My tribute to Gough Whitlam - A giant of a man.


I begin by associating myself with the contributions made by many of my colleagues on the passing of Gough Whitlam. I offer my

condolences firstly to the Whitlam family—they have lost a father and grandfather—and of course the Australian Labor Party and indeed the broader community have lost a significant and indeed iconic figure. One cannot reflect on the life and times of Gough Whitlam without making reference to the other half of the Whitlam whole—his life's partner, Margaret Whitlam, who passed away a couple of years ago. This was Australia's power couple akin to the Roosevelt’s, Eleanor and Franklin Delano, and I thought that when I met the Whitlam’s for the first time as a 16-year-old schoolgirl during that dramatic period after 11 November 1975. The passage of time has only reaffirmed my belief that Gough and Margaret Whitlam were truly a marriage of true minds.

It is often said that everyone remembers where they were on the day that the Whitlam government was dismissed by the Governor-General, Sir John Kerr. I remember where I was. I was in class, year 11 at Princes Hill High School, and I remember the uproar in our entire school community; students and teachers alike were absolutely outraged and took to the school quadrangle, as opposed to the streets. This marked the beginning, I believe, of my own political activism. Like everyone else around me at the time I felt—such was the feeling at the time—that I had to do something. I very much wanted to be a part of the dramatic events that were unfolding. The public wrath was palpable as Australians faced what many consider to be the closest we are yet to come to a coup d'etat. So I joined the Migrant Workers Committee at the Victorian Trades Hall Council and I ended up working as a volunteer on the election campaign to re-elect the Whitlam government in the 1975 federal election. Of course, I could say that the rest is history.

When I became the candidate for the federal seat of Calwell in 2001, I wrote to Gough inviting him to launch my campaign. Quite to my surprise, and as a colleague said previously, he rang me and he actually greeted me in the Greek language. This voice on the other end of the phone said 'Tia sou ti kaneis', and I immediately recognised it as Gough Whitlam's voice. I was very surprised that he would greet me in the Greek language at the time—but not really surprised, as I will mention later.

I invited Gough because I had discovered that the last function he had officiated at as Prime Minister of Australia was the opening of the Broadmeadows Sporting Club, in my electorate. We thought at the time it was a great idea to invite him to make a return visit to Broadmeadows—unfortunately he was unable to do so because he could not travel at that time. But he was very gracious with his time and, as always, with advice. He had a propensity to give a lot of advice and to correct a lot of records. I know the people of Broadmeadows remain very chuffed that they are a small footnote in a very important historical event. He informed me that after Broadmeadows Sporting Club he went to the Melbourne Town Hall, and of course the next day he came to Canberra, where he was dismissed.

If Arthur Calwell laid the foundations for modern Australia, Gough Whitlam, as Australia's 21st Prime Minister, was the architect of the contemporary Australian identity. To this end I want to reflect on his very special relationship with migrant Australia, or the New Australians as he often referred to them. Gough Whitlam envisaged an Australia that was reconciled with its first people, our Indigenous Australians—and of course there is that memorable photograph of Gough with Vincent Lingiari. He gave hope for reconciliation and paved the way for native title. Gough Whitlam embraced the new Australians that came here, my family and I included, in a way that gave us a sense of ownership and belonging, a gesture that would become the driving principles of access and equity which underlined multiculturalism—a policy that the Whitlam government not only championed but also implemented during that period of great reform.

It is indeed a privilege for me to be given the opportunity to speak in this condolence motion as the member for Calwell. The sense of fate and history does not escape me at this moment, because the 16-year-old schoolgirl of 1975 would never have imagined that she would be here today in the House of Representatives. It is a very important moment, when you look back in time.

Universal health, free education, land rights, the Racial Discrimination Act, ending conscription, legal aid, no-fault divorce, pension reform, multiculturalism and a new national anthem are some of the most iconic policies that characterised the Whitlam government, but it is Gough's relationship with new Australians that I want to reflect on here today and in particular his relationship with the Australian Greek community. It was a very special relationship. Gough Whitlam was a philhellene in every sense of the word. Gough once said:

… there can be no doubt that the Greek language is important in Australia, and that Greek civilization is important to Australia.

Gough became very involved in the Greek Australian community. From advocating for the return of democracy to its original birthplace during the seven-year dictatorship of the 1960s and early 1970s to supporting Australian peacekeeping forces in Cyprus and advocating for the return of the Parthenon marbles he was indeed a true friend of Greece and the Australian Greek community.

He was patron of the Antipodes Festival in Melbourne for many years. He was an honorary member of the Greek Orthodox Community of Sydney and NSW. He was a recipient of the Hellenic republic's highest honour—the Order of the Phoenix—for services to Hellenism. As my constituent Kostandinos Tsourdalakis, the cantor of our local Greek orthodox church, said in the 18-stanza Homeric prose he wrote on the occasion of Gough's passing last week, Gough was 'the Greek community's second father'. I am absolutely certain that Gough would love Mr Tsourdalakis's 18-stanza Homeric epic tribute to him. I wish I could read it out in the chamber today, but I think I would be trying the patience of Hansard considerably.

The affection new Australians held for Gough is captured by what my late father always used to say to me. During the 1975 campaign at a rally in Melbourne, Gough walked by my father, stopped and shook his hand. My father always described this as the moment an Australian Prime Minister had embraced him as a fellow Australian. There is no denying that Australia is a better place today because of Gough Whitlam.