Former Australia Prime Minister Gough Whitlam dies

AP News
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Posted: Oct 20, 2014 10:00 PM
Former Australia Prime Minister Gough Whitlam dies

CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — Gough Whitlam, a flamboyant Australian prime minister and controversial social reformer whose grip on power was cut short by a bitter constitutional crisis, died Tuesday at the age of 98.

Although national leader for only three turbulent years until 1975, the legacy of Whitlam's Labor Party government remains to this day. Many of its legislative and social innovations, once regarded as radical, are now accepted as part of daily life.

Whitlam's four children said their father died in a Sydney nursing home. They described him as "a loving and generous father."

"He was a source of inspiration to us and our families and for millions of Australians," they said in a statement.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott, who leads the conservative Liberal Party, said Whitlam "seemed, in so many ways, larger than life."

"Gough Whitlam was a giant of his time," Abbott said in a statement.

Abbott noted that Whitlam established diplomatic relations with communist China and became the first Australian prime minister to visit the country, which is now Australia's largest trading partner.

The current Labor leader, Bill Shorten, credited Whitlam with abolishing capital punishment and outlawing racial and sex discrimination.

Regarded either as visionary or egotistical, Whitlam was a tall, imposing and eloquent lawyer, and won the 1972 general election with the campaign slogan "It's time."

Labor's victory ended 23 years of sometimes stodgy rule by the conservative Liberal-National party coalition.

Impatient for change after so long in opposition, Whitlam and his Cabinet introduced sweeping reforms at a cracking pace that sometimes astonished voters and angered opponents.

The government redefined Australian foreign policy when it recognized communist China, before the United States and many other Western nations did.

More dramatically, it ended military conscription and withdrew all Australian troops from the Vietnam War, where they had fought alongside U.S. forces. It then set up diplomatic links with the North Vietnamese government.

The "White Australia" policy, which had restricted immigration by non-Europeans for about a century, was finally abolished.

On the home front, the government boosted expenditure on education, the plight of Aborigines, health, the arts and welfare.

Divorce was simplified and social reforms for women and minorities were instituted.

But Whitlam's visionary policy agenda was not matched by sound economic management. Scandals also rocked the Cabinet, which was hit by a string of resignations and firings of ministers.

Whitlam called and won a snap election in 1974 after the conservative opposition tried to block many of his reforms.

Although Labor retained dominance in the lower House of Representatives, it failed to control the Senate, Parliament's upper house.

Conservative senators triggered a constitutional crisis in 1975 when they refused to pass the government's budget and demanded another election be called.

Whitlam, whose standing among voters had sunk, steadfastly refused.

Governor-General Sir John Kerr, the then-representative of Queen Elizabeth II, Australia's official head of state, broke the deadlock when he exercised little-known constitutional powers and dismissed the government, and Whitlam as prime minister.

Despite a divisive national debate and public outcry, Labor lost new elections and stayed in opposition until 1983.

Whitlam retired from Parliament in 1978 after Labor lost another election the previous year.

Despite his failure to win back power, Whitlam remained a highly admired figure among Labor Party members, many of whom regarded him as a political martyr.

He was born Edward Gough Whitlam in Melbourne on July 11, 1916. He was brought up in the Australian capital of Canberra, where his father, Fred, was a government lawyer.

Whitlam studied law at Sydney University and served as an Australian air force bomber navigator during World War II before entering Parliament in 1952.

His wife, Margaret, whom he married in 1942, died in 2012.

Whitlam's sharp wit and towering ego were recalled in tributes on Tuesday.

Shorten recalled in Parliament a speech that Whitlam, an atheist, gave on his 80th birthday when he reflected on his own mortality.

"'You can be sure of one thing,' he (Whitlam) said of a possible meeting with his maker," Shorten told Parliament. "'I shall treat him as an equal.'"