Gough Whitlam 1916-2014

October 21, 2014 by Henry Benjamin
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Gough Whitlam, Labor Prime Minister of Australia between 1972 and 1975 and Leader of the Opposition between 1967 and 1977 has died at the age of 98.

In 1972, Gough Whitlam was the keynote speaker at the Yom Ha’azmaut celebration in Sydney’s Town Hall. The audience rose to its feet when he announced that he planned on become the first ever Australian Prime Minister to visit the State of Israel.

Gough Whitlam

Gough Whitlam

James Spigelman and Peter Wilenski numbered amongst the iconic leader’s advisers. Moss Cass was Minister for the Environment under Whitlam.

In his tribute to Whitlam, Liberal Prime Minister said: “Australia mourns the passing of its 21st Prime Minister, the Honourable Edward Gough Whitlam AC QC.

We remember his lifetime of service to Australia in the Royal Australian Air Force, as a parliamentarian, as Prime Minister and as an ambassador.

Gough Whitlam was a giant of his time.

He united the Australian Labor Party, won two elections and seemed, in so many ways, larger than life.

In his own party, he inspired a legion of young people to get involved in public life.

He established diplomatic relations with China and was the first Australian Prime Minister to visit China.  China is our largest trading partner. That is an enduring legacy.

Gough Whitlam recognised the journey that our country needed to take with indigenous Australians.  The image of soil passing from Gough Whitlam’s hand to Vincent Lingiari’s is a reminder that all Australians share the same land and the same hopes.

Gough Whitlam’s life was inseparable from that of Margaret Whitlam. Margaret Whitlam was a leading light for women of her generation. Together they made a difference to our country.

On this day we honour a life of service to our country.

I have instructed all flags to fly at half-mast today and on the day of Mr Whitlam’s State Memorial Service.

Further details on how Australians can honour Mr Whitlam will be announced in coming days in consultation with the Whitlam family.”

President of The Executive Council of Australian Jewry Robert Goot said: “Gough Whitlam was a larger than life figure, whose government transformed Australian politics and society. He demonstrated great strengths as well as significant failings. Whitlam’s government made positive and long overdue changes to Australian public life, notably through reform of family law, the introduction of the Racial Discrimination Act; urban planning; funding of the arts and universities; abolishing conscription and university fees; introducing universal health care cover; and much more.

It is fair to say however, that on his Government was inexperienced and often naïve on economic and financial matters and made many mistakes. On matters relating to Israel, including the introduction of the so-called “even handed” policy, the Jewish community was rightly disappointed with, if not hostile to, Whitlam’s attitude and actions. It was not until the election of Bob Hawke as Prime Minister that the relationship between the Jewish community and the ALP, was put on a more even keel.”

Dr Colin Rubenstein executive director of The Australia/Israel and Jewish Affairs Council told J-Wire: “Gough Whitlam was a towering figure in Australian political life, who brought Labor back to power after along period in the political wilderness and, despite his short tenure  as PM,  made many substantial and significant initiatives and reforms in areas such as education, the arts, the environment, immigration and multiculturalism.

The history books will certainly record the profound effects the Whitlam government had in shaping the Australia both of today and into the future.

He had what was at times a tumultuous, disappointing relationship with the Jewish community, with his somewhat cynical and indifferent “even handed ” approach  when the survival of Israel was at stake during the difficult period of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, and his aggressive treatment of those who sought to engage with him rather than accept his judgement on all issues. But this does not mean we do not recognise his incredible over-all impact on Australia in so many ways.

Gough Whitlam will be remembered for some remarkable policy achievements, and for his larger-than-life personality. Political, civil and cultural figures have paid him many deserved plaudits in the brief time since we learnt of his passing. Gough Whitlam was a unique Australian leader, and his passing is marked with deep sadness. We also wish to express our condolences to the Whitlam family.”

On behalf of the Australian people, I extend my condolences to the Whitlam family on their loss.”

Rabbi Raymond Apple, emeritus rabbi of the Great Synagogue, Sydney (1972-2004), said:”Living through the Whitlam era made Australians more politically conscious than most had ever been previously. Whether you loved Whitlam or abhorred him, you could never be indifferent to the man or his policies (and achievements). Though he upset many Jews by some critical and inappropriate remarks about Israel at the 25th anniversary celebration of the State of Israel, he was generally on good terms with Jewish and Israeli leaders and was mostly regarded as a friend of the Jewish community. In 1978 he almost stole the show outside the Great Synagogue when the crowd recognized him and cheered when he arrived for the centenary service of the historic Synagogue in Elizabeth Street. The arrival of John Howard, who was not yet prime minister, attracted far less attention. Of course Whitlam loved the acclaim!”

In the Australian Journal of Jewish Studies, published in 2012, Suzanne Rutland wrote:  “When Gough Whitlam’s Labor Party was elected to government of the Commonwealth of Australia in December 1972, Whitlam sought to completely change the direction of Australia’s foreign policy, moving from the United States’ orbit towards that of the Communist and Third World powers. This change of direction affected his policies towards both Israel and the campaign for Soviet Jewry for freedom of migration. Chanan Reich has discussed the Whitlam government’s change of policy direction viz-a-viz Israel. However, it is also necessary to examine his policies in relation to Soviet Jewry, and issues of lobby groups in Australia. This is seen most clearly in his constant criticism of the “Jewish lobby” and his strong support for the “Arab lobby,” highlighted both in his discussions with Soviet representatives before his visit to the Soviet Union (the first by an Australian Prime Minister) and in his private correspondence with Lebanese born Australian businessman, Reuben F. Scarf. Whitlam’s change of direction towards the Soviet and Arab world was motivated by a number of different factors: ideological considerations in foreign policy; electoral issues, with the growing Arab population in Australia; the influence of left-wing members of the Australian Labor Party (ALP), such as Bill Hartley; and financial imperatives of the Party.”

Gough Whitlam did not visit Israel during his term as prime minister.


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