My elder daughter sent me an email to tell me that Gough had gone. That was kind of her. He had been fired before Kate was born, but she knew how fond I was of Gough, and how let down I have felt about those who came after him – from either side.
What could I say? Throughout the day, a zany message kept whizzing around my head. Gough was like a Ferrari to me. In the name of God, why? The mere thought of either was enough to make me smile, because somehow I felt better. Against all the odds, and against all sense and even decency, there is kind of style and a kind of giving that happens to make me feel better. It can happen with Mozart or Billy Slater or St Henri, or Ferrari. Some things just make me feel better.
As it seems to me, Gough did two things for us. He resurrected democracy in this country. Our system of government depends on our having two political parties, but one of ours had ceased to function, at least as an electable force. Gough pulled them into line, and he got elected to prove it. That was terrific for him and a God-send for us.
His other achievement was just as substantial, but it could only have happened after the first. He made us feel at home being Australian. We no longer had to apologise for what we are. We did not have to kowtow, tug our forelock, or dip our lid to any queen, president or pope. It was acceptable to be what we were. This was his achievement from a democracy that he had reinvented for the purpose. You can assess how great this was for us from the way that we have gone backwards since. A sure criterion of bad government now is one that does not make us feel at home with being Australian.
But Gough’s government fell, and it fell twice. There were many reasons, not least the generation that his party had spent in the wilderness, and the ineptness of most of his colleagues. But the other side had also been damaged by a generation of one party rule, and they had forgotten how to behave in opposition. How would they know? They had never been there before. I have a fair understanding of the weaknesses of Gough, and his imperial ego, and of the frightful weaknesses in his party, but I have had great problems in coming to grips with the behaviour of his opponents. As they keep reminding us, they were and are born to rule this country. When it comes to breaking the rules, the born to rule crowd claim their seigneurial right to go first. Conservatives should seek to conserve our constitution which, like all our laws, ultimately depends on enough people being prepared to follow those customs that separate us from the gorillas.
We have a representative democracy. We elect people to represent each one of us. For that purpose, candidates for election come together as members of political parties. Until recently, we have broadly followed a two party system. So have England and America. It follows that the proper functioning of each of the two parties is essential if democracy is to work for the nation at large. It then follows that those parties and their members have obligations to the nation as a whole that go beyond the interests their own party. Gough’s greatest win was to get his party, the Australian Labor Party, to accept that simple proposition.
As I saw it, the tragedy for Australia – and I do think that it really was a tragedy – is that the other side, the Liberal Party, chose to deny that premise of our government. In their eagerness to get rid of Gough and his rough mates, they acted against custom and decency. God only knows that Gough’s mates had provoked them, but as it seemed to me the born to rule crowd had a kind of nervous breakdown from which neither of us has yet recovered.
I still feel now the want of decency of Gough’s opponents in 1975. If it matters, I then vowed not to vote for those I saw as the real culprits of a fiasco at least while Gough was alive. That private interdict only operated at the federal level – at the lower level I regret that at least once I have given my vote to the party that looked after my dog – but if I am now discharged from that obligation, I am not presently jubilant. Nor have I lost my right to maintain my rage.
I was in the presence, if I may put it that way, on two occasions. The first was an MSO concert at the Melbourne Town Hall in about 1973 when the great Chilean pianist Claudio Arrau played the Emperor Concerto. I was in the front row of the stalls, and I looked back and up to see Gough and Margaret arrive. Claudio Arrau looked so small above his gleaming patent shoes. Gough looked so big, as he gave us an airy Napoleonic wave. I wondered who I should be more in awe of.
The other occasion was my first Wagner Ring Cycle in Adelaide in about 1999. I had paid for some swish service that got me an invite to Government House for drinks before Das Rheingold. (‘Cars at 4 pm’. I never knew what that meant.) I spotted Gough in a dreary crowd. I screwed up my courage, took another shot of Scotch, and determined to speak to the great man. I thought I might ask him if he had felt comfortable in vice-regal quarters since 1975. He was talking to a guy with a beard and thick glasses, who had a Kiwi accent. For some reason I thought that he was a Baptist and an accountant. (You can at your leisure count up your number of strikes or my prejudices.) At any rate, Gough seemed glad of the break, and Margaret was kind about my tie, before Gough resumed his discourse with that elevated tone that I knew so well, except that now I was getting it in the flesh. ‘The problem with Wagner is that he was such a megalomaniac that he had to write his own libretti. He badly needed an editor. Margaret and I saw Tristan in Dresden. The hero gets caught with the queen. In flagrante! [Downward cadence.] The king comes out to remonstrate. Fifty minutes! [Another downward cadence.] Ten would have been more than adequate.’
I can recall discussing the disposition of Her Majesty’s corgis to break wind, and Gough told me that he had told that story to show the capacity of our queen to remain ‘serene’ in circumstances that might fairly be described as unseemly. Then Margaret politely ushered off a visibly failing Gough. Some years later, I endured Tristan and I feared that I might have to be escorted out of the theatre when the king came out to remonstrate. I was in a state of near paralysis.
Between Die Walkure and Siegfried I shot through for a couple of nights in the Flinders Ranges, with a return flight that would excuse me from the first act of Siegfried. (On my next outing, I went one better, and skipped the lot.) I forced myself to read through The Myth of the Nibelunglied, a worse catalogue of blood and guts than the Iliad. Toward the end, I discovered that Siegfried’s widow Brunnhilde remarried, this time to someone who has not had a good press – Attila the Hun. I felt an urgent need to tell my new mate Gough of this discovery. I caught up with Gough at the second interval standing patiently in a queue for coffee. I wondered if any other former PM would have stood in a queue for anything. I confirmed our acquaintance and told Gough of my discovery. He listened with acute interest – and he then proceeded to review the genealogy of Attila the Hun! In the sweet name of the son of the carpenter, here was an Australian PM who was more at home talking about history and opera than cricket or the footy.
My short time with Gough had given me an uplift that will stay with me.
I had one other connection of sorts with Gough. My best friend in the law was the late Jim Kennan, a barrister who was once the leader of the Labor Party at state level. Jim admired Gough, and we used to trade stories about him, although Jim had more stories because he was a member of the party and he was actively involved politically – I was neither. (We nearly got thrown out of the Hill of Content bookshop for expressing the hope that the sales of Sir John Kerr’s memoirs might sustain him in exile indefinitely.)
I grieved for Jim when he died a few years ago, and I still feel his loss, but something happened that made me smile. Gough sent Janet Kennan a long and considered letter of condolence that dwelt at length not on political matters, much less party matters, but on Jim’s career in the profession of the law. This was a mighty and decent effort from a lawyer in his dotage about someone who was less than stellar in his sphere, and I was, and am, as moved by this anecdote, as I was by that of my own meeting with Gough. I do, if you like, feel blessed by both.
So, now that Gough has gone, what can I say? Gough gave his life to politics of government run by parties, and the party system is collapsing in front of our eyes all over the western world. The parties do not stand for anything, and the bunnies that they put up for us lack all conviction. They are mediocre and they are gutless.
No one will ever say that Gough was either mediocre or gutless. No one. And he did bring change and growth to us, such that we can fully and truly say that he left us better than he found us, much, much better. We Australians should be thankful for what Gough did for us.
I am a God fearing doubter, and I sometimes wonder about celebrating the life of one who leaves us. I mourn for our loss of Gough Whitlam.