Like a lot of things with politics, I came to know about Gough late. I was of a generation who inherited his government’s landmark reforms – reforms I’ll forever be thankful for and hold as a model of progressive government – get in there and move things forward, don’t just tinker with the engine to make it run more efficient.
I was minus four in 1972. I didn’t grow up in a family where politics was discussed, modern Australian history was nowhere near our school history classes, where I remember a lot of World War I and II, a little of the Chinese and Russian Revolutions, and not a lot else.
A lot of my early Australian politics I came to through music – Midnight Oil, Yothu Yindi, InSurge. From Little Things Big Things Grow is one of many Paul Kelly songs that always get me a little moist-eyed. Naive me wouldn’t have immediately associated Gough Whitlam with this verse:
Eight years went by, eight long years of waiting
‘Til one day a tall stranger appeared in the land
And he came with lawyers and he came with great ceremony
And through Vincent’s fingers poured a handful of sand
It probably took me a little while to join the dots on one of the bands I liked watching live in the early 90s – the Whitlams, including their song called Gough – with the former Prime Minister. The song is a mini history lesson.
By the time I was at university we were already paying for it, though not nearly as much as students do now.
It wasn’t really until I started taking a serious interest in politics, post 911, that I learned more about Gough, and the Dismissal. Someone gave me a copy of John Pilger’s A Secret Country, which opened my eyes to many things, including Pilger’s flair for the dramatic.
A few years ago, at a book sale at Sydney University, I won a silent auction on a bunch of signed political books, including Green Bans, Red Union (signed by Meredith Burgman and Jack Mundey) and Whitlam’s 1997 Abiding Interests.
The first paragraph on the back cover reads:
“When he became Prime Minister in December 1972 Gough Whitlam was the first Labor Prime Minister for 23 years. Within days he had abolished conscription, withdrawn the remaining Australian troops from Viet Nam, negotiated diplomatic relations with China and initiated Federal aid to State and church schools and land rights for Aborigines.”
It’s gone to the top of my read list.