dan hess and I were both each others best men I can now say he has finally made the papers! next step learnig to read....just kidding.Hope all is well and keep up the good work.stephen

stephen gorman | 23 October 2014  

My tribute to Gough's contribution to Aboriginal Affairs is found in Troy Branstom's book "The Whitlam Legacy". See https://www.federationpress.com.au/bookstore/book.asp?isbn=9781862879034#bookcontents

Frank Brennan SJ | 23 October 2014  

Thanks Frank. Your personal tales have encapsulated Gough's humanity as well as his humility.

Suzanne Crowe | 24 October 2014  

I loved Gough, really who wouldn't - he even presented my wife her Australian citizenship. I also quite liked some of his policies but unfortunately we're still trying to clean up the mess that most of his policies created..

Michael | 24 October 2014  

Really enjoyed reading this Frank. Have posted it on my FB page for others to enjoy as well. I particularly myself loved the "Letter from the Vatican", bit.

Jennifer Herrick | 24 October 2014  

Hi Frank, Dan and I still have a laugh about the great memories of our Canberra trip, especially our meeting with Gough. All the best

Gerard Higgins | 24 October 2014  

Beautifully put, Frank. It has caused me to reflect on the distinction between a VISION for our country and today's politicians' blinkered VIEW for the nation..

JAYKAY | 24 October 2014  

Father Frank's tribute to The Great Gough (although I only ever called him Prime Minister) show how he was a truly inspirational politician, and person

janelle saffin | 26 October 2014  

“I’m not having these f..king Vietnamese Balts coming into the country". Imagine the posts on E.S. if Tony Abbott had said something like that. Ah, the convenience of the selective memory.

HH | 28 October 2014  

A belated thank you to Frank for fa fine article. Sure, Gough had his flaws and misjudgements - and who doesn't - but 95% of the time his political and humanitarian instincts were sound and generous in spirit. Our political leaders today are moral lightweights when compared with men of the calibre of Gough and Malcolm Fraser.

Tony Kevin | 29 October 2014  

HH: re selective memory: see 'Tampering with Asylum' UQP, 2nd edition, 2007, p. 34. There is a time and place for everything. This is neither the time nor place, whether it's Whitlam or Abbott.

Frank Brennan SJ | 29 October 2014  

Fr Frank, my comment was not directed at your anecdotes (which I welcomed, above), but at the over the top chorus of hosannas for Gough your piece aroused in the comments. Tony Abbott is routinely branded a moral monster on E.S., chiefly for his policies regarding boat people. But Gough is upheld here as a great Australian, despite his highly objectionable stance to genuine asylum seekers. With respect, when and where it chooses to unfortunately manifest itself is the right time and place for calling out selective memory.

HH | 29 October 2014  

I think that HH has rightly noted a double standard operating across various websites and blogs. Some people seem to think that it is too soon after Gough Whitlam's death to criticise him. It is insensitive to his memory and to those who mourn him. I take Fr Brennan's comments to HH to be a manifestation of such a mindset. You cannot have it both ways. We either observe a moratorium on criticising all recently deceased politicians or we can assess their merits freely, regardless of when they died. You cannot invoke sensitivity to forestall criticism selectively. I think that some who have attacked Gough Whitlam's detractors object not to the timing of their criticisms but to the criticisms themselves. Not all people worship him or his legacy.

John Ryan | 02 November 2014  

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