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Justice Sheahan's tribute to Whitlam


A tribute by Justice Terry Sheahan AO delivered at the NSW Society of Labor Lawyers AGM Monday 27 October 2014

 Rodney Cavalier is concerned about the Society’s proposal that I move a motion tonight that it grant Gough posthumous life membership, but it would be consistent with much of Whitlam’s self-deprecatory humour, for us to recall the famous anecdote about his booking the crypt of St Mary’s Cathedral for 3 days after he died.

He might well come back to take the membership up.

What is really important is that any and every Labor organisation properly acknowledge Gough, and what he meant for all of us – past, present, and future.

He was the ultimate Labor Lawyer – devoted to the use of, and the sanctity of, the Parliament, and to the Rule of Law, both of which are crucial for our democracy. 

As Eric Sidoti from the Whitlam Institute says, he “willed modern Australia into being”, or, as Andrew Denton put it – he was a “technicolour character in a black and white movie”.

Gough was en route to a “New” Labor, to “the Program”, and to the Lodge when I joined the Party in 1964.  He and Wran were for me the towering figures of those 50 years.

They shared the same ideals and commitments, had the same priorities, and changed the country and the Party forever, but their methods differed.

Now they have died in the same year, in the same facility – near significant dates for us, and for them: May 1 and November 11.

Wran is rightly best remembered for his lasting achievements, but Whitlam is wrongly better remembered for the drama which was spawned by his haste in doing many of the same things, rather than for his towering intellect, his passion, his national “ambitiousness”, his expansive vision, the incredible courage he displayed throughout, and his durable achievements.

As Mungo McCallum said of Whitlam’s vision in practice – he began “the program” with the outhouses of outer suburbs, and reached for the sky.

For all the flak he drew, Whitlam did wonderful things about Indigenous affairs, China (he advocated recognition from 1954), Human Rights treaties (so important to Mary Gaudron’s view of him), the Arts, Discrimination legislation, Medicare, Law reform, and democratic reform, and Wran continued those things.

It is simple to blame Whitlam for overspending, and causing so-called “stagflation”, when the oil shock struck us in 1973, but don’t forget his government’s economic reforms in tariffs, trade practices, and currency valuation, which paved the way for the much-lauded economic reforms of the years since. 

All those great achievements have been overshadowed in the public memory by the Khemlani affair, other “soap operas” like Terrigal and Morosi, and the venom and treachery of 1975.

Yes, there were flaws – the debacle of Barnard and Bass, the lack of firm economic control, the lack of discipline in the cabinet, the odd Whitlam tantrum – but don’t lose the genius to its flaws.

The great tragedy for him was that he couldn’t get there in 1969, simply because our electoral laws were medieval.

He got in some important new members then (Bowen, Keating and others), but he missed his rightful share, between 1969 and 1973, of what Howard calls the “economic sunshine”.

The great tragedy for us now is that, publicly, the Party has largely left it to the Greens to defend much of Whitlam’s true legacy.

I described his era, in my chapter in Troy Bramston’s Wran book, as a “shower of stars” for those of my vintage in the Party. 

I am prepared to forgive the flaws and failures, to smile at my own reminiscences of him, such as a road trip in Hume with him in 1972, his leaving a hospital bed to mourn my Dad at Christmas 1975, his attendance, with Neville, at my swearing in in 1997, and his “Margaret and I welcome you to our Order” letter of congratulations when I got my AO in 2002.

I want to acknowledge his life of true service to Australia – in the RAAF, the law, the Parliament, the Greater West, on the world scene, and in his relentless exercise of the real power of the Prime Ministership, which he left, like Lang, out of abiding respect for constitutional reality.

Post-Parliament, and without bitterness, he did more great work – for the higher learning sector, UNESCO, the National Gallery, the Sydney Olympics, and so on.

And he cared, always, for his own family, and the Party at its grassroots. 

He was an Activist till the very end.

The “Great Leader” of 1960 to 1977 has left us, and we will not see his like again. 

Well may I say, ‘Lest we forget’”.

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