Reforming ex-PM Gough Whitlam dies

Published: Tuesday 21st October 2014 by The News Editor

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Gough Whitlam, a flamboyant Australian prime minister and controversial social reformer whose grip on power was cut short by a bitter constitutional crisis, has died at 98.

Although national leader for only three turbulent years until 1975, the legacy of his Labor Party government remains to this day, with many of its legislative and social innovations, once regarded as radical, now accepted as part of daily life.

His four children described Mr Whitlam, who died in a Sydney nursing home, as a “loving and generous father”.

“He was a source of inspiration to us and our families and for millions of Australians,” they said in a statement.

Prime minister Tony Abbott, who leads the conservative Liberal Party, said Mr Whitlam “seemed, in so many ways, larger than life”.

“Gough Whitlam was a giant of his time,” he said.

Mr Abbott noted that Mr Whitlam established diplomatic relations with communist China and became the first Australian prime minister to visit the country, which is now Australia’s largest trading partner.

Regarded either as visionary or egotistical, Mr Whitlam was a tall, imposing and eloquent lawyer and won the 1972 general election with the campaign slogan “It’s time”.

Labor’s victory ended 23 years of sometimes stodgy rule by the conservative Liberal-National party coalition.

Impatient for change after so long in opposition, Mr Whitlam and his cabinet introduced sweeping reforms at a cracking pace that sometimes astonished voters and angered opponents.

The government redefined Australian foreign policy when it recognised China, before the United States and many other Western nations did.

More dramatically, it ended military conscription and withdrew all Australian troops from the Vietnam War, where they had fought alongside US forces. It then set up diplomatic links with the North Vietnamese government.

The “White Australia” policy, which had restricted immigration by non-Europeans for about a century, was finally abolished.

On the home front, the government boosted expenditure on education, the plight of Aborigines, health, the arts and welfare. Divorce was simplified and social reforms for women and minorities instituted.

But Mr Whitlam’s imaginary policy agenda was not matched by sound economic management. Scandals also rocked the cabinet, which was hit by a string of resignations and firings of ministers.

Mr Whitlam called and won a snap election in 1974 after the conservative opposition tried to block many of his reforms.

Although Labor retained dominance in the lower House of Representatives, it failed to control the Senate, Parliament’s upper house.

Conservative senators triggered a constitutional crisis in 1975 when they refused to pass the government’s budget and demanded another election. Mr Whitlam, whose standing among voters had sunk, steadfastly refused.

Governor-general Sir John Kerr, the then-representative of the Queen, broke the deadlock when he exercised little-known constitutional powers and dismissed the government, and Mr Whitlam as prime minister.

Despite a divisive national debate and public outcry, Labor lost new elections and stayed in opposition until 1983.

Mr Whitlam retired from parliament in 1978, a year after Labor lost another election.

Despite his failure to win back power, Mr Whitlam remained a highly-admired figure among Labor Party members, many of whom regarded him as a political martyr.

He was born Edward Gough Whitlam in Melbourne and was brought up in the capital Canberra, where his father Fred was a government lawyer.

Mr Whitlam studied law at Sydney University and served as an Australian Air Force bomber navigator during the Second World War before entering parliament in 1952.

His wife Margaret, whom he married in 1942, died in 2012.

Published: Tuesday 21st October 2014 by The News Editor

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