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Hon. Gough Whitlam AC QC

1916 – 2014

Edward Gough Whitlam AC QC (1916-2014) was prime minister from the end of 1972 to the end of 1975. Born in Melbourne, educated in Canberra and Sydney, he was admitted to the New South Wales Bar after war service. He won the Federal seat of Werriwa in 1952, was deputy leader of the ALP from 1960 to 1967, and was then its leader until the end of 1977, a record term for the party. In 1972 he became the first Labor Prime Minister since 1949. During his term in office he abolished conscription; cut ties with South Africa; negotiated diplomatic relations with China; began inquiries into Aboriginal land rights; abolished fees for tertiary education; established the Schools Commission; introduced welfare payments for single-parent families and homeless people; ended the death penalty for Federal crimes; and reduced the voting age to 18. Whitlam's term came to an abrupt end on 11 November 1975. In the preceding eighteen months the government had been shaken by a series of scandals, resignations, sackings and ministerial reshuffles. In October 1975 the Opposition, led by Malcolm Fraser, used the Liberal majority in the Senate to block the supply of funds essential to the operation of the government. Aiming to force Whitlam to an early election, he justified his action on the grounds that the 'incompetence, the damage, the failures of the worst government in our history cannot be ignored'. Whitlam, in turn, declared that it was unconstitutional for the Senate to attempt to determine who should hold government. The deadlock continued for several weeks, with the government's money fast running out. On 11 November the Governor-General, Sir John Kerr, having consulted the Chief Justice of the High Court, Sir Garfield Barwick, dismissed Gough Whitlam and appointed Malcolm Fraser Caretaker Prime Minister. Whitlam died at the age of 98 on 21 October 2014. Five thousand people, including seven past and present prime ministers, attended Whitlam’s state memorial service, with many more thousands gathering outside the Sydney Town Hall. In his eulogy, Indigenous leader Noel Pearson called Whitlam ‘Australia’s greatest white elder.’

Updated 2018