The 29th of June 1974 was the day a Qantas 747 landed in Sydney, and me in my new country. I didn’t know who was the Prime Minister, what were the parties, how the Australian political system worked. Unbeknown to me I happened to land in Australia two years after a Labor government came to power after almost 30 years of conservative rule, and that that government was forced to another election just a month or so before my arrival.
To understand the political system of Australia wasn’t on top of my priorities. A new country, a new language, a new school were things that occupied my 13 year old mind. I watched this figure on the news but could not understand the commentary, but I figured out that he must have been important.
As time progressed and started to understand a bit more I could read big headlines on the paper, and talked about Khemlani and I also remember the kerfuffle about Julie Morosi and Jim Cairns. My father who was a convinced assimilationist was determined to be like everyone else. He was a business migrant, he was to set up a factory and be the general manager. No Italian Leichhardt for him. It was the leafy staunch middle class northern suburbs of Sydney, with a house and a pool.
Naturally everyone around us was a true blue Liberal and hated Gough Whitlam guts. Of course it would have been different if we did venture to Leichhardt, but my father was determined to mix with the locals, so our impression was that Whitlam was very unpopular. I did have a sense that he was blamed for things that he didn’t have much control about. Coming from Italy and Europe reeling in economic crisis after the OPEC oil shocks I knew that the relatively high inflation and unemployment had a global cause. This gave me the first taste of an Australian sense of isolation. That the causes were not just from here. Something that fortunately seems to have changed in the 80’s.
But I guess after years of low inflation and low unemployment Whitlam got blamed for it. This piece of bad luck was recognised by many while remembering Whitlam’s government this week.
On the 11th of November 1975 I was in 3rd form (as year 8 was called then) at Crows Nest Boys High School, and I think I sensed something important happened when I saw the screaming headlines of ‘The Sun’ as I was waiting for a bus in Miller St in front of the Newsagent near Ridge St in North Sydney. I was unmoved. I failed to grasp the significance of the event in Australian politics, and coming from Italy where governments were falling all the time I didn’t see what the fuss was about.
Only afterwards, as my Australian political awareness grew I started to realise how important this man was. Apart from the social justice, I realised how his government went out of his way to make people like me welcome. I heard the notion of multiculturalism, and saw Whitlam attending functions of ethnic groups and this made me feel welcome. A big difference from the ‘Team Australia’ of today. The unsavoury nature of Al Grassby is now known. But back then I saw this colourful character who was on my side, and he did introduce important changes. By the 1977, even if I was too young to vote, I was firmly on his side.
But personally the passing of Gough Whitlam means that another important aspect of my ‘first Australia’ has gone. As many at my age look back at their childhood and youth with fondness, forgetting the bad bits. My life between 1974 and 1977 was alienating, lonely and sad, but it had the potential of the future, something that diminishes faster and faster as you get older.
And I sense that in the words used to remember Gough Whitlam echoed this sense of loss. Not only of the man, but also of the optimism and the potential of the future that he represented. As I was young I knew that despite the bad times, I had the potential of the future, to shape my life. Whitlam did the same with Australia.
Even conservative politicians and commentators mentioned this fact this week. Whitlam liberated Australia, from the fear of the outside. It told people that it could control its future and destiny. I feel this continued after his government. Fraser and of course the Hawke-Keating governments continued this trend.
For me, this Australia came to an end on 24 August 2001. It took a container ship which rescued a few asylum seekers, an opportunistic Prime Minister to rekindle the dormant fear that seems to be part of the Australian psyche. The attack on New York World Trade Centre just a few weeks later completed the process of turning the optimistic and outward looking Australia Whitlam started back into a scared little country.
So maybe as we remember a great visionary man, someone somewhere will be inspired to become a leader and take back Australia to the trajectory first initiated by Edward Gough Whitlam.