MPs from both sides of politics have delivered heartfelt tributes to former prime minister Gough Whitlam, Australia’s 21st prime minister.

Malcolm Turnbull implored parliament to celebrate the long and rewarding life of Gough Whitlam.

In the end, he almost reduced himself and other MPs to tears.

Mr Turnbull was Whitlam’s local member of parliament when the former prime minister died on Tuesday.

The Liberal MP recalled Whitlam would refer to him as “my member” as a way of reminding the cabinet minister there was more to their relationship than just a warm friendship.

But it was a more intimate relationship – the 70-year love affair between Gough and Margaret Whitlam that ended with her death in 2012 – that had Mr Turnbull choking back tears.

One of the things we could be happiest about was the fact that an old couple were no longer apart, he said.

And probably in Olympus, home of the principal gods in the Greek pantheon.

In what Wayne Swan described as one of the finest discussions during his time in parliament, MPs from all sides of politics made heartfelt tributes to Australia’s 21st prime minister.

And nearly every one of them recalled their favourite Whitlam moment.

Like Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s first meeting with the great man in 1978.

Whitlam said he had heard about the then young and up-and-coming politician, describing him as “some kind of Liberal”.

“`I’m supposed to be DLP (Democratic Labor Party)’ was my response,” Mr Abbott said.

To which Whitlam “boomed”: “That’s even worse.”

Another cabinet minister, Christopher Pyne, recalled a conversation he had with Whitlam while working for former Liberal senator Amanda Vanstone, who was putting together a collection of great parliamentary speeches.

Mr Pyne asked Whitlam to nominate his best speech. Any will do, was the response.

Labor leader Bill Shorten spoke to Whitlam on his 83rd birthday about death and dying.

“You can be sure of one thing,” the octogenarian told him of the prospects of meeting God.

“I shall treat Him as an equal.”

Labor frontbencher Chris Bowen spoke of Whitlam’s role as a local MP in western Sydney, especially in providing sewerage to millions of outer-city households.

He quoted the words of Neville Wran, another legendary Labor figure: “It was said of Caesar Augustus that he found Rome brick and left it marble. It will be said of Gough Whitlam that he found the outer suburbs of Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane unsewered and left them fully flushed.”

“It’s depressing to think we’ve lost them,” he said of Whitlam and Wran, adding it was inspiring to know that we had them.

Deputy Labor leader Tanya Plibersek said it was Whitlam’s ability to merge the idealistic and the pragmatic that made him such a great leader.

“There will always be something special about Gough,” she said.

Which explains to a large extent why coalition MPs, from the prime minister down, were almost as effusive as their Labor opponents in praising Whitlam.

Whether you were for or against him, his vision drove politics of the time and in the four decades since his retirement from parliament, Mr Abbott said.

“He represented a new way of thinking, about government, about our region, about our place in the world and about change itself.”

That didn’t stop a young Warren Truss, now the deputy prime minister, from joining other angry farmers in a protest against the Whitlam government outside Old Parliament House 40 years ago.

Yet, he noted, that many of the Whitlam reforms were now universally accepted by both sides of politics.

As a sign of respect, the House of Representatives adjourned for the day while Senate estimates hearings were abandoned.