GOUGH WHITLAM, MY FATHER

Gough Whitlam died on 21 October 2014, aged 98.  Not Just For This Life; Gough Whitlam Remembered, a collation of tributes and recollections edited by Wendy Guest and Gary Gray, is to be published by NewSouth Publishing on 11 July 2016 - the 100th anniversary of Gough Whitlam's birth.

This is Nicholas Whitlam's introduction to the section entitled "Grace".

 

When one recalls the fire and venom of my father's response to attacks from his political opponents, "grace" is not a word which comes readily to mind.  Yet courtesy and civility were his preferred mode of discourse.  He only responded in kind when he himself was attacked.

Growing up in Cronulla and then Cabramatta, I'm sure my siblings felt the same as I did.  We were proud of him.  He made us feel good about ourselves and what he was doing.  From my youthful perspective, he looked after the migrants and he was on the workers' side.  As he always was.

He was a shy man.  I think we could all work that out fairly early.  Our mother was the outgoing partner, and he relied upon her buoyant personality in many situations.  One way he overcame his shyness was to show an interest in his interlocutor's life story: he encouraged people to talk about themselves.  The interest he showed in the backgrounds of newcomers to our country was genuine.  He knew much about European history and this was a source of many conversations - long remembered by the participants - with people from Italy, Greece, the constituent parts of the former Yugoslavia and so on.

In response to a question about which one knew little or nothing, he was never patronising.  On the contrary, he would include his interlocutor in his response.  "You will recall...," or "Remember when...", he would start - and then he'd discuss the facts of the matter as if it were shared knowledge, when more often than not the information was entirely new to his questioner who had now become a participant in the answer.

He was rarely lost for words, of course.  Polite conversation with the Queen in private audience was apparently always easy, not least because of her experience in such situations.  But there can be challenges.  Once, when surrounded by frisky and excited corgis, the balmy scent of flatulence intruded on the meeting.  My father pointed to the corgis - "the dogs", he utterered graciously.  (Her Majesty apparently respnded: "What else?")

Much has been made of his lack of faith.  It is true that as an adult he was not a believer.  As a child he had been brought up in the Presbyterian church.  And he came to know much about the liturgy and doctrine of the Christian churches and much about the Abrahamic faiths.  Although he was not religious as an adult, he was genuinely respectful of the religious beliefs of those who were.  This was more than religious tolerance.  What he respected, what he absorbed, was their moral values.  It stood at the heart of his public life: courteous consideration of others, their beliefs and their aspirations.  A schoolmaster wrote to me recently about the time as an ex-PM my father had spoken informally to a bunch of schoolboys around a dinner table: "about what it was to be a decent and compassionate adult and how to make a positive contribution to a better society."

Our father spent the last six years of his life at "Lulworth", an aged care facility in Sydney's Elizabeth Bay.  (In a previous iteration it had been a maternity hospital, providing the venue for both my and my brother Tony's births.)  He would say, without any complaint: "Margaret can't look after me now and I can't look after myself and I'm looked after very well here."  Until three weeks before he died he would still make almost daily sorties to his office.  While our mother was still alive the two of them - driven by the wonderful Michael Vlassopoulos - would often go for a nostalgic fish and chips lunch at Watson's Bay, Bondi Beach or La Perouse.

My wife accurately said, strange as it will sound to people who only saw him on public platforms, "he turned into a lovely old man."  When he came down to Scarborough, to our house south of Sydney, he would muse that the view was reminiscent of the Amalfi coast.  He loved talking to our two able-bodied children and to our grandchildren, catching up on their lives; when faced with our handicapped son, who has no speech, more than once he observed to me, sadly and seriously, that I, among all his children, was the one who most wanted to have children.

When people came to see him at Lulworth or at his office, he was unfailingly courteous.  "Thank you for coming to see me.  I've enjoyed it," were his usual parting words.  And you knew he meant it.   That's what he said to me the Friday before he died, when he could no longer feed himself.  By the Monday he would not eat at all and we took him off all his medications.  He died peacefully that night in his sleep.