I do not come from a political family and I clearly remember my first political conversation. It was in the kindergarten school playground and a friend asked me, 'Are you Liberal or Labor?' 

It was 12 November 1975, and for as long as I have known a thing called politics, I have known Gough Whitlam. Today we are in a different chamber to the one that Gough graced. We have the same mace and we speak from the same dispatch boxes that he spoke at as Leader of the Opposition and as Prime Minister. The great tragedy of our speeches today is that Gough is not available to deliver one of them. It would be an extraordinary speech and also, no doubt, an effusive speech.

Following the birth of my youngest daughter I was on the phone to Gough and he asked what I had named her and I said it was Helena.

He then went through immediately the entire history of the name, to which I stupidly said, 'Gough, I didn't know that.' And he responded, 'Well, Tony, you only need to talk to me for a very short time and you will always learn something.'

He had thought on numerous occasions facetiously about the events of today. The late Cardinal Clancy used to often relate about his conversation with Gough when Gough had inquired as to whether or not St Mary's Cathedral might be available for a funeral, which surprised Cardinal Clancy given that he was not expecting Gough to convert to Catholicism. Gough explained, no, no, no, it was not for the Catholic funeral; it was because he wanted to be buried in the crypt—claiming that he was willing to pay, but would only require it for three days.

Gough's pride in what he did and his pride in his time as Prime Minister was extraordinary. He would boast that he was confident of the verdict of history given that he had written it. I remember presenting him and asking him to sign a wonderful photo from the Blacktown campaign launch, where he is down on one knee as a member of the crowd is kissing his hand. You can see Bob Hawke clapping; a young George Negus in the background as a media advisor and Gough gazed at the photo for about five minutes before he said, 'Where do I get a photo like this, this big?'

He was so proud of the time he had spent, but to understand the impact I think we have to see it, in part, through the people he touched. You could not go to a function in multicultural Australia, in modern multicultural Sydney, without seeing Gough being treated as a hero—the Greek community, with their love of his support for the return of the Parthenon Marbles; proudly boasting of himself as a Philhellene—but I do not think any impact prepared me for when I had the job that the previous speaker now has and as Australia's Agriculture Minister visited the site of Expo Shanghai. The director of Expo Shanghai, the Chinese director, took me aside and said, 'Could you please pass on my regards to Gough Whitlam. Do you know him?' I said, 'Yes.' He said: 'That man changed my life. During the Cultural Revolution I had been sent to the rice paddies for re-education because I could speak English. I thought that was where my life would end. And after a number of years some Chinese officials arrived and said, "There is a big man coming from overseas and we need an interpreter; will you come to Beijing?"' He was then asked again to be the interpreter when Gough returned for a visit as Prime Minister and then, ultimately, was deployed to a new Chinese embassy in Canberra. The impact of Gough Whitlam has not just ricocheted around this Parliament and around this nation, it has ricocheted around the world.

We will talk today about many of the high point policy issues of education and health, and he could speak about them at extraordinary length. At the branch meeting gatherings that the Member for Sydney, the Deputy Leader of the Opposition referred to, I remember many of those where the greatest honour would be if, as Gough left the room, you were asked to be the person who he would lean on as his great weight and ageing body would walk, leaving the room, with his hand on the shoulder of the designated fellow tall person. You would often make a mistake as providing too many topic areas when he was giving a branch meeting speech. At the Kingsgrove RSL on one occasion he opened by saying, 'I have been asked to speak on a few topics to choose from,' and he listed the seven. He then gave a 20-minute speech and then said, 'Now, No. 2,' and the crowd sat there for an hour and a half easily, not missing a beat.

But I would, if I may, just leave on a couple of thoughts about things we now take for granted that would have been otherwise were it not for Gough in both the environment and the arts. In the environment, were it not for the Seas and Submerged Lands Act, the Bjelke-Petersen government would have commenced drilling in the Great Barrier Reef. The Great Barrier Reef, where we have seen protection by subsequent governments—the Fraser government, and I pay credit to the Howard Government for the marine park protection they put in place, and Labor governments as well—would have been a drilling site were it not for Gough Whitlam. Gough Whitlam saw Australia sign the World Heritage Convention. Without the World Heritage Convention, we would not have protected the Franklin, the Daintree, Kakadu, and the World Heritage Committee's decision of earlier this year, that environmental protection would not be wound back within Tasmania, would have been impossible.

In the arts, it was not just a side issue for Gough; it was about understanding Australian identity, proudly talking about it to Australians and allowing that vision of Australia to be shown to the world. He included an arts policy in his 1972 campaign speech. We would have no National Gallery of Australia, we would have no Australia Council; without the Film Commission, movies like Picnic at Hanging Rock and Gallipoli would not have been made. This was a man who understood what we were already and knew how we could lift our gaze and become a nation that was so much more. The Whitlam government might have been a story for three years; the legacy is a story for countless generations.


Tony Burke