I failed a university subject because of Gough Whitlam. Well sort-of… it is ‘one-of-those-stories’, I guess.
Having already been fascinated with the Dismissal while at school, studying Australian Politics at University brought a new found love for the Whitlam years.
But, alas, it was not Australian Politics I failed: it was an odious subject on ‘real property’ from another area of study. The lecturer of this subject could have bored for Australia, such was his propensity of self-indulgent dithering on peculiar peccadilloes that he would remonstrate. After week three, the numbers in the class dwindled to a handful. Some of us students forged an alliance in the Law Library to overcome the mountain that lay before us.
Australian politics provided some respite from the tedious transactional nature of the other subject. And it was in Hansard in the library that I would dive each day, reading from the original speeches in Parliament from the time. A speech from one day would lead you to think: I wonder what Malcolm Fraser or Paul Keating’s Maiden speeches were before the house. Even the warm ‘geniality’ of Lionel Murphy made the Senate—the other place—seem half-attractive and engaging.
After a while, I had read through pages of debates and dozed through countless afternoons with the voices of the players in my head. It was if I could hear the voices like a broadcast on the radio of the chamber live: even to the point where you could hear the splashes of the glass of water Whitlam threw across the despatch box at Garfield Barwick. It was an incidence that would come back to haunt him as I would piece together the chain of causality between the executive, parliament and judiciary that led to the fateful coup d’état.
I still think that Fred Daly’s account From Curtin to Kerr is one of the best to capture the period. Daly’s penchant for the intricacies of the parliament (he was an effective Leader of the House). While commentaries like Alan Reid’s The Whitlam Venture capture an aloof analysis, Daly managed to weave the narrative found in the Hansard with his own wit and charm. If you want to read Whitlam, but find the Hansard too daunting, pick up the classic Fred Daly account.
It was Gough who opened the door to education for so many, even if it wasn’t always taken as seriously as it should be.