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Gough Whitlam At 98; John Faulkner On A Life Of Endurance, Longevity, Resilience And Extraordinary Contribution

Last updated on January 21, 2024

Gough Whitlam celebrates his 98th birthday today.


Whitlam served as Labor Prime Minister from December 5, 1972 until his dismissal by the Governor-General on November 11, 1975. He was the nation’s 21st Prime Minister and is the longest-lived of all of them.

The ALP’s honorary historian and keeper of the party’s institutional memory, Senator John Faulkner, did not forget Whitlam’s birthday when he rose to speak in the Adjournment Debate last night. The speech followed a day of excitement in the Senate, although the drama seems pale by comparison for those of us who remember the Whitlam years.

Whitlam may be remembered now for the manner of his removal from office, but Faulkner makes clear that he is not defined by it. Faulkner said: “Tomorrow, 11 July, marks Gough’s 98th birthday, a time to celebrate his longevity, his resilience and his extraordinary contribution to this nation.”

In his speech, Faulkner mentioned that Whitlam is one of the oldest ex-leaders alive today, along with Howard Cooke, former Governor-General of Jamaica, and Piet de Jong, former prime minister of the Netherlands. Coincidentally, Cooke died today, aged 98.

Listen to Faulkner’s speech (9m – transcript below)

Watch Faulkner (9m)

Hansard transcript of Senator John Faulkner’s speech in the Adjournment Debate.


Senator FAULKNER (New South Wales) (18:36): A fortnight ago, The Sydney Morning Herald reported that Rupert Murdoch had once directed his editors to ‘kill Whitlam’. Notwithstanding that, I am delighted to report that Edward Gough Whitlam is very much alive. Tomorrow, 11 July, marks Gough’s 98th birthday, a time to celebrate his longevity, his resilience and his extraordinary contribution to this nation.

At 98, Gough will be amongst the oldest living former heads of government in the world. He is the third oldest in a group of political leaders born during the early years of the First World War, surpassed in age only by the Netherlands’ Piet de Jong and Jamaica’s Howard Cooke. Gough is a little more than a year younger than Piet de Jong. De Jong, like Whitlam, served his nation in war and led his country as Prime Minister afterwards. De Jong was a distinguished naval officer, representative of the Catholic People’s Party and Prime Minister of the Netherlands from April 1967 to July 1971. Gough is only months younger than Sir Howard Cooke. Cooke was President of the Jamaican Union of Teachers, was a minister in Michael Manley’s government from 1972 to 1980 and served as Jamaica’s Governor-General from 1991 to 2006.

De Jong, Cooke and Whitlam each served their countries at a time of rapid economic and social change, as a postwar generation demanded greater social freedoms and the certainties of the old economic order began to unravel. The stories of these leaders converge when we consider the role each has played in public life after their political careers. Cooke was a Governor-General, de Jong a respected business leader and statesman.

In honour of Gough’s endurance, I want to tonight acknowledge his continuing contribution to Australia after politics, through his writing and commentary and his service in diplomatic posts, statutory authorities and community organisations. After politics, Gough served as visiting fellow at the Australian National University. In the Department of Political and Social Change, with characteristic foresight he focused on Australia’s role in the Pacific and Asia. Visiting professorships at Harvard and the University of Adelaide followed, his work concentrating on the roles of China and Australia in the Pacific and on constitutional change and electoral reform. In 1983, he was appointed as Australia’s Ambassador to UNESCO. Gough served on the Independent Commission on International Humanitarian Issues and the World Heritage Committee. In 1989, he chaired the general assembly of the World Heritage Convention.

Whitlam’s ambassadorship came at a time when some questioned the integrity and importance of UNESCO. Margaret Thatcher’s Britain and Ronald Reagan’s United States threatened to withdraw from UNESCO. Reagan’s threat became a reality. In December 1983, the United States withdrew—in Gough’s words, ‘taking its bat and ball and going home’. In 1984, Thatcher packed up the UK’s kitbag too. At the time, Whitlam was not blind to the institution’s flaws but argued passionately for Australia’s ongoing commitment to international cooperation. I quote him:

“The world of UNESCO is the world we live in. We in Australia cannot be indifferent to our particular place in that world … Australia should stay firmly in the institution—a critic where it is seen to be inefficient, illiberal or misguided, but a participant at all times. If the brave idea of UNESCO fails, the world will be a more dangerous place.”

Gough served with distinction on the Senate of the University of Sydney both before and after his time in Paris. In 1985 he was appointed to Australia’s Constitutional Commission and from 1987 to 1990 he served as the chairman of the National Gallery of Australia. Close to a decade later he campaigned passionately for the republic during the 1999 referendum. In 2008, aged 92, Gough, the early prime ministerial champion of land rights in this country, the man who decades earlier had poured earth into Vincent Lingiari’s outstretched hand, returned to parliament to witness then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s apology to the stolen generation. All this and so much more.

Any list of his achievements omits how often Gough was there—in his office, at the end of the phone, responding to sometimes detailed inquiries that often only he could answer; certainly only he could add the minutiae, the colour and the human interest. If he could, he would attend quite minor occasions because his presence lifted the event. His loyalty to his friends and to the Australian Labor Party has never wavered.

In the fullness of time, a researcher using Gough’s formidable RAAF navigator’s logbooks, continuous from their beginnings during the war until his very last flight, will be able to track his movements and what he did at each end. The lectures, keynote addresses, book launches and eulogies—these works will add several more volumes to Gough’s formidable range of writings. Let me remind the Senate that in 1997, aged 80, Gough Whitlam published Abiding Interests. In the foreword he notes:

“If I begin this book with a short review of the dismissal of my Government, it is to emphasise that my abiding interests for Australia did not end with it. They shall only end with a long and fortunate life.”

Gough Whitlam’s long and fortunate life continues. Age may have limited his mobility but not his mission; his senses are slower but his spirit still strong. Last Thursday, we shared our regular glass of Passiona. His verdict on the vintage: ‘Bloody good, comrade.’

Gough Whitlam remains an inspiration to the millions of Australians who seek reform for the good of the many, not the few. He remains an inspiration to those of us who understand that, during this short moment of life, we will sometimes be lifters and at other times we may have to lean on others; that politics at its best does not divide society but reminds us of the collective responsibility that we have to each other. Happy birthday, Gough.

Senator John Faulkner speaking in the Senate

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Malcolm Farnsworth
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