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Heard the one about me…?

The greatest ever Australian was never lost for a one-liner

1 November 2014

9:00 AM

1 November 2014

9:00 AM

Gough Whitlam is the greatest Australian I ever knew. I followed his career avidly, joining Labor at the same time he became leader. These are among my fondest memories of him.

I had met Gough in 1963 shortly before I joined the party. I was one of his fresh young candidates for the 1969 campaign. I won at my first attempt but I felt I needed an academic qualification to keep up with Gough’s team of ‘eggheads’.

I asked him for some time off for lectures. He looked surprised but he agreed. ‘I am delighted at what you are doing but why are you doing it?’ I replied: ‘You’re the cause of it.’ He looked stunned. ‘Explain yourself.’ I said: ‘You publically humiliated me. You stood in front of a packed Sydney Town Hall and told them, ‘Never before in the history of the Labor Party have so many candidates with academic qualifications stood for election. We have Bill Morrison, former assistant High Commissioner to Malaysia. Dick Klugman, a medico. Vince Martin, a senior taxation consultant. There is Barry Cohen,’ followed by the longest pause in any political speech, ‘………………..from the North Shore.’

In 1975 Labor was not exactly at the peak of its popularity. At the time the president of the Queensland Rugby League was Senator Ron McAuliffe. He decided to invite Gough to launch the grand final of the Queensland Rugby League at Lang Park. Gough, no football fan, agreed. On the day of the final Gough and McAuliffe walked onto the field before a crowd of 25,000. They received an intensely hostile reception. The crowed booed, hissed, threw meat pies and beer cans, generally making it impossible for Gough to launch the game. Finally they quietened down sufficiently for Gough to get the game going – which he did with great relief. As they walked off Lang Park Gough turned to the President of Queensland Rugby League and told him, ‘McAuliffe, don’t ever again invite me to a place where you’re so unpopular.’

The Commonwealth Heads of Government conference was held in Australia in the late 1970s. Moraji Desai, the recently elected Prime Minister of India, was in attendance. Being 85 his age attracted quite a bit of interest so it was hardly surprising that he was asked a question about his longevity. ‘To what do you attribute your long life?’ was the first question. The Prime Minister didn’t hesitate, ‘I drink a glass of my own urine every morning.’ The following day when a member of the press asked Gough what he thought of this he replied, ‘Well, I’ve heard of people getting on the piss early, but this is ridiculous.’ (I couldn’t resist asking whether he had it neat or on the rocks).

Gough Whitlam and Francis James, who would later become known as an eminent journalist and imprisoned by the Chinese for three years on the charge of espionage, were fellow students at Canberra Grammar in the 1920s and competitors for a prize in Christian doctrine. Canon Edwards, principal of the school, called them into his office after the paper had been marked. ‘Whitlam, James, I have the final results for Christian doctrine but before I release them I thought I should tell you of the decision I have made. Whitlam, you received 92%. Your paper was a magnificent forensic effort, splendidly written. James, I gave you 87%, also very well written but not as good as Whitlam’s. However, having regard for all the relevant circumstances I have decided to award the prize to James and not you, Whitlam. I thought that you, Whitlam, would like to know why’. Gough, never one to take an injustice lying down snarled, ‘Well, yes I would.’ ‘The reason,’ replied Canon Edwards, ‘is that James believes in it, and you Whitlam, do not.’

I had heard the story and nearly wet myself laughing, but as many stories one hears about Gough are apocryphal or highly embellished, I decided when the opportunity presented itself to check with the man himself. Coming off the plane in Canberra in 1987 I walked towards the terminal with him and told him how I had heard this wonderful story about him, Francis James and Canon Edwards. When I recounted it he looked at me, ground his teeth, and snarled, ‘YES, THE OLD BASTARD.’

When asked his views on religion, Christianity in particular, he said he wasn’t religious, ‘merely a fellow traveller.’ At a press conference in November 1973 Francis James took the floor. JAMES: ‘It’s not generally known, but I hope you don’t mind it being known, that you are a fairly learned bloke in matters of theology, with as much knowledge of the doctrine and history as any man I have known who is in holy orders.’ WHITLAM: ‘Bless you.’

The subject of religion came up for discussion at a Cabinet meeting whereupon Gough announced, ‘If I was a believer, I would be a Catholic.’ ‘Yes,’ snapped Treasurer Bill Hayden, ‘and you’d want to start as Pope, no doubt!’

Gough remained a modest man right to the end. On his first trip to Europe as Prime Minister in 1973 he visited the Pope. Eric Walsh, a member of Whitlam’s staff, took three sets of rosary beads to be blessed by His Holiness; one for himself, one for the Federal Secretary, Mick Young, and one for Labor identity, John Hogan. When informed of this Whitlam told Walsh, ‘You needn’t have gone to all that trouble, Eric, I could have blessed them myself.’

In Hong Kong, before going to China in 1971, Whitlam went for a swim. Asked what the water was like: ‘Oh, I didn’t go into the water, I just walked across it.’

The late Sir Billy Snedden, former leader of the opposition, filled the position of Speaker from 1976 to 1983 with great distinction. There are few, if any, who have done it better, before or since. He did, however, on occasion, seem a little pompous. In 1980, attending a sitting of the House of Representatives as a visitor, Gough was present in the Speakers Gallery, as Billy intoned the Lord’s Prayer. ‘He reads it as though he wrote it,’ Gough commented.

One thing’s for sure, there’ll be much laughter in heaven.

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