What a day, what a moving and beautiful day, in turns solemn and funny, nay whitty, and sad. A day when we were reminded of politics as the art of possibility, equality, opportunity, inclusiveness, and visionary greatness. A day when Noel Pearson returned to his roots and spoke passionately and convincingly in that fiery Obamaesque preacher style, as an Aboriginal man and as an Australian.
A day when the supremely talented Graham Freudenberg deployed his craft for a most important and perhaps last time, weaving words into pictures and sentences into messages that none of us who were there could possibly ever forget. A day when the crowd joined in the chorus as Kev Carmody and Paul Kelly sang another anthem – as a masterly MC Kerry O’Brien so aptly described their retelling of the Gurindji story – a story that evoked poverty, patience and pride, a tall stranger, and a handful of sand.
This was the Whitlam Memorial at Sydney Town Hall that I attended, with my two younger children. They got the day off from school for the occasion. Afterwards we met up with my adult son, who had rung me – twice, because I was teaching when the first call came – on the day the news of Gough’s death broke. He rang first to make sure I had heard the news, and second to ask if I was alright.
I was not alright, of course. I taught six hours face-to-face that day, on injustice and inequality, at an institution that would not exist without our Gough: the University of Western Sydney.
Gough brought us so many things, and Pearson listed a fraction of them in a stunning soliloquy that went for several long minutes. Three stand out as most relevant and memorable and worth reminding the young people with whom I work.
The first is that Aboriginal people moved in leaps and bounds to articulate their identity, knowledge and law to the rest of us, those of us whose ears had been closed for so long. These great steps could be made because a true leader had listened, a leader who was across the grand principles of universal human rights and the aspirations of self-determination that had been denied by colonial governments for so long. Gough listened to Aboriginal leaders, their elders, their political realities and their ancient living knowledge of the land.
Noel Pearson evoked Gough the Roman, but I wax lyrical on Gough the Greek. The Romans were about power, as are all politicians. The Greeks were about civilisation, as all politicians ought to be. Pearson noted this distinction differently, and he most certainly, pointedly, noted the emptiness and destructiveness of a political class interested in nothing but maintaining power. Pointedness goes to the origins of the polity itself.
The point is – linguistically and actually – the Greek origin of the polis, the high point in the land – in Athens, the Acropolis – where lights burn in the night, and can be seen from far and wide, for the people have gathered to discuss matters of state. This is the Athenian roots of the polity.
We pay our respects to the Greek light thea whenever we evoke theory OR theology. For science and religion seek answers to the same fundamental questions of the human condition: who are we? Why are we here? How should we live? And most of all, what is a life well-lived?
Gough had a vision for answering these questions on behalf of us all. Not some of us. All of us. Whether Greek or Roman, our Gough was a classicist. It was Gough who ensured that Aboriginal people had a point of light, it was Gough who established pillars of civil society that form the foundations for equality of opportunity and a landscape of co-existence. It was Gough who understood the essential nature of Aboriginal Medical Service, Legal Aid, and Housing. These fledgling organisations founded a grand vision: the possibility that universal human rights would not be trampled by the state – when it came to Aboriginal communities.
And it is on this note that I turn to the two remaining legacies that have been drummed into my children and my students for years, and again most emphatically this fortnight.
Gough Whitlam brought tertiary education and the sewerage system to western Sydney. It may not sound too fashionable, but Gough thought poor people should be allowed to get university degrees AND flush toilets. The point of light was this: that university degrees and flush toilets are not merely for the rich.
Every time we call a plumber, we should thank Gough that the system worked every other day to keep us safe from disease and maintain public health due to sanitation across Sydney instigated by Gough. Every time we pass a unit and get that little bit closer to graduation, we should thank Gough. Every time a graduate gets a job, or a payrise, or associated quality of life, it is Gough as well as themselves who has earned gratitude and respect.
Education and health in university degrees and flush toilets: these are not the only answers, but they are two fantastically good ones. This is what a liberal democracy should look like, and what ours did look like, and what Australia can look like again.
A coda: I am reluctant to donate even five minutes of my day to the crushingly stupid beat-up that is the booing of Tony Abbott by the crowd outside Town Hall. But too many of my lefty friends have allowed themselves to be drawn into doing the work of Murdoch hacks. Tony Abbott is of course rubbing his hands with glee that a brief crowd reaction to his reptilian self has become the story, rather than the monumental achievements of a man in whose footsteps he can never hope to walk. So here is the response.
It does not matter that Whitlam’s people at Whitlam’s memorial briefly booed Abbott. It was a crowd moment, ephemeral, transient, amid many boos and cheers and calls and much laughter and many tears, singing and crying and chuckling, talking and sharing on this great day for the great man. If some people react negatively to a boo – BOO! – they are seeking an excuse to not honour Gough Whitlam. If anyone argues that mainstream voters will be alienated, they forget that mainstream voters are hip pocket voters.
If you claim that it was undignified, you were not there. If you judge the crowd from a media report, you are doing the work of the Murdoch press, baiting and switching and dissembling, for the purpose of avoiding any focus on a visionary politician. The news story of the day was that Australia commemorated a giant of a man who stood literally and politically above anything we have today.
The only people who want to change that story into petty nonsense and judgemental tut-tutting are those who refuse to honour Gough. No-one is going to change their vote. Let us not look to a brief instinctive crowd reaction to the nasty destructive petty hypocritical man who, uninvited, entered our space.
Let us look instead to the waves of emotion and uplifting words crafted in honour of a splendid visionary. A constructive man, a builder and a fighter, a man whose memory and legacy will outlast us all. Every time a highly trained professional serves us well, or brings us pleasure, or enriches our lives with their knowledge and wit (or I flush the toilet) I send a little message skyward: Thank You Gough.