Federal parliament has briefly united in praise of Gough Whitlam, the Labor “giant” of Australian politics.

In death Gough Whitlam has united Australia as completely as, in politics, he divided it.

All manner of people, including old political foes, combined to remember Australia’s 21st prime minister as a political giant.

Mr Whitlam, who led Labor back to power in 1972 and was sacked by Governor-General Sir John Kerr three years later, died early on Tuesday morning in a Sydney nursing home. He was 98.

Federal parliament, in a tribute reserved for the deaths of prime ministers, suspended all normal business for the day, debating only a condolence motion.

All seven prime ministers who followed Mr Whitlam paid him handsome tributes.

They included Malcolm Fraser, the architect and beneficiary of the budget crisis that led to the Whitlam government’s dismissal and subsequent election defeat in 1975.

Mr Fraser said his once bitter rival was warm, jovial, witty, bore no personal animosity and was always ready to discuss serious subjects.

Bob Hawke, who was to defeat Fraser in 1983 and start Labor’s longest and most successful period in government, was an often critical ALP and ACTU president during the Whitlam era.

He said Australia had lost one of the brightest stars ever to light its political firmament.

Paul Keating said Whitlam made Australia a more inclusive and compassionate society at home and a more engaged and relevant country abroad.

John Howard contributed a slightly more equivocal “Gough Whitlam brought to public life high intelligence, a commanding presence and a strong belief that an activist and interventionist national government was always the appropriate response to Australia’s challenges.”

Of current MPs, Philip Ruddock is the only survivor from the era.

Most of those speaking in the condolence debate were schoolkids during that heady and turbulent time.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott led the tributes, saying Mr Whitlam was a giant figure whose vision still echoed.

He had a “largeness of purpose”, even when his reach surpassed his grasp.

Mr Abbott quoted from a gracious exchange of letters between Mr Whitlam and the long-serving Liberal Robert Menzies following the 1972 election.

“We all have much to learn from the giants of those times,” he said.

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten said Mr Whitlam redefined Australia and “changed our lives”. He also refashioned Labor.

Speaker after speaker, government and opposition, called him a giant. They meant a giant in all sorts of ways – in stature, intellect, vision, courage.

His achievements were emphasised – especially his fights to restructure the Labor Party and his reforms in government.

Perhaps the most mentioned was also the most mundane, yet vital – bringing sewerage to the outer suburbs of the big cities.

Labor’s Chris Bowen quoted a Neville Wran witticism: Caesar Augustus found Rome built of bricks and left it in marble; Gough Whitlam found the outer suburbs of Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane unsewered and left them fully flushed.

There were plenty of examples of Mr Whitlam’s own wit, most of them involving his self-mocking relationship with God.

Mr Bowen said Mr Whitlam reckoned he wouldn’t die soon because God wouldn’t welcome the competition in heaven.

Another Labor frontbencher, Tony Burke, said Mr Whitlam asked to hire a crypt at St Mary’s Cathedral in Sydney, saying he’d only need it for three days.

Liberal minister Malcolm Turnbull, who’d been in business with Mr Whitlam’s son Nick, assured everyone that “Gough is resolving his relationship with God as we speak”.

Julie Bishop gave a foreign minister’s perspective of Mr Whitlam, hailing his “path-breaking” visit to China as opposition leader in 1971 and his “prescience” in stressing the importance of Asia.

But not everyone praised his leadership. While he made landmark reforms in education, health, foreign relations, indigenous affairs and family law, his economic record was flawed.

West Australian Premier Colin Barnett said Mr Whitlam overspent and should not be remembered as a great prime minister.

“He was not able to run a competent government – I don’t think anybody could suggest that,” Mr Barnett said.

“He ended up with a government in chaos.”

Mr Whitlam, who leaves sons Antony, Nicholas and Stephen and daughter Catherine, will be cremated privately, with a memorial service to follow. Margaret, his wife of almost 70 years, died in 2012.

* The author covered the Whitlam government years for AAP.