We warmed to Gough, even as his grand design crumbled
Prime Minister Gough Whitlam being interviewed by David Frost in 1973.
THE 40th anniversary of the election of the Whitlam government means many things to many people. Some will want to reflect on the negatives. There were plenty of them.
For a surprisingly long period there was no effective cabinet, then unsatisfactory cabinet process. It was nothing short of economic chaos, a disaster. It was a reminder to everyone that you can have all the great ideas you want about a better world, but if you do not keep the economy on track your government will fall apart. Then you will have lost the opportunity to implement all the good things that were your priority.
When the economy falls apart, yes, the rich people will lose share values and maybe need to sell a beach house, but the less lucky lose their job and maybe their house. Comrades they may be, but they don't feel too friendly when they lose their job.
What view you take of the events of 1975 cannot change one simple fact. The people, the ''men and women of Australia'' as Whitlam called us with such rhetorical flourish, decided enough was enough.
Nonetheless, despite all the negatives we can reflect on, Whitlam is held in an extraordinary regard by many people who are not Labor supporters. He has respect and affection in some surprising places. Why this is so?
One of the key things that contribute to this is he wasn't just after power. Whitlam wanted to do things that he thought would make Australia a better place. He needed the power to do them, but it alone was not the motivating factor. That in itself distinguishes him from many others.
He also recognised change and embraced it. History is nothing if not the lesson that things will change. That doesn't mean we abandon all that is good about today, but it does mean we look for what we can do to make a better tomorrow.
Whitlam saw Australia in a much more independent position than others had. For far too long we had been too dependent in so many ways. That the adjustment went a little far in no way means it didn't need to be made. He gave my generation permission to think differently about ourselves and our place in the world. For that we will always be grateful.
He had the confidence that comes with strength of mind and courage of heart. He exuded it. Gravitas sat comfortably in his back pocket. While I am confident he could ''look after himself'' in a party brawl, there was nothing guttersnipe about him. He was the PM and he behaved like it. And after leaving office, if he was bitter it didn't show. He went on and served Australia in other ways.
As a new senator, I sent him a letter in his capacity as chairman of the National Gallery. Within days I had a telegram (the old form of SMS) promising a reply. The issue is not important. I was just a new kid on the block and he was treating me with more respect than some senior members of my own party had shown.
Thereafter, at the odd function where we would cross paths, if the more conservative element of my party were around, Whitlam would say sotto voce something like ''Quick, your right wing are watching'' and ramp up the greeting.
On one occasion in the Great Hall at an official lunch, my husband Tony and I were at a table with Whitlam and some new Labor members. One of the wives started talking about family policy. Her views were conservative, to say the least. The situation was awkward because her husband and friends obviously felt she was sounding as though she was on the wrong team, but were loath to say anything in front of us.
Gough's handling of the situation was masterful. He picked up a thread of conversation somewhere around the table, drew others and this woman into it and took the conversation somewhere else. Ever so quietly, the hand of Gough had slipped under her, gently picked her up and put her down in a safer place.
When I was in Italy as ambassador, he rang to indicate he was prepared to help in a small task that would hopefully give appropriate recognition to someone unknown to most Australians. In his 90s, Whitlam's wit was as sharp as ever. Train buff Tim Fischer's appointment as ambassador to the Holy See occasioned a quip about the man who knew the most about trains now being ambassador to the state with the smallest train line.
So the new senator (on the other side of politics), the new MP's wife, and the normal Australian were treated with dignity and respect from what you might call the top end of town. It's just one more reason why Gough is entitled to our respect and affection.
A Certain Grandeur did seem an appropriate title for an early biography, but until recently he always had an anchor to help keep his feet on terra firma.
At our bicentennial celebrations in 1988, as official guests were being shipped around the harbour, there was something of a diplomatic mishap when Gough and Margaret ended up on the same ferry as Sir John Kerr. The ferries were not the only things that could be described as full. After the Whitlams had avoided any possible incident by moving to one of the side walkways, Gough was dispatched to the inside bar to get a round of drinks for their group. Minutes later Margaret realised someone had changed their order or been left out. A side window was slid open and with, two hands cupped for amplification, our former first lady got our former PM's attention and gave him his instructions: ''Oi, Gough, [whoever] will have a lemonade.''
They were just normal Australians mixing with and behaving like the rest of us. Nothing toffy, nothing pretentious, no la-di-da. No wonder he has won our hearts.
Amanda Vanstone is an Age columnist, a former federal Liberal minister and a former Australian ambassador to Italy.