Gough Whitlam’s memorial state service has been an extraordinarily theatrical gathering of the Australian political establishment and supporters.
The crowd assembled outside the Sydney Town Hall to remember the transformative former Labor prime minister was expectedly dominated by a passionate number of Labor party faithful.
As successive senior figures representing both sides of Australian political history arrived by car outside the venue, the crowd greeted them with enthusiastic cheers and jeers.
The greatest applauses came for former Labor PMs, Bob Hawke and Julia Gillard, as they made their way inside the city hall.
Living up to Whitlam’s famously rousing battle cry, “Maintain the rage”, they booed loudly upon the arrival of former Liberal PM, John Howard, and even louder at the arrival of a smiling current Liberal PM, Tony Abbott.
When vision of Bob Hawke chatting with Tony Abbott appeared on the television screens erected outside, the viewing Whitlam devotees chose the boos again.
The service officially opened with the national anthem, Advance Australia Fair (both verses), played by a full orchestra and sung by a large choir supported by the assembled mourners, Gough Whitlam’s familiarly imposing image beaming from a big screen towering over the stage. People could be excused for wondering if the Labor giant would be honoured, horrified or just satisfactorily humoured (probably at least two of these).
ABC journalist, Kerry O’Brien, acting as MC, welcomed the gathering by telling them that the venue of the memorial service, the Sydney Town Hall, was not Gough’s preferred option for his farewell, filling the space with typically Whitlam inspired laughter.
“His first choice was to have a funeral pyre in the Senate, O’Brien said, “He rather liked the idea of taking the upper house with him, at least part of the way.”
Another of the speakers, actress Cate Blanchet, raised loud applause and whoops, even from the crowd inside, as she explained how she and so many of her colleagues directly benefited from Whitlam’s ideas and policies for the arts, health and education.
Spinning the famous words of legendary Liberal PM, Sir Robert Menzies, Blanchet closed her remarks with: “I was but three when he passed me by, but I shall be grateful till the day I die.”
Indigenous leader, Noel Pearson, gave the most spirited eulogy, filled with equal measures of anger, hope and thanks. Pearson described Whitlam as Australia’s greatest white elder and “friend without peer to the original Australians” before Kev Carmody and Paul Kelly invited attendees to sing along with the pair’s performance of their Aboriginal land rights anthem, From Little Things Big Things Grow, promising that security would not throw any singers out.
Former Labor senator and close Whitlam disciple, John Falkner, struck a more formal tone, saying: “His achievements, in opposition and in government, in parliament and in the party, are undeniable proof of the power of politics wedded to principle; of the capacity of government to change our nation for the better, and forever.”
Gough’s son, Antony Whitlam QC, was offered ‘the final word’ on behalf of the Whitlam family, by O’Brien. Speaking full of pride and sensitivity, he quipped that on his father’s passing, all he got was to “stand on this stage” to make the speech. He added that Gough himself would have loved to deliver the speech but that the rules of the game had changed, joking: “Just as well, because I have no doubt the Town Hall is booked out tomorrow.”
The QC even managed to summons polite applause for Tony Abbott in thanking him for approving the memorial service.
For a renowned atheist who so advanced the cause of Australia’s maturity beyond its colonial past, the memorial service closed on a quizzical note. In perhaps a final slice of ironic Gough humour, the final piece of music recited by the orchestra and choir, and chosen by Whitlam himself, was the thoroughly theological alternative English national anthem, Jerusalem.
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