The long political career of Gough Whitlam, who died on Tuesday, was marked by extraordinary triumphs and a shattering decline.

The highs and lows of Gough Whitlam’s political career


In the 1960s, as deputy and then-leader of the Labor opposition, Gough Whitlam fought to reform Labor Party structures, particularly national and Victorian. He created a shadow ministry and developed a comprehensive set of policies, known as the program. He established parliamentary dominance over Prime Minister Billy McMahon.


On December 2 1972, after the famous “It’s Time” election, Whitlam brought Labor back to government for the first time for 23 years. Then, in a frenetic 13 days before a full ministry could be elected, a “duumvirate” of he and deputy Lance Barnard took more than 50 decisions, ranging from releasing all Vietnam war draft dodgers to releasing uncensored the film Portnoy’s Complaint.


Despite lacking control of the Senate, Whitlam’s government abolished fees for tertiary education, reformed family law and brought the Commonwealth into urban and regional development, including bringing sewerage to many Sydney and Melbourne suburbs. Spending on Aboriginal affairs and the arts increased. And after an historic joint sitting following the 1974 double dissolution election, Medibank – the precursor of Medicare – was set up.


It started to go wrong from Christmas 1974 when Whitlam appeared to show little concern for the victims of Cyclone Tracy. He fell out with several ministers and forced the Speaker to resign. The Junie Morosi affair embroiled Treasurer Jim Cairns and the loans affair forced the resignation of Minerals and Energy Minister Rex Connor. The government’s Senate numbers were weakened when a Labor senator died and Queensland Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen broke convention by nominating an anti-Labor replacement.


On November 11, 1975, Governor-General Sir John Kerr resolved a stalemate caused by the Senate’s refusal to pass the budget by dismissing the Whitlam government and appointing Liberal leader Malcolm Fraser caretaker prime minister. This was highly divisive, not least because Kerr, a Whitlam appointee, had disregarded the PM’s advice not to seek advice from the High Court and had given him no inkling that he might be dismissed. On the other hand, Whitlam misread and mismanaged Kerr, treating him as a cypher.


In the election following the dismissal, Labor suffered an unprecedented 30-seat loss and Fraser was confirmed as prime minister. Whitlam stayed on as leader until 1977, when he suffered another heavy defeat. He stepped down and was replaced by Bill Hayden.