In 1972 my mother was a member of the Dandenong Greek Community’s Women’s Committee when Gough Whitlam was campaigning for the federal election under the banner “It’s time.” As part of that campaign he visited the Dandeong Greek community on the feast day of its patron saint, St Pantaleimon.
The celebration was typical of such events: lots of food, music and people everywhere. The Dandenong Greek Community president introduced Whitlam to the ladies of the Women’s Committee. What impressed my mother the most about the man was that after hearing each woman’s name he greeted her formally pronouncing her surname, no matter how long, in flawless Greek. “How do you do, Mrs Lambrellis?” and so on, down the line of women. Each one addressed personally.
It wasn’t just the sort of campaign hand-pressing and photo-opportunism that we’re used to seeing now. Whitlam made it clear in his behaviour not only that day but in the policy of multiculturalism that he championed, which was groundbreaking at the time, that he understood and valued the migrant communities of Australia. He understood and valued their history and what had driven them to leave their homes and come to Australia. He understood and valued what they offered Australia both in enriching the culture and in building the nation. In championing multiculturalism, he championed them. And they loved him for it.
Three decades later when my brother was working as a contractor in IT, he would impress and awe his much younger colleagues by telling them that he’d gone to university for free. No, he hadn’t received a scholarship; university was free for all back then, a legacy of another Gough Whitlam policy to abolish tertiary education fees.
I enjoyed a year and a half of free university education myself, before the policy changed and fees were re-introduced. The policy had been in place for 17 years. An entire generation had been afforded the opportunity for a higher education irrespective of their financial position. With his “free university education for all” policy he had democratised education and truly paved the way for Australia to become the clever country.
These are just two examples of personal touch-points for my family in relation to the incredible, iconic and visionary Gough Whitlam, who passed away today. Prime Minister from 1972 to 1975, Whitlam’s vision for Australia was transformative and nothing short of revolutionary.
More telling is the outpouring of respect evident in the speeches made by both sides of politics in Parliament today, and the outpouring of love evident in the comments left by readers in online forums, a lot of which begin with an expression of thanks for the ways in which the writers’ lives were enriched by Whitlam’s policies.
He was visionary and brave and a man of intellect and great ideas. What I admire most about him is that he was an egalitarian who appealed to people’s better nature. He reached out to the “men and women of Australia” and asked them to build with him a modern Australia that was fairer for all.
One of the The Age’s online forums includes my own comment on Gough Whitlam’s passing:
“I was only a small child when Gough Whitlam enacted his vision for a modern Australia, however I have been a beneficiary ever since. There was never anyone like him, nor, in these risk-averse, over-spun political times, are we likely to ever see anyone truly like him again. A visionary who believed in a better Australia and had faith in Australians. What a lucky country we are to have had him; can’t even imagine where we’d be without him. Thank you Gough Whitlam, and may you rest in peace.”