Obituary: Gough Whitlam (1916–2014)

Widely admired for the broad-ranging reform program which he instigated as Prime Minister in the early 1970s, Gough Whitlam became the centre of nation-wide controversy when his government was dismissed by Governor-General Sir John Kerr in November 1975.

Edward Gough Whitlam was born in Melbourne on 11 July 1916 and also spent periods of his early childhood in Sydney and Canberra as his father pursued a career in the Commonwealth Crown Solicitor's Office.

During World War II, he served as a navigator in the Royal Australian Air Force from 1942 until 1945, when he was discharged with the rank of Flight-Lieutenant.  In 1942 he wed social worker Margaret Dovey, to whom he was married for almost 70 years and who later played an important role as a political and prime ministerial wife.

Whitlam graduated from the University of Sydney with Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Laws degrees in 1945 and was admitted to the New South Wales Bar in 1947.

After joining the Australian Labor Party in 1945, he won the seat of Werriwa, Sydney in 1952, a seat he held until he resigned in 1978.  He was elected Leader of the Opposition on 8 February 1967 and led the Labor Party to victory in the 1972 Federal election with the iconic It's Time theme.  With a majority of nine seats in the House of Representatives, the Labor Party was in government for the first time in 23 years.

The Whitlam government's wide reform program included the abolition of tertiary tuition fees, the introduction of welfare payments for single mothers and homeless persons and a reduction in the voting age to 18. His government drew on international agreements to develop programs on human rights, the environment and conservation and also strengthened Australia's status by making Queen Elizabeth II Queen of Australia. In 1973, Whitlam became the first Australian Prime Minister to visit Communist China. He was also instrumental in the independence of Papua New Guinea, which was achieved in 1975.

His term as Prime Minister ended abruptly in November 1975 when the Whitlam government was dismissed by Governor-General Sir John Kerr after the Senate postponed the Budget vote three times, effectively blocking supply.  This move split the nation for years, some Australians supporting the move, others strongly against it. The Coalition, led by Malcolm Fraser, won the subsequent double dissolution election in December 1975. Whitlam remained Leader of the Opposition until stepping down from the role in 1977.

Whitlam was made a Companion of the Order of Australia in 1978 and retired from Parliament the same year, after 26 years of service as a Member of the House of Representatives.  He subsequently held several official roles including three years as the Australian Ambassador to UNESCO in Paris. He also chaired the Australia–China Council and the Council of the National Gallery of Australia and held various visiting professorships and committee memberships.

He passed away on 21 October 2014, surviving his wife Margaret by two years.

Copyright National Archives of Australia 2019