Former Liberal prime minister Malcolm Fraser says Australia matured as a country under the prime ministership of Gough Whitlam.

Gough Whitlam was once Malcolm Fraser’s formidable political opponent but years later became a friend and entertaining dinner companion who didn’t bear grudges.

“He’d be a very good person to debate serious subjects with,” Mr Fraser told AAP.

“He was a very diverse and in many ways a very rounded person.

“He was a very good and entertaining dinner companion.”

Liberal Mr Fraser was asked to take over the job of prime minister after Mr Whitlam’s Labor government was dismissed by Governor-General Sir John Kerr in 1975, in one of the most divisive events in Australian political history.

Despite their political differences Mr Fraser shared a close friendship in recent years with his predecessor, who died aged 98 on Tuesday.

“He was a redoubtable debater but I don’t think this is the time really to revisit the problems that his government had in office,” Mr Fraser said.

Mr Fraser remembered Mr Whitlam as warm, jovial and witty and he was always ready to discuss serious subjects but never felt he bore him personal animosity.

“He had a sense of humour. I don’t believe he carried grudges into the future. He was optimistic,” Mr Fraser said.

“He’s going to be remembered as a giant of an Australian who contributed enormously to Australian life in so many ways.”

Mr Fraser said Australia grew up under Mr Whitlam.

He was a visionary who helped shape an idea about what it meant to be Australian.

“We were ourselves. We were Australia. We weren’t Britain, we weren’t America,” Mr Fraser said.

“We came of age in a sense,” he said.

“He had an idea of the role Australia should play as an independent country.

“It was an idea which I think captured the minds of a great many Australians.”

“In many things we just seem to follow others now quite blindly, which I’m sure Gough would not have done.”

His legacy included sponsoring an inquiry that led to land rights, giving new life to the arts and being among the first of the western leaders to visit China, paving the way for others, Mr Fraser said.

“In his time there was a much more vigorous debate about ideas about the future, about the direction of policy, about new thought, opening up possibilities.

“That doesn’t seem to happen too much today.”