One of the occasional humiliations of working as a reporter for The Canberra Times during the Whitlam years arose because Canberra did not have self-government, and that many minor matters of interest solelyto the people of Canberra had to be slipped in Whitlam Cabinet agendas alongside great matters of state, likely to be the lead items in tomorrow's newspapers, even this one.
Whitlam customarily gave a witty press conference after most meetings of Cabinet, possibly as a prophylactic against the fact that many of his disappointed colleagues would be leaking their version of what had occurred anyway. Sheer and barefaced indiscretion was a hallmark of the day. At a typical such press conference, Whitlam might be speaking and answering questions about relations with China, Sir Charles Court and Joh Bjelke Petersen, discussing the arts, the constitution and resumption of the state railways in Tasmania, the pronunciation of kilometre and correcting some senior journalist on the standing orders of the Athenian Senate in Pericles time. After many questions, a young Canberra Times reporter would get the call, and typically, have on firm instructions from Mort Street to ask something like, "Mr Prime Minister, can you tell me what Cabinet decided about appointments to the Canberra Abattoir board".
On such an occasion, Whitlam raised his eyes to the heavens, and asked, "Who is this pissant?" There was a great laugh at the hapless reporter's expense. But like a number of Whitlam's jokes, it did not look quite so funny in black and white, but instead a little arrogant, in the newspaper the next day.
But it was a slower time, and, often, a Whitlam press conference was like a performance one could slip to from the office. Just as the Whitlam press office, then located near the Speakers entrance in the old parliament house, was ever a place to drop in for a beer.
I was once there when Whitlam remarked to his press secretary, Eric Walsh, that he had never brought his children to parliament house, and himself offered to show them around, agreeing some date and time, and noting it himself in his diary. On the appointed day, in 1974, the Leader of the Opposition, Billy Snedden announced that the opposition would vote against Supply, and, very quickly, Whitlam decided that in that case he would seek a double dissolution of parliament. Between about 5pm and 7.15pm a Caucus meeting was called, while officials were busily drawing up the official advice to the Governor-General. Then Whitlam sailed down the front stairs, live on the ABC (with Ken Begg), climbed into his car and drove to see Sir Paul Hasluck at Yarralumla. On his return was an announcement in parliament, a brief Cabinet meeting, and the formal prorogation of parliament. Then Whitlam strode into the press office and said, "Right, Eric, where are the kids?".
Walsh said he had cancelled the engagement, on the basis that Gough was looking a bit busy. "Nonsense!" said Whitlam, and insisted the children be dragged from home. He greeted them, coatless, in his office, and one, who would, I expect, be 46 now, remarked that the prime minister's shirt sleeve had an ink stain on it. Whitlam said words to the effect that "This is a historic day, I suppose, and tore off the sleeve from the shoulder, then inscribed it. And he walked with the children all around the parliament, the children collecting signatures, on the shirt from people such as Snedden, the speaker and ministers.
I was a bit taken by the extravagance of the gesture, and Whitlam's taking of the time for children at such a critical moment. But, having done something indicating I might write about it, I was begged not to, lest it be seen as some sort of manufactured stunt, rather than the spontaneous act involved.
I had, of course, many times heard Whitlam speak magnificently in parliament and on the hustings. But a week or two after the shirt event, I heard him speak at the dedication of John Curtin House on Brisbane Avenue. It was a freezing, dreary day with rain drizzling, but Whitlam's speech had grown men crying.
The great man had much admired accounts of the funeral, involving a long train journey with multiple stops, of Franklin Roosevelt, and there was sometimes discussion, involving family and sometimes even the Leader himself of his dying, appropriately in Sydney and being on exhibition, in state, for a day or two at the Sydney Town Hall, before being taken to Central Railway station and embarked on a train towards Campbelltown, in his electorate of Werriwa. The original electorate had once stretched to Lake George, and virtually every stop until Queanbeyan had been, at some point in it. In Canberra, a gun carriage would have taken the coffin to (the old) parliament, and after another period in state, to the graveyard at Gungahlin. I suggested that his body be placed on a barge in the lake, set on fire either with a flaming arrow, in Viking mode, or perhaps, lit by one of the sons, in Gandhi mode. Whitlam was not so sure about the last detail, remarking that on the occasion when he had walked on the lake, The Canberra Times had said in its report saying that he done so because he could not swim. Perhaps he was thinking of the pissant.
Whitlam could be lordly, and haughty. He could sometimes be mean and petty. But he could also be magnificent and extraordinary generous. When finally, he decided to step down as Labor leader in 1977, ALP sub-branch members in Canberra raised a considerable sum for some lasting memorial to his service. He was discretely asked what he might like, the idea being some bust or some public piece of art. Whitlam indicated that he would like it spent on playground equipment in an Aboriginal settlement in Central Australia.
Gough Whitlam was very much a person of Canberra. The ALP branch to which he belonged was Canberra South. He was steeped in Canberra history and in bureaucratic tradition. His father, Fred Whitlam, was Commonwealth Crown Solicitor. He came to Canberra in 1928, when Gough was 12 and had attended private primary schools, including Knox Grammar, in Sydney. His father placed him in the newly opened Telopea Park High, a government school, when the family settled in Red Hill among the pooh-bahs of the permanent establishment. Gough might well have stayed there through to his NSW Leaving Certificate, had not the headmaster told his father that the tall and self-confident 15-year-old was being cheeky to a young English teacher, Verity Hewitt. Fred Whitlam removed his boy, putting him instead for his last two years into Canberra Grammar, from which he graduated to study Arts and Law and Sydney University. Whitlam was already well versed in the classics from home, but among his juvenile masterpieces, recorded in The Canberran are Ode to the Institute of Anatomy (the building now housing now the Film and Sound Archive):
In nascent Canberra's fair transpontine meads
(Beyond Molonglo rippling through his reeds)
With pride one marks the Institute arise,
Whose searing columns seek to mate the skies....
Within it, anatomical displays
Revolt the stomach and affright the gaze.
Another offering was a poem dedicated "to the gracious and beautiful ladies of the Canberra Church of England Girls Grammar School," but has few lines that stand the test of time.