Gough Whitlam was a giant of Australian politics and a great Labor hero who led the party from the wilderness, but his government was flawed.

Gough Whitlam was prime minister for less than three years.

A giant in stature, intellect and presence, he reformed the Labor Party, led it out of the wilderness and irrevocably changed the Australian political agenda. He had vision before the word became a cliche.

While he remains at the pinnacle of the Labor pantheon, much of what he did has been muddied by the myths and passions surrounding his fall.

Apart from the World War I conscription referendums, his dismissal by Governor-General Sir John Kerr and defeat at the subsequent election in 1975 was the most divisive event in Australian politics.

Edward Gough Whitlam, who died on Tuesday aged 98, was born on July 11, 1916.

He married Margaret Dovey in 1942 and had three sons and a daughter.

He was a flight lieutenant and bomber navigator during World War II, then joined the Labor Party and completed a law degree.

In 1952 Whitlam won a by-election for the western Sydney seat of Werriwa.

It was a difficult time for Labor under Bert Evatt, with the damaging Petrov affair and the split enmeshing it.

Evatt resigned in 1960 and Arthur Calwell took over the leadership. Whitlam unexpectedly became deputy.

The new leadership combined the old and traditional with the young and modern and in 1961, in the midst of a credit squeeze, it failed by one seat to win government.

Although Labor went backwards in 1963, Calwell stayed on.

Whitlam savaged the party’s failure to develop and sell modern and relevant policies.

His biggest and riskiest battles were with the party machine, particularly the 36-member federal conference, the party’s supreme policy-making body, and the hardline left-dominated Victorian branch.

After Calwell led Labor to another heavy defeat, Whitlam took over the leadership in early 1967.

He accused the executive of wrecking his efforts to build a broad and tolerant party, resigned and recontested the leadership. It was close run, with Whitlam beating the left’s Jim Cairns 38-32.

By the 1969 election the long Menzies reign was over, Harold Holt had come and disappeared, and the Liberals were led by John Gorton. Labor picked up 17 seats, four short of government.

Whitlam established parliamentary dominance over Gorton’s successor, Billy McMahon.

The famous “It’s Time” 1972 election campaign combined detailed policies on just about everything with California-style hoopla.

The December 2 election produced only a modest nine-seat majority, but it was enough to bring Labor back to power after 23 years.

With doubtful seats delaying the election of a ministry, Whitlam established his duumvirate – a 13-day government consisting of himself and deputy Lance Barnard.

In that frenetic period they made more than 50 decisions of startling diversity – including withdrawing the last Australian troops from Vietnam and releasing the film Portnoy’s Complaint uncensored.

The Whitlam government was marked by achievement, excess, lack of discipline and a crazy-brave determination to go for broke.

It was also unlucky for it always faced a Senate controlled by coalition forces.

Yet the achievements were substantial.

Medibank, the precursor to Medicare, was set up despite a hostile Senate and savage opposition from doctors.

The long process of tariff reductions was started. Rural assistance was better targeted. Family law was reformed. Aboriginal affairs was given new emphasis.

The commonwealth took over financial responsibility for a much-expanded tertiary education sector. Tertiary fees were abolished.

Yet controversies remain: particularly to what extent, if any, Whitlam encouraged Indonesia to take over East Timor.

There was the Gair Affair, a tricky manoeuvre in which former DLP leader Vince Gair was persuaded to leave the Senate in return for the ambassadorship in Ireland. It was stymied by the trickier Queensland premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen.

Frustrated by a Senate that had rejected a record number of bills, Whitlam called a double dissolution in 1974 and was returned with a reduced majority. The government just failed to win the Senate. But it did have a string of bills passed at Australia’s only joint sitting.

From then, it was mainly downhill.

Cyclone Tracy flattened Darwin when Whitlam was overseas. He flew back briefly, then returned to his Mediterranean sightseeing.

Cairns became treasurer and deputy leader, only to be embroiled in the Junie Morosi affair after he appointed the attractive young woman to a senior position in his office.

Most damaging was the Loans Affair. Minerals and Energy Minister Rex Connor wanted to borrow $4 billion in petrodollars through funny-money operative Tirath Khemlani to finance his massive power projects.

Despite treasury opposition, the loan was approved in questionable circumstances by executive council.

The money never came through, the opposition and the media became increasingly critical and eventually Connor was sacked for misleading parliament.

All this was happening against a worsening economy, with inflation and unemployment rising.

The new Liberal leader, Malcolm Fraser, knew after the massive anti-Labor swing in the Bass by-election that he could now win an election.

The loans affair formed the basis for Fraser’s “reprehensible circumstances” to justify his blocking supply in the Senate.

The supply crisis was resolved on November 11, 1975 when Kerr sacked Whitlam and appointed Fraser as caretaker prime minister on condition supply was passed and an election called.

Whitlam made his famous “Kerr’s cur” and “maintain your rage” speech on the steps of Parliament House. But in the following election, he was slaughtered.

Whitlam stayed on as Labor leader until the 1977 election, another heavy defeat. The magic was never recaptured.

Yet there was still a long, rich life ahead and he finally became Australia’s longest lived prime minister.

Academic and national honours were showered on him.

He remained a great Labor hero, who could always command a rapturous reception.

He reformed Labor and showed it could be a party of government. He changed it from a party of working class struggle to one for the middle class.

By the breadth of his interests – particularly in the arts and cultural diversity – he made Australia a richer place.

Menzies before and Fraser, Hawke and John Howard after all ruled for much longer.

But none so personally defined his era through the excitement and theatre he brought to politics, or through the power of his presence and the potency of his ideas.