Gough Whitlam memorial service – in and out of Diggers

Look at this image of the crowd gathered outside Sydney Town Hall yesterday:


I found that on BBC News. I was here in Wollongong, watching on ABC until just after 11 when I took the bus into town to have lunch at City Diggers. The service was on the big screens there but with sound muted, unfortunately.

You may read all about the service at Gough Whitlam’s state memorial service celebratory rather than sad. See also Gough Whitlam memorial: The great man would have loved it.  By all accounts one of the best speeches of the day was by Noel Pearson.

It was a memorial service of powerful tributes – from political comrades, artists and family. Here Indigenous leader Noel Pearson salutes former prime minister Gough Whitlam, without whom “the land and human rights of our people would never have seen the light of day”.

Paul Keating said the reward for public life is public progress.

For one born estranged from the nation’s citizenship, into a humble family of a marginal people striving in the teeth of poverty and discrimination – today it is assuredly no longer the case: this because of the equalities of opportunities afforded by the Whitlam program.

Raised next to the woodheap of the nation’s democracy, bequeathed no allegiance to any political party, I speak to this old man’s legacy with no partisan brief.

Rather my signal honour today, on behalf of more people than I could ever know, is to express our immense gratitude for the public service of this old man…

Let me venture a perspective.

The Whitlam government is the textbook case of reform trumping management. In less than three years an astonishing reform agenda leapt off the policy platform and into legislation and the machinery and programs of government. The country would change forever. The modern, cosmopolitan Australia finally emerged like a Technicolor butterfly from its long-dormant chrysalis.

Thirty-eight years later we are like John Cleese, Eric Idle and Michael Palin’s Jewish insurgents ranting against the despotic rule of Rome, defiantly demanding “and what did the Romans ever do for us anyway?”

Apart from Medibank?

and the Trade Practices Act 1974?

cutting tariff protections?

and no-fault divorce and the Family Law Act 1975?

the Australia Council?

the Federal Court?

the Order of Australia?

federal legal aid?

the Racial Discrimination Act 1975?

needs-based schools funding?

the recognition of China?

the Law Reform Commission?

the abolition of conscription?

student financial assistance?

FM radio and the Heritage Commission?

non-discriminatory immigration rules?

community health clinics?

Aboriginal land rights?

paid maternity leave for public servants?

lowering the minimum voting age to 18 years?

fair electoral boundaries and Senate representation for the Territories?

Apart from all of this, what did this Roman ever do for us?

And the prime minister with that classical Roman mien, one who would have been as naturally garbed in a toga as a safari suit, stands imperiously with twinkling eyes and that slight self-mocking smile playing around his mouth – in turn infuriating his enemies and delighting his followers…

One aspect that surprised some, causing the Sydney Daily Telegraph to deploy its favourite word “OUTRAGE!!!”, was this: Boos at a funeral: Aussies treat Prime Minister’s memorial like football match. I see blogs and news scrapers all over the world have gone viral with that.

SYDNEY — There were some unexpected sounds at former Labor prime minister Gough Whitlam’s memorial service Wednesday: howling, booing, cheering and standing ovations. Not for the man himself, but for some of the VIP guests.

Former Labor prime minister Kevin Rudd got muted applause from the thousands gathered outside Sydney’s Town Hall on Wednesday. The same crowd offered loud cheers for former Labor leaders Bob Hawke and Paul Keating. Former Liberal leader John Howard received boos on arrival, while ousted Labor prime minister Julia Gillard received a standing ovation.

But the loudest boos were reserved for the arrival of current Prime Minister Tony Abbott — who was booed both outside and inside the Town Hall…

I was neither surprised nor all that outraged, as the total feel of the day rather set this in context as a comparatively minor irritation – and frankly I was amused to see Julia Gillard scoring louder cheers than Kevin Rudd.

Back at Diggers afterwards


These delightful Japanese students from University College Wollongong were part of a class group visiting the club. I felt nostalgic about my time at Wessex College in Sydney in 1990-91. Our friend B, whose daughter happens to be in Japan, bought them their drinks. These four have been in Australia for one to three months. A nice token too of how in many ways the world has changed for the better after all when you reflect on the club they were actually in!