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Edward Gough Whitlam (1916–2014)

by Jenny Hocking

This article was published online in 2023

Edward Gough Whitlam (1916-2014), barrister, prime minister, and ambassador, was born on 11 July 1916 at Kew, Melbourne, elder of two children and only son of Henry Frederick Ernest (Fred) Whitlam, public servant, lawyer, and human rights advocate, and Martha (Mattie), née Maddocks, both Victorian-born. Mattie, a gentle feminist, was clever, witty, and unusually tall, a trait inherited by her son. As she was also deaf the family’s speech was enunciated for her to lip-read, contributing to the distinctive cadence of Gough’s voice. His second given name came from his paternal grandfather, Henry Hugh Gough Whitlam, whose father had served under Field Marshal Viscount Hugh Gough in India. Young Whitlam was always known as Gough, to avoid confusion with his maternal grandfather, Edward Maddocks.

Henry Hugh Gough Whitlam had been gaoled for five years in 1877 for forging and uttering cheques. The family’s fortunes took a defining turn in 1883, when he married Janet Steele, from a prominent Baptist family. The Baptist influence, with its disciplined focus on education, self-advancement, and public good, would be felt through successive generations. Gough was two when his family moved to Sydney, following Fred’s transfer to the Commonwealth Crown Solicitor’s Office there. He and his sister, Freda, grew up in a secure, close family milieu of the law, books, and discussion of current affairs. Whitlam’s earliest memory was of his father’s admission as a barrister and solicitor of the High Court of Australia in 1920 on the motion of Sir Robert Garran. He began his formal schooling with kindergarten at Chatswood Church of England Girls’ School, followed by primary school at nearby Mowbray House School, and then Knox Grammar School (1925-27).

In 1927 Fred became assistant crown solicitor in the still embryonic Canberra, and his family joined him the following year. At Baptist Sunday School, Whitlam’s questioning of whether the world really was created in just seven days brought an abrupt end to his attendance. Although a non-believer from the age of eleven, he never lost the Baptist social concern of his parents: he later described himself as ‘a fellow-traveller of Christianity’ (Gill 1974, 22). He thrived at Telopea Park High School, editing the school magazine, writing poetry, and performing in plays, and was devastated when at his father’s insistence he was moved to Canberra Grammar School in 1932. At his new school he edited its magazine, The Canberran, and completed his Leaving certificate three times between 1932 and 1934 as he was considered too young to go to university. Dux of the school, he was awarded a scholarship to study at the University of Sydney (BA, 1938; LLB, 1946). On his departure The Canberran reflected that ‘Gough was a particularly good example of the traditional pedagogue, who, by some strange caprice of Fate, happened to be attending school as a pupil instead of as a master’ (1935, 27). His childhood in the nation’s capital had imparted an easy familiarity with politicians, public servants, international dignitaries, and judicial figures, many of them guests at the Whitlam home. He left Canberra with a belief in the capacity of national governments to meet fundamental social and economic needs, and, like his father, was a fervent internationalist.

At university Whitlam studied classics, lived at the Anglican college St Paul’s, edited the college journal The Pauline and the student magazine Hermes, and received a Blue for rowing. He was also an impressive fixture in the St Paul’s debating team, and in the college revue made his first prime ministerial appearance, as Neville Chamberlain. At a 1939 Sydney University Dramatic Society Christmas party he met the gregarious, intelligent, and strikingly tall Margaret Elaine Dovey. A champion swimmer and daughter of the prominent Sydney barrister Wilfred ‘Bill’ Dovey, she was studying social work and, in contrast to the awkward and bookish Whitlam, was popular and outgoing. After graduating, Whitlam began his legal studies, while also co-editing and contributing to the Sydney University Law Society journal, Blackacre. He was articled to the firm of Sly and Russell, which he found boring, before finding his metier in 1941 as associate to the New South Wales Supreme Court judge Victor Maxwell.

In December 1939 Whitlam joined the Sydney University Regiment, and, shortly after Japan entered World War II in December 1941, enrolled in the Royal Australian Air Force Reserve. On 22 April 1942 he married Margaret at St Michael’s Anglican Church, Vaucluse. Two months later he was called up for active duty, training as a navigator. After being commissioned, he served from August 1943 with No. 13 Squadron, which operated medium bombers from a succession of bases in eastern and northern Australia. On 15 January 1945 he was navigating a Ventura attacking Japanese shipping in Bima harbour, Sumbawa, Netherlands East Indies (Indonesia), when it was hit by anti-aircraft fire, and guided it back to base on one engine. Aircraft engine noise left him with permanent hearing damage.

When stationed at Cooktown, Queensland, and the Gove Peninsula, Northern Territory, Whitlam saw and was shocked by the conditions of Indigenous peoples. At Yirrkala in June 1944 he met members of the Yunupingu family, who were instrumental in forming his lifelong commitment to Indigenous rights. A great admirer of Prime Minister John Curtin, Whitlam campaigned energetically within his squadron for the 1944 referendum to expand Commonwealth powers for essential postwar national rebuilding and to enshrine key political and civil rights. His disappointment at the referendum’s failure strengthened his determination to ‘do all I could to modernise the Australian Constitution’ (Whitlam 1961). His reformist politics crystallised around a rights-based notion of democratic citizenship based on the Australian Labor Party (ALP), the Australian parliament, the Constitution, and the United Nations.

Shortly after Curtin’s death, Whitlam returned to Sydney on leave, and on 8 August 1945 joined the ALP. On 17 October 1945 he was demobilised with the rank of flight lieutenant. By then he and Margaret and their two young sons were living with her parents at Vaucluse. He resumed legal studies while working as an associate to the Supreme Court judge (Sir) William Owen, and in February 1947 he was admitted to the New South Wales Bar.

In 1947 the Whitlams built their first house, at Cronulla on Sydney’s rapidly growing southern fringe. There was neither a high school nor a hospital; major roads were unsealed; and the area was without sewerage. His earliest efforts to enter politics were local, unsuccessfully standing for the Sutherland Shire Council in 1948, and in 1950 for the Legislative Assembly seat of Sutherland. He was a member of the State Bar Council (1949-53). Whitlam became nationally known for his successful radio appearances on the Australian Broadcasting Commission’s National Quiz Championships. He also came to prominence during the 1951 royal commission on liquor laws in New South Wales, as junior to his father-in-law. Whitlam’s lengthy questioning of Douglas Barwick, the colourful publican brother of the barrister (Sir) Garfield Barwick, was as amusing as it was damning, and created lasting enmities.

At a by-election on 29 November 1952 Whitlam was elected to the House of Representatives seat of Werriwa with nearly 68 per cent of the vote. He joined a caucus that had suffered election defeats in 1949 and 1951. Although an ‘Evatt man,’ the caucus old guard viewed Whitlam as a young, over-educated Sydney lawyer with whom they had little in common. With his height, stentorian voice, and intellect, Whitlam soon gained prominence in a parliament dominated by Prime Minister (Sir) Robert Menzies. He delighted in displaying his encyclopaedic knowledge, lacerating wit, and legendary temper. His first speech was typically didactic and evidence-based, reflecting his Fabian influence. He focused on Werriwa as the archetype of the failure of the Menzies government to plan for postwar reconstruction, leading to shortages in infrastructure and services. Although first speeches are normally heard in silence, he had scarcely begun when the deputy leader of the Country Party, (Sir) John McEwen, felt compelled to interrupt. Whitlam’s swift retort signalled his parliamentary arrival: ‘I recollect that Disraeli said, on the occasion of his maiden speech, “The time will come when you shall hear me”. Perhaps I should say, “The time will come when you may interrupt me”’ (Aust. HOR 1953, 1423).

Whitlam’s parliamentary ripostes were quick, effective, and at times cruel for their closeness to truth. He once reduced Barwick to tears in a searing attack on the government’s crimes bill during which he called the diminutive attorney-general a ‘truculent runt’ (Aust. HOR 1960, 3033). Whitlam was unafraid to speak on contentious matters of foreign policy, criticising French policies in Indo-China and calling on the government to recognise communist China. The ascent of the Liberal Party under Menzies had galvanised the conservative forces and left the ALP struggling to adapt to postwar politics. Its internal differences centred on the old shibboleths of nationalisation of industry, the White Australia policy, and opposition to state aid to non-government schools. As the Cold War intensified, a more threatening element emerged: the party’s attitude to communism. In 1955 the ALP endured the worst of its three splits, with an anti-communist group breaking away to later form the Democratic Labor Party (DLP), whose raison d’être was to keep the ALP out of office. Sydney barrister (Sir) John Kerr attended its inaugural meeting and declined an invitation to head the newly formed party.

The same year, an electoral redistribution placed the Whitlam home outside Werriwa’s new boundaries. To remain in Werriwa, the family relocated in 1957 to Albert Street, Cabramatta. As the ALP lost itself in abject division, Whitlam’s appointment to the Joint Standing Committee on Constitutional Review (1956-59) provided a personal and political fillip. The committee’s deliberations convinced him of the opportunities for reform within the Constitution: ‘I went from the despair of Section 92 to the confidence of Section 96’ (Hocking 2008, 184).

Whitlam was elected to the caucus executive in 1959, and when Evatt resigned from politics the following year, was encouraged by the member for Bass, Lance Barnard, to stand for the party’s deputy leadership. On 7 March 1960 he was elected deputy to a new leader, Arthur Calwell. Whitlam’s unexpected victory over Calwell’s preferred candidate, Eddie Ward, made the leadership team an uneasy mix of the old and new. Calwell, a generation older than Whitlam, was an adherent of the White Australia policy which Whitlam abhorred, and an opponent of state aid for non-government schools. Those legacy policies were for Whitlam emblematic of an outmoded party platform and its irrelevance to contemporary Australian values. His attitude to the platform was uncomplicated: ‘Where I disagreed with it, I sought to change it; where I agreed with it, I sought to implement it’ (Whitlam 2003, 16).

In his campaign for modernisation and policy renewal, Whitlam was supported by a talented advisory team of like-minded party members. This began with his appointment of a figure from the Fabian movement, John Menadue, as private secretary, followed by a core group of ‘modernisers’ including the future parliamentarian Race Mathews as chief of staff and Graham Freudenberg as speechwriter. Blessed with boundless energy, Whitlam poured over Hansard, made extensive use of questions on notice and committee reports, and gave hundreds of speeches to promote the party’s policy realignments. He pursued the Menzies government over equal pay for women in the Commonwealth Public Service, independence for the Territory of Papua and New Guinea, and the needs of Indigenous Australians including the repeal of section 127 of the Constitution which excluded ‘aboriginal natives’ from ‘reckoning the numbers of the people of the Commonwealth, or of a State or other part of the Commonwealth.’ In May 1961 he moved an unsuccessful amendment to the Commonwealth electoral bill to ensure that they would have ‘the [same] right enjoyed by all other citizens of enrolling and voting for candidates for election to this Parliament’ (Aust. HOR 1961, 1396), which the Menzies government did not support.

The first electoral test of the new ALP leadership team came in December 1961. The coalition lost fifteen seats but clung to government with a two-seat majority. Menzies’s announcement in 1962 of the construction of a United States of America communications base at North-West Cape in Western Australia created immediate tensions for Labor, with Whitlam and Calwell supporting the base provided it did not breach Australian sovereignty. Labor’s binding policy would be determined at the party’s 1963 federal conference in Canberra of thirty-six delegates which included neither the parliamentary leader nor the deputy. Never was the need for party modernisation better captured than by a press photograph of Calwell and Whitlam waiting outside the conference to be told the party’s policy on North-West Cape. Headlines decrying the ‘thirty-six faceless men’ did irreparable damage to Labor’s chances for the election, hastily called by Menzies for November 1963 to take advantage of the Opposition’s disarray. Labor lost ten seats.

With the party fast becoming as unelectable as it was ungovernable, Whitlam delivered a swingeing post-election critique, urging the ALP’s total reform. The Vietnam War, to which Menzies in 1965 committed Australian combat troops that, from 1966, included national servicemen, opened another political fault-line. This intervention was initially popular with voters, making what Calwell called the ‘lottery of death’ (Aust. HOR 1966, 619) both politically and morally challenging for sending twenty-year-old men to war who were not yet able to vote. Whitlam emphasised negotiating a peace settlement through the United Nations, to be supported by a peacekeeping force with Australian involvement.

Frustrated by the glacial pace of policy change, in February 1966 Whitlam lashed out at the ALP federal executive’s intransigence over state aid to non-government schools, publicly deriding its members as ‘twelve witless men.’ The executive promptly charged him with gross disloyalty and moved for his expulsion. Only a sudden change of votes by the Queensland delegates, impressed by Whitlam’s campaigning for the Dawson by-election, won by Labor with a 13.7 per cent swing, saved him.

Whitlam challenged Calwell for the leadership on 27 April 1966. Although Calwell won the contest forty-nine votes to twenty-four, he announced that if Labor lost the next election he would resign as leader. The November 1966 election brought a crushing defeat. The government, now led by Harold Holt, was returned with a 4.3 per cent swing that lost Labor nine seats. The worst result was in Victoria, a bastion of the Labor left that was intractably opposed to state aid and Australia’s involvement in Vietnam. Calwell reluctantly resigned but remained on the backbench, seething at ‘that elongated bastard’ (Hocking 2008, 236). On 8 February 1967 Whitlam was elected leader of the ALP, with Barnard as deputy.

At the annual conference of the Victorian branch four months later, Whitlam launched an excoriating attack on the disloyalty and ideological purity of the State branch that had consigned the party to seemingly permanent opposition: ‘we construct a philosophy of failure, which finds in defeat a form of justification and a proof of the purity of our principles. Certainly, the impotent are pure’ (Whitlam 1967). His speech was met with thunderous boos and catcalls, and deepening division in that recalcitrant branch. Whitlam left the jeers of the Victorians to fly to Washington, DC, for a meeting with President Lyndon Johnson, and then on to Europe where he had an audience with Pope Paul VI. He returned in time for a by-election in the Liberal-held Victorian seat of Corio, campaigning strongly for the ALP’s Gordon Scholes, who won the seat with a swing of 11.1 per cent, boosting Whitlam’s standing.

Continuing internal divisions culminated in the federal executive’s decision in April 1968 to declare the Tasmanian delegate Brian Harradine, long-suspected of links to the DLP, not a ‘fit and proper person’ to sit on the executive, effectively challenging Whitlam’s authority. Typical of what was becoming known as his ‘crash through or crash’ approach, Whitlam responded by abruptly resigning as leader and refusing to continue without the explicit support of the caucus. The left-wing Victorian Jim Cairns stood against him, using the tagline ‘Whose party is this—ours or his?’ Whitlam only narrowly defeated Cairns, thirty-eight votes to thirty-two. Yet it was a turning point in his path to government, giving him renewed authority in the party and consolidating his push for policy renewal. Whitlam’s precipitate resignation exemplified what was aptly described by Menadue as an ‘exhilarating, worrying, sort of hang-onto-your-hat, here we go, confronting people in the party’ approach (Hocking 2008, 234).

The July 1969 ALP federal conference saw a raft of new policies adopted relating to Vietnam, state aid, education, electoral equity, the White Australia policy, and Indigenous affairs. Sixty-one resolutions were passed and proceedings were televised for the first time, a high point of both policy renewal and party unity. In October 1969, Whitlam fought his first election as Labor leader with this comprehensive reform agenda. The ALP achieved a 7.1 per cent swing and gained eighteen seats with 50.2 per cent of the two-party preferred vote, falling short of victory by just four seats. As disunity continued in the Victorian branch over state aid, Whitlam led a federal intervention in 1970, to the lasting enmity of the Victorian left but to the vastly improved electability of the party.

Whitlam’s audacious decision to head an ALP delegation to the People’s Republic of China in 1971 exemplified the gulf between the old and the new. Although recognising communist China had been Labor policy since the 1950s, the visit was a bold move so close to an election. While Prime Minister (Sir) William McMahon mocked him as ‘the Manchurian candidate,’ Whitlam left Beijing as the United States of America’s national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, arrived to arrange President Richard Nixon’s historic trip to China. The landmark visit thus secured Whitlam’s status as an international leader and left McMahon embarrassed. Whitlam returned to Australia as the harbinger of change, reinforced by his becoming the only parliamentary leader to visit the Aboriginal Tent Embassy, established on the lawns opposite Parliament House in January 1972. At a meeting with embassy members he committed to ‘a complete reversal’ (Hocking 2008, 391) of the Menzies era policy of assimilation in favour of self-determination and the recognition of land rights.

Labor’s 1972 election campaign, run by the party’s national secretary Mick Young, was one of its strongest and most professional. Focus groups were used to identify issues of concern to the electorate, and campaigning strategies utilised a broad range of media to reinforce the core campaign message, ‘It’s Time.’ The use of well-known actors and cultural identities at the campaign launch and in the campaign song was not previously seen in Australian election campaigns. Whitlam’s policy speech presented over two hundred specific commitments, a synthesis of an expansive blueprint for reform known as ‘the program.’ Its three great aims were ‘to promote equality; to involve the people of Australia in the decision-making processes of our land; and to liberate the talents and uplift the horizons of the Australian people’ (Whitlam 1972). At its heart was equality of opportunity, the key to which was education, based on ‘a student's merit, rather than a parent's wealth’ (Whitlam 1972).

On 2 December 1972 Whitlam led the ALP to victory with 52.7 per cent of the two-party preferred vote and a majority of nine seats, forming the first Labor government in twenty-three years. Three days later he was sworn in as Australia’s twenty-first prime minister. With the outcome in some seats still to be finalised, he formed an interim duumvirate in which he and Barnard held all twenty-seven ministries. In two weeks the duumvirate made forty critical decisions, starting with the withdrawal of remaining Australian forces from Vietnam, the release from prison of young men refusing to serve in Vietnam, dropping all charges against over three hundred others, and ending conscription. Other announcements followed in daily succession: changing Australia’s votes at the United Nations to support self-determination for colonial nations and sanctions against apartheid; excluding from Australia racially selected international sporting teams; closing the Rhodesian Information Centre; recognising the People’s Republic of China; removing sales tax on contraceptives; reopening the equal pay case which the McMahon government had opposed; establishing an Australian honours system; inaugurating new grants for the arts; establishing an interim commission to determine schools funding; instituting nursing home benefits; signing the United Nations International Covenants on Civil and Political Rights and on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights; and instituting a judicial inquiry into Aboriginal land rights in the Northern Territory. Some public service mandarins from the Menzies era chafed at the upheaval in their comfortable relationships with government and the advent of new ministerial policy advisors. Against the urgings of some in the party, Whitlam retained most heads of department, believing that they would serve governments of all persuasions equally, just as his father had.

The full ministry was sworn in on 19 December. The first Commonwealth Department of Aboriginal Affairs was established under Gordon Bryant, Frank Crean was appointed treasurer, and Senator Lionel Murphy attorney-general. Whitlam himself held foreign affairs for the first year of his government, setting a more independent foreign policy which, while acknowledging traditional alliances with Britain and the United States, no longer privileged Australia’s relations with them. To Whitlam, this was a policy reorientation, not a repudiation of the past, in recognition of Australia’s place in the Asia-Pacific region. In a landmark environmental case, Australia and New Zealand took France to the International Court of Justice in 1973 over nuclear testing in the Pacific, leading France to cease above-ground testing. The vestiges of the White Australia policy ended in 1973, and in 1975 two radio stations commenced broadcasting in languages other than English, reflecting a policy shift to multiculturalism.

The first international visitor to call on Whitlam was the chief minister of Papua and New Guinea, (Sir) Michael Somare, to finalise a timetable for independence which was achieved in September 1975. Whitlam’s own international visits also reflected his government’s priorities. Rather than the usual prime ministerial priority trip to London or Washington, his first visit was to New Zealand, his second to Papua and New Guinea, and his third to Indonesia. His interest in strengthening Australia’s relationship with Indonesia included favouring its eventual integration of the Portuguese colony of East Timor, provided this was through an internationally acceptable act of self-determination by the East Timorese people, a position that was incompatible with Indonesia’s forcible annexation in December 1975. On 31 October 1973 Whitlam became the first Australian prime minister to visit China, opening up significant new trade relations.

Whitlam saw Australia’s new outlook in foreign affairs as a moment of national self-assertion and maturity: ‘We have sought a more distinctive and independent role … especially in our own region’ (Whitlam 1974). Seeking an end to residual ‘colonial relics’ between Britain and Australia, British honours were replaced by the Order of Australia; an Australian national anthem, ‘Advance Australia Fair,’ was chosen by an official public opinion poll in 1974; and the Queen’s Australian title was shortened to Queen of Australia. But Whitlam’s determination to end the remaining powers of the British Privy Council to hear appeals from some Australian State Supreme Courts met with British intransigence and resistance from some States, and was not realised until 1986.

His confidence in section 96 proved well founded as the government made extensive use of tied grants to increase funding in traditional State responsibilities of health, welfare, and education, focusing on under-resourced suburban growth areas. The Schools Commission and other agencies oversaw a four-fold increase in federal education funding, using a needs-based allocation formula, and the universal health insurance scheme Medibank was introduced. Tuition fees for tertiary institutions were abolished and a means-tested student allowance implemented. Many policies were of particular significance for women. A supporting mother’s benefit introduced in 1973 was followed by funding for dental treatment of primary school students, and for expanded child and pre-school care. Female Commonwealth public servants were granted equal pay and three months paid maternity leave. In 1973 Whitlam appointed the Canberra academic Elizabeth Reid as his special adviser on women’s affairs, and all cabinet submissions were reviewed for their impact on women. Justice Elizabeth Evatt was appointed a presidential member of the Conciliation and Arbitration Commission, and later chair of the royal commission into human relationships, covering domestic violence, contraception, abortion, sexuality, rape, and discrimination. The government also removed the means test on the old age pension for claimants aged over seventy-five and increased all social security benefits.

The government’s vast law reform agenda under Murphy included ending the death penalty for all relevant Commonwealth offences; a national legal aid system; creation of the Law Reform Commission; and the Trade Practices Act 1974. The human rights bill and racial discrimination bill were opposed by opposition and DLP senators and lapsed with the 1974 election, the latter being revived and passed in 1975. Whitlam’s long commitment to electoral reform saw the voting age lowered to eighteen; establishment of the Australian Electoral Office as a statutory body; equal electorates within 10 per cent margins; and Senate representation for the Australian Capital Territory and the Northern Territory.

But the government faced an immediate and intractable problem in the shifting global economic situation. Whitlam came to office just as the international economy was entering a period of unprecedented postwar volatility and rising inflation, for which neither his government nor the Treasury, was prepared. Labor’s economic policies were predicated on the continuation of the postwar boom of low-inflation economic growth, which was to enable social reform through a more equitable distribution of wealth. As Whitlam had earlier described it, ‘we do not have to ration scarcity but plan abundance’ (Whitlam 1961). By the time he came to office, however, that ‘abundance’ was already under stress. Economic uncertainty was compounded by his determination to end the array of tariffs protecting Australian manufacturing. His decision to implement an immediate 25 per cent across the board cut in tariffs in July 1973, the recommendation of the Tariff Board, caused ructions within cabinet and exacerbated tensions with the Treasury. The tariff cut devastated many local and multinational subsidiary businesses and angered the Australian Council of Trade Unions, creating a lasting antipathy in some quarters towards the government and mistrust of its economic credentials.

To this already volatile economic situation came the global ‘oil shock’ of October 1973, increasing oil prices four-fold and giving rise to stagflation—inflation together with stagnating growth and rising unemployment. Policy deliberations over how best to deal with this caused further friction with the Treasury and tension within the government as inflation reached 16 per cent in 1974, the highest level since 1951, and unemployment rose to 4.6 per cent in 1975. Foreign ownership restrictions over mining and resource investment caused further strain with the mining sector and the Treasury. These were part of the government’s larger vision for national energy infrastructure focusing on the North-West Shelf, driven by the minister for minerals and energy, Rex Connor.

In November 1973 Whitlam presided over the start of construction of the Australian National Gallery, just as controversy was erupting over his support for the gallery’s purchase of the American artist Jackson Pollock’s abstract expressionist ‘Blue Poles’ for $1.2 million. While conservative members of parliament derided the purchase, the prime minister’s Christmas card defiantly featured the painting’s image, ‘reproduced in handsome style, if to somewhat provocative effect’ (Whitlam 1985, 566). His first year as prime minister ended with a record 253 bills having been introduced, 203 Acts passed, thirteen bills rejected by the Senate, thirty-nine treaties and other international agreements presented to the parliament, and thirty-nine reports tabled, all a pointed contrast to the final year of McMahon.

Implementation of such an ambitious legislative agenda faced a formidable institutional obstacle in the composition of the Senate, which had not gone to election in 1972 and so reflected the political climate of the Senate elections of 1967 and 1970. Labor came to office with twenty-six senators, while the Coalition also had twenty-six, the DLP five, and three were Independents. The Liberal Senator Reg Withers described Labor’s 1972 victory as the result of ‘the temporary electoral insanity of the two most populous Australian states,’ vowing to use the Senate to ‘protect the national interest’ and force the government back to an election (Aust. Senate 1973, 291). In early 1974 Withers announced that the Opposition had ‘embarked on a course some 12 months ago … to bring about a House of Representatives election’ (Aust. Senate 1974, 910).

By April 1974, nineteen bills had been rejected by the Opposition-DLP controlled Senate, ten of them twice. Whitlam now had six trigger bills for a double dissolution under section 57 of the Constitution, including bills to establish Medibank, a universal health care system; to ensure more equal numbers of voters in electorates; to introduce Senate representation for the mainland territories; and to establish the Petroleum and Minerals Authority. That month the Opposition moved to defer a vote on supply bills in the Senate unless Whitlam agreed to an election. Whitlam advised the governor-general, Sir Paul Hasluck, that he intended to seek a double dissolution on the basis of six trigger bills. Despite no previous federal Labor leader having won successive elections, Whitlam was conscious of the possibility that, were Labor to be re-elected, a subsequent joint sitting of both Houses voting as one under section 57 could provide a means of passing the six bills. Hasluck granted the double dissolution, conditional on the ‘adequate provision’ of supply for the election, which the Senate then passed.

Labor’s campaign focused on giving the government ‘a fair go’ to implement its mandate, and contrasted the government’s achievements with the Opposition’s obstruction and seeming lack of policy vision. On 18 May 1974 Labor secured a second term with a national primary vote just 0.29 per cent lower than in 1972, and the loss of one seat. Whitlam’s real victory, however, was in the Senate, where the ALP increased its numbers by three to again equal the Coalition. The DLP lost all five of its senators, to Whitlam’s unrestrained delight. Two Independent senators were also elected, one of whom promised to support the government on supply, while the other rejoined the Liberal Party in February 1975. Critically, the Coalition no longer had the numbers to defer a vote on supply. Against this electoral high point came a personal and political blow when on 10 June 1974 Barnard was defeated by Cairns in a deputy leadership ballot. Whitlam considered this ‘the most unfair and unwise decision Caucus ever made in my time’ (Whitlam 2001, 109). He had lost a calm foil to his more precipitate temperament, and the entire government an experienced parliamentary tactician.

After the Senate again rejected the trigger bills, all six were then passed at the joint sitting of 6-7 August 1974, the first use of the full provisions of section 57. It was convened by the new governor-general, Sir John Kerr, immediate past chief justice of the New South Wales Supreme Court. Although Kerr had not been Whitlam’s first choice, Whitlam thought him a sufficiently esteemed legal figure to be an uncontroversial appointment. The Opposition had unsuccessfully sought an injunction to the joint sitting, and then challenged four of the six Acts passed there in High Court cases that stretched into the following year. Only that against the Petroleum and Minerals Authority Act succeeded.

Whitlam had just begun a five-week, fifteen nation, official visit to Europe when Cyclone Tracy hit Darwin on Christmas Eve 1974, destroying 80 per cent of its houses. He returned immediately to visit Darwin and oversee the initial relief and reconstruction effort. Despite the urgings of his advisors, he resumed his travels two days later, insisting that they had already been postponed because of the double dissolution election and that the reconstruction effort was under the control of Deputy Prime Minister Cairns and Major General Alan Stretton. The reaction was scathing, drawing criticism from the Opposition, the press, and the public that he had left the country at a time of crisis.

In February 1975 Whitlam appointed Murphy to fill a vacancy on the High Court of Australia. Although Murphy was the fifth former federal attorney-general appointed to the court, his elevation created a furore. Far more significant was the political convention breached when the New South Wales Liberal premier, Tom Lewis, refused to appoint the ALP’s nominee as Murphy’s replacement. This provided a precedent for the Queensland National Country Party premier, (Sir) Joh Bjelke-Petersen, when Labor Senator Bert Milliner died in June 1975. Bjelke-Petersen replaced Milliner with a right-wing union official, Albert Field, who went to Canberra ‘to see the downfall of the government’ (Field 1983). These appointments denied the government two Senate positions it had secured at the 1974 election, and gave the Opposition the numbers to defer a vote on supply in the Senate. Malcolm Fraser had become Opposition leader in March 1975, and was proving a tougher political adversary than his predecessor, Billy Snedden.

The government had a major success when, after years of bitter debate, the family law bill passed on a conscience vote in May, introducing the Western world’s first no-fault divorce on the sole ground of twelve months separation. The non-financial contribution of women to the family home was also recognised in custody and financial settlements, enabling them to leave a marriage without having to prove ‘fault’ or risk losing custody of their children. Medibank, introduced in July 1975, was second only to education in Whitlam’s social equity agenda at a time when 17 per cent of Australians had no health or hospital insurance cover.

In his 1972 policy speech Whitlam had committed his government to land rights for Indigenous peoples. In August 1975 he travelled to Daguragu, part of the land the Gurindji people had sought to reclaim by walking off Wave Hill station a decade earlier. Pouring sand from his hands into those of the Gurindji elder and leader of the walk-off, Vincent Lingiari, Whitlam said that ‘these lands belong to the Gurindji people and I put into your hands part of the earth itself as a sign that this land will be the possession of you and your children forever’ (Whitlam 16 August 1975). The government had purchased 3,237 square kilometres of Wave Hill station from Lord Vestey, which it passed on to the Gurindji people as leasehold title. The Aboriginal land (Northern Territory) bill, the first Commonwealth land rights legislation, was introduced into the House of Representatives in October 1975.

Throughout 1975 the government was under increasing pressure economically and politically, with a record 17 per cent swing against the ALP in the June by-election for Barnard’s old seat of Bass; Cairns’s removal as treasurer in June and from the ministry entirely shortly after; and internal divisions resurfacing. It was also facing questions from the Opposition over an Executive Council meeting held on 13 December 1974 which had approved a search for a $US 4,000 million loan to fund its ambitious energy self-sufficiency and infrastructure plans, including a publicly owned pipeline to bring gas from the North-West Shelf to south-eastern Australia. The governor-general was not at the meeting, having been informed of it only that morning, but had signed the relevant minute the next day. An Executive Council meeting the following month, presided over in person by Kerr, cancelled that authority and authorised a new search for a smaller sum of $US 2,000 million for the same use. The Treasury fiercely opposed using what it saw as unorthodox sources of funds, particularly Connor’s attempts to recruit the Pakistani financier Tirath Khemlani as a broker. The search for funds was abandoned and Connor was ordered to cease all contact. His forced resignation in October 1975 for misleading the prime minister and the House over continued communications with Khemlani provided Fraser with the ‘reprehensible circumstances’ to move against the government in the Senate.

On 16 October 1975 the coalition took the unprecedented step of refusing to proceed to a second reading of the government’s supply and appropriation bills. A vote instead to defer supply ‘until the Government agrees to submit itself to the judgment of the people’ (Aust. Senate 1975, 1241) passed twenty-nine votes to twenty-eight. Whitlam’s response, unanimously supported by caucus, was that if the Opposition persisted, he would call the half-Senate election then due under section 13 of the Constitution. The critical factor making the prospect of a half-Senate election troubling for the Coalition was the High Court’s recent ruling in the government’s favour in the territories senators’ cases. This meant that at the proposed half-Senate election the Australian Capital Territory and the Northern Territory would elect two senators each and that these four, together with the anticipated two newly elected Labor senators filling the seats earlier held by Murphy and Milliner, would take their places immediately after the election. Such an outcome could give Labor control of the Senate until July 1976, when the other senators-elect would finally take up their seats.

The Opposition put immense pressure on the governor-general to act. In a significant public statement Robert Ellicott, the shadow attorney-general, asserted that Kerr should dismiss the government as soon as supply was blocked, and Fraser threatened to denounce the governor-general if he did not do so. At Kerr’s request, Whitlam asked (Sir) Maurice Byers, solicitor-general, and Kep Enderby, attorney-general, to advise whether there was any basis for the governor-general to intervene. The opinion produced by Byers on 4 November, and handed to Kerr by Enderby on 6 November, noted that the reserve power to dismiss had not been used in Westminster since 1783, and ‘cast the gravest doubt upon the present existence of that prerogative’ (Aust. Senate 1976, 401). Kerr had fully anticipated such advice and, unknown to Whitlam, had told Queen Elizabeth II two weeks earlier that ‘in an extreme constitutional crisis’ he ‘might not accept’ (Hocking 2020, 205) the advice of the Australian law officers.

The stalemate continued for four weeks as the budget bills were passed by the House three times, only for coalition senators to refuse to vote on them in the same terms. Following an Executive Council meeting on 6 November, Whitlam told Kerr that if supply had not been passed by 11 November, he would call a half-Senate election that day, to be held on 13 December. They agreed to meet at Government House on 11 November to sign the documents authorising the election. But when Whitlam arrived at Yarralumla Kerr instead handed him an already-signed letter terminating his commission and those of his entire ministry. Whitlam described this as ‘the greatest shock I have ever experienced’ (Hocking 2016, 125). He left Government House unaware that Fraser had been waiting in an anteroom with the governor-general’s official secretary, (Sir) David Smith, ready to be sworn in as caretaker prime minister pending a double dissolution election on 13 December. Whitlam’s planned countermeasures were parliamentary, involving securing a confidence vote in the House of Representatives and the passage of supply in the Senate, thereby returning to office with both the explicit confidence of the House and supply. He had no doubt that, according to the central tenet of the Westminster system that governments are formed on the floor of ‘the people’s House,’ he would be recommissioned.

The House of Representatives and the Senate resumed sitting at 2 p.m., with many members not knowing that the government had been dismissed and Whitlam still unaware that Fraser had been appointed prime minister by Kerr. The Senate passed supply at 2.24 p.m. At 2.34 p.m. Fraser announced to a stunned house that Kerr had commissioned him as caretaker prime minister and unsuccessfully sought to adjourn the sitting. Fraser then lost several motions, culminating in Whitlam moving the critical ‘want of confidence’ motion against Fraser, which also affirmed the confidence of the House in Whitlam and requested the governor-general ‘to call the honourable member for Werriwa to form a government’ (Aust. HOR 1975, 2930-31). Despite losing the no confidence motion by ten votes, Fraser refused to resign. The speaker, Gordon Scholes, was despatched to inform the governor-general while the House adjourned pending that meeting.

However, Kerr refused Scholes an appointment until 4.25 p.m. Thirty-seven years later it was revealed that during the critical delay Kerr rang the High Court justice Sir Anthony Mason, concerned that the House had expressed no confidence in Fraser and confidence in Whitlam. In an extraordinary comment, Mason told Kerr that the resolution of the House was ‘irrelevant’ since Kerr had already commissioned Fraser. Kerr then dissolved the House and the Senate for a double dissolution, with Fraser still in office. The public proclamation read by Smith ended with the words ‘God save the Queen,’ which Whitlam had removed from such proclamations the previous year. The vice-regal presumption led Whitlam to begin his famous speech on the steps of Parliament House with ‘Well may we say, “God save the Queen” because nothing will save the governor-general’ (Whitlam 11 November 1975).

Kerr’s failure to warn Whitlam about the options he was considering was contrary to the widely understood role of a governor-general of ‘the right to be consulted, to encourage and to warn’ an elected government. Even Mason told him that ‘if he did not warn the prime minister, he would run the risk that people would accuse him of being deceptive’ (Mason 2012, 4). Although Kerr and Fraser denied being in contact prior to the dismissal other than with Whitlam’s approval, they had been. Withers later revealed their secret telephone discussions the week before the dismissal. This included, as Fraser later conceded, on the morning of 11 November when they agreed on the terms by which Kerr would dismiss Whitlam and appoint Fraser.

The claim by Kerr that he had reached his decision alone, ‘on my own part,’ took longer to unravel. Mason’s role in ‘fortifying’ Kerr began months before the dismissal, and included facilitating secret tutorials at the Australian National University (ANU) on the extent of his powers, advising Kerr on when to dismiss Whitlam and when to seek the imprimatur of Chief Justice Barwick, and drafting the letter of dismissal. The release in 2020 of the ‘Palace letters’ between Kerr and Buckingham Palace added another dimension. Despite decades of denial, the correspondence ‘discloses Palace involvement’ (Bongiorno 2021, 446). The Queen, her private secretary, and Prince Charles knew since September 1975 that Kerr was considering dismissing the government, of his failure to consult the prime minister, and of his preparedness to act against the prime minister’s advice, ‘providing not just comfort but actual encouragement to the governor-general in his sacking of the government’ (Wallace 2020).

Whitlam was determined to run the 1975 election campaign on ‘the scandal and the infamy’ (Whitlam 11 November 1975) of the dismissal and in disbelief that the electorate would see otherwise. Within a week he was forced to refocus as it became clear that the electorate wanted a return to stability and economic certainty. Large crowds of distressed and angry party faithful soon gave way to a sense of impending loss. In the end it was Labor’s greatest ever election defeat. Its primary vote fell 6.4 per cent with a loss of thirty seats, including those of six ministers. Despite Whitlam’s efforts to persuade the former treasurer, Bill Hayden, widely seen as a steadying influence during the government’s final months, to take over the party leadership, the post-dismissal decimation was Whitlam’s to endure. The dismissal had shaken his core political beliefs, and he was a diminished figure as leader and in parliament.

Seeing the Fraser government dismantle some of his government’s key reforms, including Medibank, was particularly difficult for Whitlam. His government had been one of unsurpassed parliamentary activity that transformed the nation in ways which have endured. An unsuccessful private prosecution launched during the election campaign against Whitlam, Murphy, Connor, and Cairns over the December 1974 Executive Council meeting, alleging contravention of the Financial Agreement of 1928 and conspiracy to deceive the governor-general, was finally dismissed in 1979.

Following the general election loss of December 1977 with little improvement in Labor’s position, Whitlam on 22 December stood down as party leader and was succeeded by Hayden. He had been the Labor Party’s longest-serving leader. In June 1978 he was appointed AC. On 31 July 1978 he resigned as member for Werriwa. The same month he was appointed a visiting fellow at the ANU, and in 1979 became visiting professor of Australian studies at Harvard University. He released his own account of the dismissal, The Truth of the Matter (1979), his blistering response to Kerr’s Matters for Judgment (1978), and a detailed compendium of his government, The Whitlam Government 1972–1975 (1985).

The most significant of Whitlam’s many post-parliamentary appointments came in 1983 as Australian ambassador to the Paris-based United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. In this role, Whitlam served on the Independent Commission on International Humanitarian Issues and the World Heritage Committee. At the end of his three-year term, he was elected to the Executive Board of UNESCO. He was appointed to the Australian Constitutional Commission in 1985. On returning to Australia in 1986 he became chair of the Australia–China Council and, the following year, chair of the Council of the National Gallery of Australia. During the 1990s he also joined Margaret as co-leader of popular cultural tours through Europe and Asia. Both were members of the successful Sydney bid to host the 2000 Olympic Games. In his old age Whitlam remained a towering and widely admired presence with a compellingly imperious manner. Gough and Margaret were made national life members of the ALP in 2007, and the next year attended the Labor prime minister Kevin Rudd’s Apology to Australia’s Indigenous Peoples delivered at Parliament House. Margaret died on 17 March 2012.

Whitlam died in Sydney on 21 October 2014, survived by his three sons and daughter, and was cremated. His national memorial service in Sydney Town Hall was attended by some two thousand mourners, including seven former prime ministers, among them Malcolm Fraser. Thousands more paid their respects outside. A First Nations eulogist, Noel Pearson, summed up Whitlam’s significance: ‘Without this old man, the land and human rights of our people would never have seen the light of day … he truly was Australia’s greatest white elder.’ A portrait by Clifton Pugh hangs in Parliament House. Commemorations of Whitlam include the naming of a suburb in Canberra, a square in inner Sydney, and the Whitlam Institute at Western Sydney University.

Research edited by Stephen Wilks

Select Bibliography

  • Australia. House of Representatives. Parliamentary Debates, 19 March 1953, 1423-28, 17 November 1960, 3032-34,  3 May 1961, 1396-97, 24 March 1966, 619, 11 November 1975, 2928-32
  • Australia. Senate. Parliamentary Debates, 8 March 1973, 290-94,10 April 1974, 910, 16 October 1975, 1241, 16 October 1975, 1241, 3 March 1976, 398-403
  • Bongiorno, Frank. Review of The Palace Letters by Jenny Hocking. Australian Historical Studies 52, no. 3 (2021): 446-48
  • The Canberran: The Journal of the Canberra Grammar School 5 (1935): 27
  • Field, Albert. Interview by Prue Shaw, 20 August 1983. National Library of Australia
  • Gill, Alan. ‘The Religion of Edward Gough Whitlam, PM.’ Sydney Morning Herald, 17 May 1974, 22
  • Hocking, Jenny. The Dismissal Dossier: The Palace Connection. 2nd ed. Carlton, Vic.: Melbourne University Publishing, 2016
  • Hocking, Jenny. Gough Whitlam: A Moment in History: The Biography Volume I. Carlton, Vic.: Melbourne University Publishing, 2008
  • Hocking, Jenny. Gough Whitlam: His Time: The Biography Volume II. 2nd ed. Carlton, Vic.: Melbourne University Publishing, 2014
  • Hocking, Jenny, ed. Making Modern Australia: Gough Whitlam's 21st Century Agenda. Clayton, Vic.: Monash University Publishing, 2017
  • Hocking, Jenny. The Palace Letters: The Queen, the Governor-General and the Plot to Dismiss Gough Whitlam. Melbourne: Scribe Publications, 2020
  • Mason, Anthony. ‘It Was Unfolding Like a Greek Tragedy.’ Sydney Morning Herald, 27 August 2012, 4
  • National Archives of Australia. A9300, WHITLAM EDWARD GOUGH
  • Pearson, Noel. ‘This Old Man Changed Our Lives Forever.’ Sydney Morning Herald, 6 November 2014, 22
  • Wallace, Chris. ‘“Palace Letters” Reveal the Palace’s Fingerprints on the Dismissal of the Whitlam Government.’ The Conversation, 14 July 2020
  • Whitlam, E. G. ‘Curtin Memorial Lecture 1961,’ University of Western Australia, 28 February 1961. Booklet copy, Whitlam Institute Prime Ministerial Collection
  • Whitlam, E. G. ‘Election Speech 1972.’ Museum of Australian Democracy at Old Parliament House
  • Whitlam, E. G. ‘Gough Whitlam’s Caucus.’ In True Believers edited by John Faulkner and Stuart Macintyre, 108-9. Crows Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 2001
  • Whitlam, E. G. ‘“Kerr’s Cur” Speech,’ 11 November 1975. National Film and Sound Archive of Australia
  • Whitlam, E. G. ‘The Relevance of the Whitlam Government To-day.’ In It’s Time Again: Whitlam and Modern Labor, edited by Jenny Hocking and Colleen Lewis, 10–32. Armadale, Vic.: Circa Books, 2003
  • Whitlam, E. G. ‘Speech by the Prime Minister at Mansion House, London,’ 19 December 1974. Transcripts from the Prime Ministers of Australia, Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet
  • Whitlam, E. G. ‘Speech by the Prime Minister, Mr E.G. Whitlam QC MP, at the Gurindji Land Ceremony,’ 16 August 1975
  • Whitlam, E. G. ‘Speech to the Annual Conference of the Australian Labor Party—Victorian Branch,’ 9 June 1967. Whitlam Institute Prime Ministerial Collection
  • Whitlam, E. G. The Whitlam Government 1972-1975. Ringwood, Vic.: Viking, 1985

Additional Resources

Citation details

Jenny Hocking, 'Whitlam, Edward Gough (1916–2014)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2023, accessed online 26 May 2024.

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Gough Whitlam, c.1972

Gough Whitlam, c.1972

National Archives of Australia, A6135:K21/9/72/9

Responding to the dismissal announcement
Australian Broadcasting Commission
11 November 1975