Gough Whitlam’s political career was over before I was born, but his mythological career was just beginning. He was a man made in heroic proportions, a handsome face with a telegenic gaze, six foot four and a booming baritone voice in the educated accent of the Australian middle class. Gough’s voice may now define Australian soundbite oratory. “Well may we say God Save The Queen, because nothing can save the Governor-General”; “It’s Time”; “Crash through or crash”. His very names – either of his names – fall with the heft of a Patrick White novel. The last Australian prime minister to serve in the military. Intellectual, charismatic and impatient.
Gough wasn’t my hero. He wasn’t a childhood idol or a teenage political ideal for me. I am not born of that leftist tribe. But he is a heroic figure, playing all the right chords on our acculturated meat brains. He had his sweeping policy triumphs like Medicare and China diplomacy, the great raiser of the koala bear leviathan, his electoral victories, his electoral defeats.
I used to think the Whitlam government’s impatience in ramming through so many changes so quickly was its great mistake, that it died of whiplash. This is the conventional wisdom, but I’m no longer so sure. Complex systems can change incrementally for certain things, but they are homeostatic too, they slip back into established paths. Sometimes you have to change lots of things at once for any change to stick. Sometimes history shifts with a crack. You blink, and everything continues, but everything is changed. The black and white television has switched to colour.
Gough’s story has villains and Gough himself had tragic flaws. The intellectual that couldn’t get the numbers to add up, the charismatic leader that couldn’t keep his cabinet together. The betrayal, the unravelling, the dismissal. But this is a modern Australian story, not a Greek tragedy. Whitlam-Odysseus went home with his Penelope, became a professor, and won saucepans on Sale of the Century. The adoration of the living man was a bit close to royalty, for me. He had a long life, and a good one. Now he has climbed into a heavenly V8 the size of a small tank, and driven off, trailing clouds of glory. We should paint him on the doors of our temples and the walls of our pool rooms, to ward off evil and scare away the ghouls of complacency.