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Gough Whitlam
Portrait of Gough Whitlam, taken in March 1975
Official portrait, 1972
21st Prime Minister of Australia
In office
5 December 1972 – 11 November 1975
Monarch Elizabeth II
  • Sir Paul Hasluck
  • Sir John Kerr
  • Lance Barnard
  • Jim Cairns
  • Frank Crean
Preceded by William McMahon
Succeeded by Malcolm Fraser
Leader of the Opposition
In office
11 November 1975 – 22 December 1977
Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser
Preceded by Malcolm Fraser
Succeeded by Bill Hayden
In office
9 February 1967 – 5 December 1972
Prime Minister
Deputy Lance Barnard
Preceded by Arthur Calwell
Succeeded by Billy Snedden
Minister for Foreign Affairs
In office
5 December 1972 – 6 November 1973
Prime Minister Himself
Preceded by Nigel Bowen
Succeeded by Don Willesee
Leader of the Labor Party
In office
9 February 1967 – 22 December 1977
  • Lance Barnard
  • Jim Cairns
  • Frank Crean
  • Tom Uren
Preceded by Arthur Calwell
Succeeded by Bill Hayden
Deputy Leader of the Labor Party
In office
7 March 1960 – 9 February 1967
Leader Arthur Calwell
Preceded by Arthur Calwell
Succeeded by Lance Barnard
Member of the Australian Parliament
for Werriwa
In office
29 November 1952 – 31 July 1978
Preceded by Bert Lazzarini
Succeeded by John Kerin
Personal details
Edward Gough Whitlam

(1916-07-11)11 July 1916
Kew, Victoria, Australia
Died 21 October 2014(2014-10-21) (aged 98)
Elizabeth Bay, New South Wales, Australia
Political party Labor
Height 6 ft 4 in (194 cm)
Margaret Dovey
(m. 1942; died 2012)
Children 4, including Tony and Nicholas
  • Fred Whitlam (father)
  • Freda Whitlam (sister)
  • Bill Dovey (father-in-law)
  • William Dovey (brother-in-law)
Alma mater University of Sydney
Military service
Branch/service Royal Australian Air Force
Years of service 1941–1945
Rank Flight lieutenant
Unit No. 13 Squadron
Battles/wars World War II

Edward Gough Whitlam AC QC (11 July 1916 – 21 October 2014) was the 21st prime minister of Australia, serving from 1972 to 1975. He held office as the leader of the Australian Labor Party (ALP), of which he was the longest-serving. He was notable for being the head of a reformist and socially progressive administration that ended with his removal as prime minister after controversially being dismissed by the governor-general of Australia, Sir John Kerr, at the climax of the 1975 constitutional crisis. Whitlam is the only Australian prime minister to have been removed from office by the governor-general.

Early life

Ngara, Gough Whitlam's birthplace
"Ngara", Whitlam's birthplace (now demolished)

Edward Gough Whitlam was born on 11 July 1916 at the family home 'Ngara', 46 Rowland Street, Kew, a suburb of Melbourne, the elder of two children (his sister, Freda, was born four years after him), to Martha (née Maddocks) and Fred Whitlam. His father was a federal public servant who later was Commonwealth Crown Solicitor, and Whitlam senior's involvement in human rights issues was a powerful influence on his son. Since his maternal grandfather was also named Edward, from early childhood he was called by his middle name, Gough, which in turn had come from his paternal grandfather who had been named after the British soldier Field-Marshal Hugh Gough, 1st Viscount Gough.

In 1918, Fred Whitlam was promoted to deputy Crown solicitor and transferred to Sydney. The family lived first in the North Shore suburb of Mosman and then in Turramurra. At age six, Gough began his education at Chatswood Church of England Girls' School (early primary schooling at a girls' school was not unusual for small boys at the time). After a year there, he attended Mowbray House School and Knox Grammar School in the suburbs of Sydney.

Fred Whitlam was promoted again in 1927, this time to Assistant Crown Solicitor. The position was located in the new national capital of Canberra, and the Whitlam family moved there. As of 2008, Whitlam was the only prime minister to have spent his formative years in Canberra. At the time, conditions remained primitive in what was dubbed "the bush capital" and "the land of the blowflies". Gough attended the government Telopea Park School. In 1932, Whitlam's father transferred him to Canberra Grammar School where, at the Speech Day ceremony that year, he was awarded a prize by the Governor-General, Sir Isaac Isaacs.

Gough Whitlam attestation paper (Royal Australian Air Force)
Photograph of Whitlam and attestation paper from his RAAF officer personnel file dated 1942

Whitlam enrolled at St Paul's College at the University of Sydney at the age of 18. He earned his first wages by appearing, with several other "Paulines", in a cabaret scene in the film The Broken Melody – the students were chosen because St Paul's required formal wear at dinner, and they could therefore supply their own costumes. After receiving a Bachelor of Arts degree with second-class honours in classics, Whitlam remained at St Paul's to begin his law studies. He had originally contemplated an academic career, but his lacklustre marks made that unlikely. Dropping out of Greek classes, he professed himself unable to care for the "dry as dust" lectures of Enoch Powell.

Military service

EG Whitlam (AWM P04697-001)
Gough Whitlam in Cooktown, Queensland, in 1944

Soon after the outbreak of World War II in 1939, Whitlam enlisted in the Sydney University Regiment, part of the Militia. In late 1941, following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and with a year remaining in his legal studies, he volunteered for the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF). In 1942, while awaiting entry into the service, Whitlam met and married Margaret Elaine Dovey, who had swum for Australia in the 1938 British Empire Games and was the daughter of barrister and future New South Wales Supreme Court judge Bill Dovey. He entered the RAAF on 20 June 1942.

Whitlam trained as a navigator and bomb aimer, before serving with No. 13 Squadron RAAF, based mainly on the Gove Peninsula, Northern Territory, flying Lockheed Ventura bombers. He reached the rank of Flight Lieutenant. While in the service, he began his political activities, distributing literature for the Australian Labor Party during the 1943 federal election and urging the passage of the "Fourteen Powers" referendum of 1944, which would have expanded the powers of the federal government. Although the party was victorious, the referendum it advocated was defeated. In 1961, Whitlam said of the referendum defeat, "My hopes were dashed by the outcome and from that moment I determined to do all I could do to modernise the Australian Constitution." While still in uniform, Whitlam joined the ALP in Sydney in 1945. He was discharged from the RAAF on 17 October 1945, and continued to use Air Force log books to record all the flights he took until 2007. Whitlam completed his studies after the war, obtained his Bachelor of Laws, and was admitted to the federal and New South Wales bars in 1947.

Political career

Gough Whitlam 1950s
Whitlam as a newly elected MP in the 1950s
Whitlam family
Whitlam with his wife Margaret and their four children in 1954
Gough Whitlam 1959
Whitlam in 1959

Whitlam was first elected to the Australian House of Representatives in 1952, becoming a member of parliament (MP) for the division of Werriwa. He became deputy leader of the Labor Party in 1960, and in 1967, after the retirement of Arthur Calwell, was elected leader of the party and became the Leader of the Opposition. After narrowly losing the 1969 federal election to John Gorton, Whitlam led Labor to victory at the 1972 election, after 23 years of continuous Coalition government.

Prime Minister, 1972–1975

In its first term, the Whitlam government introduced numerous socially progressive and reformist policies and initiatives, including the termination of military conscription and the end of Australian involvement in the Vietnam War, institution of universal health care and free university education, and the implementation of legal aid programmes. His government's second term was dominated by a declining economy suffering from the 1973 oil crisis and the 1970s global recession, as well as a political scandal known as the Loans affair.

In late 1975, the opposition senators refused to allow a vote on the government's appropriation bills, returning them to the House of Representatives with a demand that the government go to an election, thus denying the government supply. Whitlam refused to agree to the request, arguing that his government, which held a clear majority in the House of Representatives, was being held to ransom by the Senate. The crisis ended in mid-November, when governor-general Sir John Kerr dismissed him from office and commissioned the opposition leader, Malcolm Fraser, as caretaker prime minister. Labor lost the subsequent election by a landslide.

Whitlam stepped down as leader of the party after losing again at the 1977 election, and retired from parliament the following year. Upon the election of the Hawke government in 1983, he was appointed as Ambassador to UNESCO, a position he filled with distinction, and was elected a member of the UNESCO Executive Board. He remained active into his nineties.

Later years and death

Whitlam was made a Companion of the Order of Australia in June 1978, and resigned from Parliament on 31 July of the same year. He then held various academic positions. When Labor returned to power under Bob Hawke in 1983, Whitlam was appointed as Australia's ambassador to UNESCO, based in Paris. He served for three years in this post, defending UNESCO against allegations of corruption. At the end of his term as ambassador Whitlam was elected to the Executive Board of UNESCO for a three-year term, until 1989. In 1985, he was appointed to Australia's Constitutional Commission.

Whitlam was appointed chairman of the National Gallery of Australia in 1987 after his son Nick, who was then managing director of the State Bank of New South Wales, turned down the position. He and Margaret Whitlam were part of the bid team that in 1993 persuaded the International Olympic Committee to give Sydney the right to host the 2000 Summer Olympics.

Sir John Kerr died in 1991. He and Whitlam never reconciled; indeed, Whitlam always saw his dismissal from office as a "constitutional coup d'état". Whitlam and Fraser put aside their differences and became friends during the 1980s, though they never discussed the events of 1975.

Gough Whitlam with wife Margaret at Parliament House for the national apology to the Stolen Generations in February 2008
Gough Whitlam (right) at 88, with the then-leader of the Australian Labor Party, Mark Latham, at an election fundraising event in Melbourne, September 2004

On 21 January 2009, Whitlam achieved a greater age (92 years, 195 days) than any other prime minister of Australia, surpassing the previous record holder Frank Forde. In 2010, it was reported that Whitlam had moved into an aged care facility in Sydney's inner east in 2007. Despite this, he continued to go to his office three days a week. Margaret Whitlam remained in the couple's nearby apartment. In early 2012, she suffered a fall there, leading to her death in hospital at the age of 92 on 17 March of that year, a month short of the Whitlams' 70th wedding anniversary.

Gough Whitlam died on the morning of 21 October 2014. His family announced that there would be a private cremation and a public memorial service. He was the longest-lived Australian Prime Minister, dying at the age of 98 years and 102 days. He predeceased his successor Malcolm Fraser (14 years his junior) by just under five months. His funeral was attended by seven Australian prime ministers.


Gough Whitlam memorial service at welcome to country
Memorial service, Sydney Town Hall, at welcome to country
Gough Whitlam bust
Bust of Gough Whitlam by sculptor Victor Greenhalgh, in the Prime Ministers Avenue in the Ballarat Botanical Gardens

A state memorial service was held on 5 November 2014 in the Sydney Town Hall and was led by Kerry O'Brien. The Welcome to Country was given by Auntie Millie Ingram and eulogies were delivered by Graham Freudenberg, Cate Blanchett, Noel Pearson, John Faulkner and Antony Whitlam. Pearson's contribution in particular was hailed as "one of the best political speeches of our time". Musical performances were delivered by William Barton (a didgeridoo improvisation), Paul Kelly and Kev Carmody (their land rights protest song From Little Things Big Things Grow), as well as the Sydney Philharmonia Choir and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Benjamin Northey. In accordance with Whitlam's wishes, the orchestra performed "In Tears of Grief" from Bach's St Matthew Passion, "Va, pensiero" from Verdi's Nabucco, "Un Bal" from Symphonie fantastique by Berlioz and, as the final piece, Jerusalem by Parry. Jerusalem was followed by a flypast of four RAAF F/A-18 Hornets in missing man formation. Those attending the memorial included the current and some former governors-general, the current and all living former prime ministers, and members of the family of Vincent Lingiari. The two-hour service, attended by 1,000 invited guests and 900 others, was screened to thousands outside the Hall, as well as in Cabramatta and Melbourne, and broadcast live by ABC television.

In honour of Whitlam, the Australian Electoral Commission created the Division of Whitlam in the House of Representatives in place of the Division of Throsby, with effect from the 2016 election. ACT Chief Minister Katy Gallagher announced that a future Canberra suburb will be named for Whitlam, and that his family would be consulted about other potential memorials. Gough Whitlam Park in Earlwood, New South Wales, is named after him.

In January 2021, the Whitlams' purpose-built home from 1956 to 1978 at 32 Albert Street, Cabramatta, designed by architect Roy Higson Dell Appleton, came up for sale. It was eventually sold at for $1.15 million to a group of Labor supporters, including former NSW Premier Barrie Unsworth, with the intention of restoring the house for educational purposes as a museum. The work is supported by a Commonwealth government national heritage grant of $1.3 million, and is to be managed by the Whitlam Institute of Western Sydney University. The house was as of November 2021 proposed to be listed as a local heritage item in the Fairfield Local Environmental Plan 2013 as part of a regular LEP review, which identified the house as being at least of state heritage significance. Following renovations and restoration works, the "Whitlam Prime Ministerial Home" was officially opened by Prime Minister Anthony Albanese on 2 December 2022.

Published works

  • On Australia's Constitution (Melbourne: Widescope, 1977).
  • The Truth of the Matter (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1979).
  • The Whitlam Government (Ringwood: Viking, 1985).
  • Abiding Interests (Brisbane: University of Queensland Press, 1997).
  • My Italian Notebook: The Story of an Enduring Love Affair (Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 2002)

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See also

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