We remember Margaret Whitlam (20/03/2012)

09 January 2013

Margaret-Whitlam.jpgMr STEPHEN JONES (Throsby) (18:239): Margaret Elaine Whitlam was a giant amongst Australian women, a colossus amongst Australian Labor women, a political leader and a trailblazer in her own right. I can think of no better words to open this contribution than those spoken by another trailblazer, another colossus, for Australian Labor women: Jessie Street. In an ABC radio program, in April 1944, she said:

To put this in a nutshell, I believe that in a democratic, free society women should be at liberty to choose whether they will take up home life or work outside the home; that men and women should receive equal pay and equal opportunity; that home life should be made less of a tie and the burden of raising a family be lightened. If we can face these peacetime problems with the spirit of determination and conciliation with which were facing our war problems, we may hope to solve them.

Jessie Street and Margaret Whitlam were contemporaries for many years. By any fair analysis Margaret Elaine Whitlam did not make the choice between taking up an effective home life and having an effective life outside the home.

When she died this Saturday 17 March at St Vincent's Hospital she was surrounded by her family. She was aged 92 and she had had an extraordinary life. She was born Margaret Elaine Dovey, the daughter of Wilfred Robert 'Bill' Dovey, a New South Wales Supreme Court judge. She attended the Sydney Church of England Girls Grammar School in Darlinghurst, where she excelled in sport. A number of speakers have already commented on the fact that she competed for Australia in the 200-yards backstroke in the 1938 British Empire Games. Photographs from the games show the rangy 188-centimetre-tall Margaret, who described herself as a great long streak, with her hair in long black plaits.

Margaret met Gough Whitlam four years later at a science party while he was waiting to be called up to the RAAF. They married soon after, in April of 1942. She was two years into her diploma of social studies at the University of Sydney.

Margaret never made any apologies for the relative privileges that her background gave to her. Instead she chose to dedicate her career to helping those who were less fortunate than her. She saw what was wrong in the community and worked to fix it, as part of the Family Welfare Bureau. She and Gough had four children, Nicholas, Anthony, Stephen and Catherine.

Gough was first elected to federal parliament in 1952 and became a federal opposition leader. He became parliamentary leader of the Australian Labor Party in 1967. During this time Margaret was working as a medical social worker at the Parramatta District Hospital. Upon Gough's election as Prime Minister, Margaret quickly became known as an outspoken advocate for issues, including women's rights and, particularly, abortion law reform and conservation. She was influenced by many leading feminists at the time, including Germaine Greer. She was known for breaking the mould. When it came to parliamentary spouses and prime ministerial spouses she refused to submerge herself into the role of a political handbag, as was often expected of women in those days. She quickly saw that her position gave her a great platform upon which to engage with the social issues of the day and to effect real change.

She once wrote that you must not get too great a sense of yourself or your own importance. Her sense of humour was famous and infectious. It was that sense of humour, that wit and that grasp of many of the important social issues of the daya great sense of political historythat made her a regular and popular guest on radio and television and a columnist for the Australian Women's Weekly.

Margaret was very outspoken against the dismissal of her husband by Governor-General Sir John Kerr, in 1975. I interrupt to say that there is not an Australian of my generation or older who cannot tell you exactly where they were on that day in November 1975. I was too young to remember it at the time, but if I had I am sure I would have laughed when I learnt that Margaret's response to the dismissal was to tell Gough: 'How ridiculous. Why didn't you just tear it up?' The dismissal did not tarnish her reputation as political royalty and nor did it halt her supreme philanthropic efforts. She did not retreat from public service. In fact, the citations and the community and national organisations that she was involved in from the time Gough left public service, in 1978, until her passing on the weekend would exhaust a person half her age.

She was truly loved by all within the Labor movement. The member for Cunningham earlier today passed on the words of Margaret's son Nick, who is now a resident of the Illawarra and well known to me and the member for Cunningham. I can think of no better tribute to any woman than to pass on the words of Margaret's son Nick, when he said, 'Just please say that I am the proud son of a wonderful woman.'

The Whitlams are the nearest thing that we have to royalty in the Labor Party, and we are not that fond of royalty, it must be said. But it was not just because of the achievements of her husband. If she were not such a wonderful woman she would not be eliciting the great tributes from members of all sides of House that she has received in this debate and the outpouring of affection that she has seen from the Australian community since the events of last Saturday. I am very proud, as a Labor person, to be speaking on this motion. I pass on my condolences to Nick and Judy, residents of the Illawarra, and to the entire Whitlam family.