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Gough Whitlam remembered: gallows humour and monumental rages

The second tribute. Race Mathews was Gough Whitlam’s principal private secretary from 1967 to 1972.

Whitlam’s principal private secretary recalls tumultuous days punctuated with frequent laughter and volcanic outbursts.

Gough Whitlam believed that the proper business of politics was to secure public consent for necessary change, through objective information from trusted sources.

I first met Whitlam at a Fabian Society meeting in early 1961, when I was the society’s secretary. Any impression I may have made must have been minimal, since he later vetoed my preselection for the Latrobe electorate at the 1963 election.

When he at last took over from Arthur Calwell as leader of the opposition in 1967, I was asked if I knew anyone who would be suitable to replace his private secretary, John Menadue, who had moved on to the position of personal assistant to Rupert Murdoch – or would I take the job myself? What followed was the most tumultuous and by far the most rewarding phase of my career. I loved him, and was in awe of his intellect and advocacy.

My assignment was to restore and extend the policy advice network that Menadue had established, and keep up the flow of information for Whitlam to refine the details of the policies whose broad nature in many instances was already clear in his mind.

Within Whitlam’s office, Graham Freudenberg wrote the major speeches and advised on foreign policy and our broad political strategy. Peter Cullen and later Richard Hall were our trouble-shooters, maintaining the office’s party and trade union links and dealing with the throng of interest groups who increasingly clamoured for Whitlam’s attention.

My field was principally domestic policy. It pained Whitlam that his staff had mostly chosen to educate themselves in unconventional ways, and were therefore – as he reminded us in moments of exasperation – “educational dropouts”. Even so, our deficiencies were not without their uses. When the embittered Calwell attacked Whitlam for having “an office full of long-haired academics”, Whitlam retorted that none of his staff were graduates, and one of them was bald.

Whitlam’s brand of wit – much of it gallows humour or self-parody – served him well as an antidote to adversity. Kept waiting for a car to take him to what was confidently expected would be his expulsion from the ALP by its federal executive in 1966, he exclaimed: “Is the tumbril ready?”. Whitlam was invited by his Senate colleague and then-president of the Queensland Rugby League, Ron McAuliffe, to kick off the 1974 grand final, at a low spot in his government’s fortunes. As he and McAuliffe walked to the centre of the ground they were greeted by a torrent of abuse and beer cans, which continued throughout the ceremony. “McAuliffe”, Whitlam remonstrated, on the way back to the pavilion, “don’t you ever again invite me to a place where you’re so unpopular”.

The preparation of a major domestic policy statement was usually complicated by Whitlam’s preference for putting off his responses to invitations until the last possible moment. The process of stalling or declining invitations was left to his staff – in particular his appointments secretary, Barbara Stuart – on the basis of a paradigmatic Whitlam directive: “You be the bastard.” The practice made good sense in that it made the best use of Whitlam’s time, but those who suffered most were frequently our best friends.

Whitlam’s policies mostly stemmed from central axioms, which he called his “insights”. A pack of system cards was carried around in his jacket pocket, so that “insights” could be jotted down as they occurred to him. For example, the best way to achieve a proper national health service was to establish a national hospital system. Government and parish schools should be made as good as the best private ones – and then better than them. There should be a Schools Commission and a Hospitals and Health Services Commission to ensure that outcomes were independently monitored and governments were properly advised.

Whitlam attached overriding importance to research, and insisted that policies should be justified in depth with facts. His chosen mechanism for acquiring authoritative facts was the parliamentary question on notice, which he made an art form. Copies of the daily edition of Hansard were indexed painstakingly in his handwriting with the page numbers and headings of ministers’ answers. In a large suitcase they accompanied him wherever we went. Before 1969, when much of our campaigning focused on seats in northern Queensland, Whitlam was a familiar figure for motel proprietors, annotating his Hansards by the side of their swimming pools in between making speeches and issuing press releases.

Staff members were acutely aware of the importance of questions generally and the suitcase in particular. Frequently they were the occasion for the monumental rages which, along with the laughter, punctuated our activities. Minutes after I had installed myself in my new Parliament House office in Canberra in 1967, the door connecting it with Whitlam’s office suddenly burst open. Whitlam emerged, shouting for me to produce from Hansard – a publication with which I then had no more than a nodding acquaintance – the answer to a question on notice about the DFRB – an acronym of which I had never heard, and which he did not explain. The shouting continued while I fumbled and failed to comply, and his face turned more and more purple, until a tactful intervention by another staff member defused the situation, and he vanished again behind the door.

I learnt that such episodes relieved his frustrations with the still largely inert majority of his parliamentary colleagues, and the shambles in which he had inherited the Labor party from Calwell, particularly in Victoria. It vexed him that opponents of party reform frequently disguised their grubbier motives with protestations of ideological purity. He told a party conference: “Certainly, the impotent are pure.”

The view in the office was that nothing personal was meant by Whitlam’s tantrums, and no offence could be taken. Outsiders did not necessarily see things in the same light. One notable outburst took place in the presence of Rex Connor – a man of formidable size and intellect, best known in the media of the day as “The Strangler”. Connor went white with shock, and remonstrated with Whitlam that he shouldn’t talk that way – and in such language – to whoever was on the receiving end. The effect was instant. Whitlam shifted targets, and abused him.

That was precisely the sort of situation his staff dreaded. While the term “minder” had not at that stage been coined, vigilance was needed to keep Whitlam out of the troubles in which his temper would otherwise have landed him and to maintain basic civilities between him and his caucus colleagues. If you could not foresee that a person would irritate him and avoid it, you acted as a lightning-rod yourself. It was usually better than having to pick up the pieces the next time there was an important vote in the caucus, or something else was needed from a colleague who had been needlessly alienated.

Better still, the eruption might direct itself to something inanimate, as on the occasion when he tore off the sun visor of a Commonwealth car on a back road somewhere in Queensland, and flung it into the bush.

Whitlam’s political career invites us to recall the words of Robert Kennedy: “Some see things as they are and say ‘Why?’ I dream of things that never were and say ‘Why not’?” Australians are accustomed to having their votes sought through their purses and pockets. It is Whitlam alone in the memories of most of us who has addressed himself uncompromisingly to our consciences and intellects.

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6 comments

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  1. Jennifer Meyer-Smith

    Like everyone else I assume, who will read this and maybe respond, I love Gough Whitlam for what he had the imagination to do for us and our country. I wish I had known him like Race Mathews did, thunderous outbursts and all.

  2. M-R

    I did not love him at the time because I was far too politically immature to have any understanding of what the ALP was all about (not counting the Unions…). I saw only the monumental ego, as I thought it to be.
    Now I can’t believe he wasn’t frequently driven to actually strike many of those with whom he had to deal.

  3. Loz

    I wish we had politicians like him in government.

  4. Kerri

    I love the fact that Gough knew his role included explaining his actions to those he served.
    Us!
    Such a dramatic contrast to “On water matters” or “Operational matters” or “Never you mind about that”.
    His understanding that we needed to know why Government did things kept him honest and forced him to be in contact and conversation with the voters. Given the extraordinary number of radical changes he brought, that were nearly all accepted readily by the public, he surely must have been the best political communicator Australia has ever seen.
    The difference Abbott appears blind to, which is why his vile, bilious changes are all carried out in stealth and deceit.

  5. Anthony Shorter

    Some people take on public life to make the world a better place.
    Some others enter public life to rort, steal, and get their grubby fingers on any entitlement and reward that comes within reach.
    Not to mention anyones’ names, but you know who you are.

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