We didn’t live through the war, and only caught the cusp of the Vietnam moratoriums, so the time of the Whitlam government and its dismissal was our biggest and most turbulent experience in national life.
Gough was the third reason I didn’t go to Vietnam. First, I was doing studies that would have seen me exempted from national service even if my birthday had been selected in the lottery, which it wasn’t. But the rest of the people my age didn’t go anyway because Gough cancelled the draft and then the war. That was the first striking thing about the Whitlam years, perhaps. After all the years of trumpeting ANZUS and “All the way with LBJ”, Australia was going to pursue a more independent line in foreign policy. Just like the French or the Brits and other grown up nations, we could decide not to follow US policy if it didn’t make sense. Alongside the Whitlam policies on the arts and multiculturalism, on women and indigenous affairs, that foreign policy stance aligned Whitlam with all that was new in Australia, with the culture and expectations of the young. It was ‘the new nationalism’. Throw in the other signature policies of Whitlamism: Medibank, free universities and regional development. All was change, newness and bright futures.
In later years, I came to despise the ‘new nationalism’ as it descended into flag-waving and ‘best country in the world’ nonsense. Where Gough had stood above that sort of parochialism was precisely that he was not a narrow nationalist. He saw Australia as an important nation among the nations. By the time he was appointed ambassador to UNESCO in Paris, he had already begun his long post-career of self-parody, of sticking out his chin and playing ‘the great Gough’ for our entertainment. He was asked if he would not miss the action of Federal politics: “Where I am IS where the action is!” Ah, yes, Gough playing Gough. But still significant: Gough had no interest in being ‘a little Aussie battler’. With his classical education and vast range of cultural interests, Gough would be an Australian on the world stage. And that was how he saw the country, too.
All of which enables me to tell my Whitlam story. I met Gough only once, but it was memorable. Ed Campion had got me along to an opening night at the Belvoir, and there, immediately behind us, were Gough and Margaret. “My dear Edmund,” Gough leant forward and said, “I was talking to one of your co-religionists...” What he wanted to talk about was the role of Italian Cardinals who held English bishoprics in the late middle ages. Ed deftly deflected him, “Ah, Gough, this is Bill Wright. This is really more his field.” And then the play began. Downstairs at intermission, Gough bore down on me. He was working on a book, he said, on the missing chapter in British history, the Italian influence. And so, for the fifteen or twenty minutes, he interrogated me. “Would Cardinal Campeggio ever have lived in Lincoln? Did the Italian bishops build their English palaces in the Renaissance style?” And so on. Needless to say, it was a conversation I’ve never had with anyone else, but Gough’s intellectual curiosity was unbounded and, can I say, insatiable. He later wrote a rather different book on Italian culture, but what does that matter? He was an extraordinary mind.
Sadly, of course, the Whitlam government descended into chaos. The rest is history, though a history that, as I have found this week, still excites lively passions among those who were there. In part, Gough’s lofty distance from the day-to-day management of his ministers was a cause of the fiasco, no doubt. Nonetheless, I still feel we can extract the figure of Whitlam the thinker, the idealist, the social improver, from the ruins of that government. He had, and I hope his biographer hasn’t copyrighted the phrase, ‘A Certain Grandeur’. To all who were there, his time in power still evokes nostalgia for a time when politics was still about big ideas, government about more than just managing the economy and gratifying particular interest groups. He was stirring in power and dignified in defeat. May he rest in peace.