“You can be sure of one thing,” Gough Whitlam said once in relation to his meeting with his maker. “I shall treat Him as an equal.” This comment was not quite as outrageous as it sounds. Along with Robert Menzies and Paul Keating, after all, Whitlam was one-third of the Holy Trinity of great Australian speakers.
Whitlam’s most famous speech was the 1972 “It’s Time” policy speech, delivered to 4000 party faithful at the Blacktown Civic Centre, which began with the famous and stirring salutation borrowed from the wartime speeches of his predecessor John Curtin: “Men and women of Australia!”
As Whitlam’s speechwriter Graham Freudenberg has observed, that speech was at least five years in the writing and preparation. It represented the distillation of the Whitlam political programme as it developed over the course of his leadership. And this process itself took place largely through the writing and giving of speeches – in the Parliament, on public platforms, to trade unions and interest groups and of course the conferences and gatherings of the Labor Party. For Whitlam, speeches were not an optional extra. The writing of them was not a back-of-house function. They were the essential vehicles for his transformation of his party and his country. He used speeches to signal the character of his government.
In Ballarat on the anniversary of the Eureka Rebellion in 1973, Gough unveiled the newly restored Eureka flag and invoked the rebellion as a marker of his government’s nationalist aspirations.
“Patriotism can be carried to extremes,” he conceded, and “nationalism can be carried to excess. There is nevertheless a kind of nationalism that every country needs. It is a benign and constructive nationalism. It has to do with self-confidence, with maturity, with originality, with independence of mind.”
Whitlam used speeches to mark history – and he conscripted history in his electoral battles. During the 1974 federal election campaign he laid the foundation stone of John Curtin House, the national office of the ALP. Amid the tumult of a bitter political campaign, which was occurring barely eighteen months after Labor’s 1972 victory, Whitlam delivered a tribute to his predecessor.
“On the eve of an historic campaign, we of the Labor Party . . . gather together to dedicate this place in the name and to the memory of our greatest leader, John Curtin. The building here will be our national headquarters, in the capital of the nation which he served, in whose service he died, as much a casualty of war as any of those who fell in the field. Here in this city where John Curtin lived and worked as our leader and Australia’s prime minister, in this city where he died, we dedicate this site to him, dedicate ourselves anew to his ideals and his vision for our country and for the role this great party must have in their fulfilment.”
Used speeches to change policy
Whitlam also used his speeches to change policy – and to change minds. In August 1975 he went to the Northern Territory to preside over the handing back of land to the Gurindji people. After some short remarks, Whitlam – known to the Gurindji as “that big man” – marked the occasion by pouring a handful of soil into the hand of Gurindji elder Vincent Lingiari.
“I solemnly hand to you these deeds as proof, in Australian law, that these lands belong to the Gurindji people and I put into your hands this piece of the earth itself as a sign that we restore them to you and your children forever.”
Lingiari’s reply – “We are all mates now” – was generous but premature.
And of course Whitlam used speeches as bullets. His most famous speech was given on November 11, 1975 after Sir John Kerr dismissed his government and swore in Malcolm Fraser as caretaker prime minister. That afternoon, the governor-general’s official secretary read a proclamation dissolving both houses of Parliament to the thousand or so people who had assembled on the front steps of Parliament House, concluding with the customary “God Save the Queen”.
Whitlam took the microphone, as terrible as an army with banners, and loosed his celebrated extemporaneous reply: “Well may we say ‘God Save the Queen’, because nothing will save the governor-general . . . The proclamation which you have just heard read by the governor-general’s official secretary was countersigned ‘Malcolm Fraser’ who will undoubtedly go down in Australian history from Remembrance Day 1975 as Kerr’s cur. They won’t silence the outskirts of Parliament House, even if the inside has been silenced for the next few weeks . . . Maintain your rage and your enthusiasm through the campaign for the election now to be held and until polling day.”
Whitlam maintained his rage – but he also never lost his enthusiasm for the great adventure of politics and for speeches as the principal currency of public life.
Michael Fullilove, the executive director of the Lowy Institute, is the editor of Men and Women of Australia! Our Greatest Modern Speeches.