High on babyboomers’ where-were-you-when-you-heard list is the dismissal of the Whitlam government. In my case I was visiting Brisbane from Japan to introduce my new daughter to both her maternal and paternal grandparents. Three years earlier as a news reporter on Channel 9 I had helped cover the Brisbane end of the 1972 It’s Time election when the sense of big changes ahead was palpable.
Gough’s election had coincided with my then husband’s appointment as a trainee diplomat and our subsequent move to Canberra. Arriving in the national capital in early 1973 was intoxicating. I quickly found work as a journalist on a local Canberra newspaper and the days were filled with the rapid fire legislative changes to the status quo. It was a roller coaster time for a populace so used to Conservative governments, despite the tumult of the preceding Vietnam War years.
In addition to being Prime Minister, Gough chose to be the Minister of Foreign Affairs, because of his longstanding interest in the area. Despite Cate Blanchett’s claim at today’s memorial service that it was not possible to do an impression of Whitlam, a popular pastime with the young trainee deplomats was very plausible impersonations of the distinctive-voiced Gough and his deputy Lance Barnard. They had great fun ringing colleagues with “requests” or “directions” from the boss. Or great fun until one day the Foreign Minister himself rang – but no one would believe it was really him.
As an honours graduate in Japanese language and culture, with an extensive knowledge of Japanese history, my husband accompanied Whitlam on an official visit to one of Japan’s ancient capitals Kamakura. He found Whitlam, renowned for his encyclopaedic knowledge of many cultures, was the one doing the telling of Kamakura’s history.
On another “minder” assignment, post-1975 when the Whitlams were evacuated to Tokyo from China following a huge earthquake, my husband was on hand when Gough was shown a copy of a newspaper cartoon that had come in overnight on the telex machine. It showed the Whitlams in bed with Gough saying to Margaret “Did the earth move for you too, dear?” Whitlam was mightily amused and exclaimed “The old girl will be flattered!”
In later years, back in Australia and again working in communications, I recall meeting and interviewing a number of high-achieving women who would tell me they got their start in life because of Gough Whitlam’s reforms making university education free. I used to think of them as “Gough’s Girls”.
It was timely the droll Max Gillies was staging his new satire Once Were Leaders in Canberra in the week of Gough’s death, dedicating the show to the great man. It was also a great opportunity for me to remember life in the national capital in more inspirational times. Vale Gough.