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Clifton Pugh’s portrait of Gough Whitlam in Parliament House in Canberra. After Gough Whitlam was dismissed as a result of the Australian constitutional crisis of 1975, he refused to sit for the traditional portrait which is done of Australian Prime Ministers. He instructed that the 1972 Archibald Prize winning portrait by Clifton Pugh be used instead.

Clifton Pugh’s portrait of Gough Whitlam in Parliament House in Canberra.
After Gough Whitlam was dismissed as a result of the Australian constitutional crisis of 1975, he refused to sit for the traditional portrait which is done of Australian Prime Ministers. He instructed that the 1972 Archibald Prize winning portrait by Clifton Pugh be used instead.

A Letter of Thanks.


Dear Mr Whitlam,

In a world awash with US media, we’ve no shortage of examples of great leaders; Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jnr., the Founding Fathers. Increasingly our leaders (though I hesitate to use the word now) point to the Great British men. The noise of which sometimes drowns out the Australian accent. One you sported with pride. We might forget that we have a voice, and a greatness within us. Today, I am reminded of that voice, that greatness.

I am reminded we should send our sons and daughters to war with more care, and less haste; I am reminded that great countries are forged in the lecture theatre and classroom; that human beings deserve the dignity of health, whether or not they can afford it; that our enemies are best listened to and that we can be agents of encouragement and lead them to change themselves for the better, that we are the ones who have to open the door; that women, that I have a voice that deserves to be heard; that the beauty of our environment has its own intrinsic value, and should be preserved forever; that our Indigenous peoples are our brothers and sisters and we own them much, and have so much to share; that we have so much wealth, and it resides in a pride in the whole, our collective, and in our humble service to that collective, it resides in grand ideas and a determination to see all of us achieve.

I am reminded that once we expected our leaders to be men of their word. Men of intellect and compassion. Men of grace and humour. It seems we have settled in recent days for something less. Much less. We seem to have forgot the boon of enthusiasm and passion, and how even in the shortest of time frames, we can effect so much change. It seems we have forgotten that our leaders ought to be daring. That they ought to think big, and inspire us to something we might not have thought of individually, but show us how achievable change is, wealth is, true wealth, when we are work together as a whole.

Mr Whitlam, it’s time again. And has been for a long time. I’ve heard and read the word “legacy” many times today, your legacy. I hope that we understand it, I hope we are reminded well enough to know it is a legacy that is not stuck somehow in a romantic past, set lifeless in the stone halls of a glorified history, but a legacy that is still somewhere there, in the soil, in our culture, vital and alive that says “look forward!” To expect more, to demand more. Dare! And that we have everything we need to do so, we need not look anywhere else. Only to the future.

I know that I don’t write this for you, but rather to those who have perhaps need of the further reminder. We are being reminded of many things today, political turmoil, unprecedented events. I want today to be not only a reminiscence, but finally, again, the stirring of the spirit of our nation that has too long been eroded by those who would promote fear and greed. I want us to be reminded that we’ve got the capacity for political turmoil, for unprecedented events, for big change, now! They call you, “a light on the hill”. I want to say that that light is more than you, though you held it high for all to see for a long time, it is at risk of going out altogether. And we need to rush toward that hill, and stoke the flames again with the qualities of your character, and understand that there are those who hold that light, and might seem higher, but those at the bottom, that lift others onto their shoulders are vital. In 1972 we lifted you. What did you call it? it was “not a permission to preside but a command to perform”. I think we need to maybe revoke a few permissions we have given, and make a few new commands.

People say politics doesn’t matter. It matters, all the time. And there are odd moments when one can see how it effects our lives so directly. I was not yet born when my parents, 20 and 18 voted (Mum for the first time), for you. My Dad’s birthday had been pulled up in the raffle, and he had only months before he had to report for duty and head for combat in the notorious Vietnam War. But you won in 1972, and one of your first acts as the 21st Prime Minister was to end conscription, and you ended our commitment to that war completely the same year. And my Dad never went to Vietnam, and has never seen military service, and my family has never been touched directly by the horror of war. It is not often that a PM should have any say in matters reproductive, but I sometime think my life is very much a result of your Prime Ministership. It was a fair few years before I came along, but then, my parents were not in any hurry.

We’re sending our men and women again to war. And it saddens me how far we have drifted away from a sense of our own worth. We go at the behest and to the benefit of other powers, those noisy powers of the U.S., we no longer have a sense of ourselves as leaders, as leaders in peace. We pillage our natural environment, Indigenous welfare has hardly shifted since your first steps, in 1972 you had the first adviser to the Prime Minister on the Status of Women. We’ve sort of stepped away from that program.

So today I have lit my candles. Because we need you to remain the light on the hill. We need today to be an inspiration, we need to let you inspire us once more. We need to remember we have great men and women in our past, and we have the capacity for great men and women in our future. We have the ability to lift our nation once more, demand better for all of us. That we have a tenacity and strength and big ideas still to be had. You said, “But the best team, the best policies, the best advisers are not enough. I need your help. I need the help of the Australian people; and given that, I do not for a moment believe that we should set limits on what we can achieve, together, for our country, our people, our future.” And I still believe that’s true. We don’t have to limit ourselves, and what we can achieve for the future of Australia and all Australians.

Thank you. Travel well, and may mine and many candles light your way to your rest.

I’ve fought it through the world since then,
And seen the best and worst,
But always in the lands of men
I held Australia first.

I wrote for her, I fought for her,
And when at last I lie,
Then who, to wear the wattle, has
A better right than I?
~ from The Wattle, by Henry Lawson

Sincerely,
A grateful, post-Vietnam War, universal healthcare recieving, post-Whitlam era baby.


Gough WhitlamFirstly, I would like to thank all my progressive, little red-hearted friends for sharing their stories today, of how Gough Whitlam affected their lives and continues to inspire their political activism and engagement. For me, this, everyday engagement with the body politic is where the true legacy of the likes of such great men like Gough Whitlam will always live.

I would also direct people to Peregrin Wildoak’s lovely post and tribute to the great man and leader, ‘RIP Gough Whitlam – political ancestor work‘, on Magic of the Ordinary. I hope many Aussie pagans light candles today and remember to bravely speak out for a better future for our country. Honouring the Ancestors is always going to include those Ancestors that are not blood related, teachers, guides, leaders. As I wrote above, such men and women can perhaps profoundly affect our lives, and no less weavers and instigators of our Fate. They feature in our narratives, personal and national, and the story of his election was that story, “and that is the reason why we vote” story that formed and informed so much of what I believe in terms of democratic participation. Growing up in the Keating Era, the true successor to the vision and policy legacy of Gough Whitlam, he loomed large in the background, the context, and the many lessons and learning as I plied my parents with the whys and what fors watching the evening news.

Gough Whitlam pours soil into the hands of Vincent Lingiari, symbolically handing the Wave Hill Station in the Northern Territory back to the Gurindji people in 1975. (AGNSW: Mervyn Bishop)

I further urge people to read Gough Whitlam’s Policy Speech for the Australian Labor Party, delivered at the Blacktown Civic Centre, in Sydney, on November 13, 1972. If only as a reminder of what we should expect from those who take up representative roles in our democracy.

Here is former Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s tribute appearing today in The Guardian; ‘Julia Gillard on Gough Whitlam: a giant of his era, he will live on in our nation‘.

And David Malouf, novelist, poet and playwrite, speaks here, also at The Guardian, about Gough Whitlam’s legacy as patron of the Arts; ‘Gough Whitlam remembered: devoted classicist and patron of the arts‘.

P.S. ‘V’ is for ‘Vale Gough Whitlam’. This post participates with The Pagan Blog Project 2014.

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