Discussing Gough Whitlam with a Liberal Pollie a few years back I said “I voted for Gough the first time because it really did seem like time for a change and the right thing to do. I voted for him the second time to give him the benefit of the doubt. But there was no way I was going to vote for him a third time”.
And the Liberal Pollie said “I think we all did that”.
Over the years I’ve employed any number of twenty two year olds whose professors have told them that Gough Whitlam was greatness denied.
Having lived through the era and interviewed the man and some of his more high profile colleagues during the period I think he’d be very happy with that.
I formed the impression from speaking to him a long time ago that the legend was way more important to him than anything else.
Bob Ellis told me on the air a couple of years ago “Gough spends every waking moment planning his state funeral”.
Bob may have had his tongue slightly in his cheek, but I’m prepared to believe there was truth in what he said.
Gough was an impressive and entertaining fellow – he was a rock star, no doubt about it, but you really wouldn’t want to let him near your superannuation fund.
Friend of mine back in the day was very successful in business, but claimed to be a socialist at heart.
When I questioned him about the apparent contradiction between what he said was “the best system” (i.e. socialism) and the fact that he lived in a big house, drove a Mercedes, held a senior position in a giant corporation and owned thirty three places where people paid him rent, he said “Well of course you have to do the best you can with the way things are”.
He was also a huge fan of the Whitlam Labor party – until they’d actually been in government for a while and he watched the graph on his wall which charted his financial fortunes relentlessly heading floorwards instead of skywards.
After the fall, Gough was still a huge star and I recall recording an interview with him for a national program I used to host for taxpayer radio on Sunday mornings.
Two things stayed with me: one was that when it came to the dismissal, he said with such apparent disbelief that such a thing could have happened “But there was no precedent. There was no precedent for it”.
That really is a lawyer’s thinking.
I know we train our legal brains to have that laser like focus, but that super narrow vision may mean you can’t see the forest for the well known trees.
Another man with a different background may have been more awake to what might happen.
Just because something has never happened before doesn’t mean it never will.
The other comment which struck me as noteworthy was one he made as we were walking out of the building.
He said “That was a good interview. But I suppose your masters will have to hear it before it goes to air and they’ll decide what people eventually hear”.
Well, no. My “masters” would hear the final result that same time as everyone else who chose to tune in on Sunday morning.
With all his experience did he really not know how things worked to the point he thought there was a committee waiting to censor everything I did before the broadcast?
Or was he just attempting to flatter me into not editing our conversation and run it exactly as we’d recorded it?
Folk lore has it he was certainly a game player when it suited.
One example: seconds before the actual recording began with a high profile TV interviewer who was going through a particularly difficult divorce, Gough leaned forward with a big smile and said “I hear she’s taking you for everything”.
But meantime, back at the studio, what about Malcolm?
When I returned to ABC radio to reinvent the mainstream stations in the mid ‘80s, I was faced with a situation where one of our little divas facing a downgrading in situation had decided to walk out with a flourish.
I wasn’t ready to employ a permanent replacement and told The Sydney Morning Herald I would be inviting high profile individuals to host the time slot for a couple of weeks until a full time replacement was announced.
The journalist asked “Who, for example”.
I said “Malcolm Fraser for one”.
Oh the shock.
Oh the horror.
Oh the outrage.
It was the story on the billboard outside newsagencies to sell the Herald the next morning.
Friends occasionally laugh about it even now, saying “Mate, that was one of your best stunts ever”.
Didn’t really mean it as a stunt, but…
And now Malcolm Fraser is a darling of the left.
So Gough gets the legend – Uni lecturers yet unborn will continue to see to that.
Malcolm will always be the villain.
But at least now he’s welcome on the ABC anytime.
Photo: Sally Tsoutas (2013) UWS, background image National Archives of Australia