SYDNEY (Reuters) - Former Australian prime minister Gough Whitlam, who died on Tuesday aged 98, was one of his country’s most revolutionary yet divisive statesmen, forging ties with China but triggering a constitutional crisis that split the country.
Whitlam, who held office from 1972 to 1975, withdrew Australian troops from Vietnam and ended conscription, banned sports teams from apartheid-era South Africa, made university study free and opened diplomatic negotiations with emerging communist China.
But his legacy was dominated by the greatest political upheaval in Australian history when his center-left government was sacked by the Queen’s representative, Governor-General Sir John Kerr.
“Well may we say God save the Queen, because nothing will save the governor-general,” Whitlam icily declared on the steps of parliament after Kerr’s dismissal statement ended with the then-customary: “God save the Queen.”
Prime Minister Tony Abbott, ordering flags to be flown at half mast, described Whitlam as a “giant of his time”.
“He united the Australian Labor Party, won two elections and seemed, in so many ways, larger than life,” Abbott said in a statement. “He established diplomatic relations with China and was the first Australian Prime Minister to visit China. China is our largest trading partner. That is an enduring legacy.”
Whitlam’s four children said he died on Tuesday morning from unspecified causes.
“A loving and generous father, he was a source of inspiration to us and our families and for millions of Australians,” his children said.
A sharp-witted though imperious orator, Whitlam swept into power in 1972, ending 23 straight years of conservative rule, on a promise of widespread reform and an “It’s Time” pledge to drag Australia from a post-war period of social conservatism and complacency.
Upon taking power, the classics expert embarked on a whirlwind of change coinciding with growing public unrest over involvement in the Vietnam conflict, which Australia joined in 1965 to support close ally the United States.
He abolished the death penalty, extended welfare to single parents, reformed divorce laws and lowered the voting age to 18.
After visiting Beijing as opposition leader in 1971, Whitlam was accused by the then prime minister of being “played like a trout” by Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai, but criticism was blunted by U.S. President Richard Nixon’s subsequent China rapprochement.
Whitlam’s November 11th, 1975, dismissal and unfounded rumors of CIA involvement were the culmination of a political drama which began in October with the refusal of the Upper House Senate to pass crucial spending bills.
Former conservative leader Malcolm Fraser, Whitlam’s greatest adversary and the man installed as caretaker prime minister in his place, said Whitlam’s initial work on recognition of Aboriginal land rights was among his most significant contributions.
“He had a sense of identity for Australia to be an independent player on the world stage. He didn’t want Australia to be subject to any other nation,” Fraser told the Australian Broadcasting Corp on Tuesday.
“He had an idea of social justice which I think was really deep in the heart of the whole parliament then, but he gave it a voice and an impact, which was important.”
Whitlam’s political notoriety mellowed with time and he was regularly the star of Labor functions as the party’s most famous cause celebre, becoming a fond favorite of liberal intellectuals on both sides of politics.
He served as a UNESCO board member, academic, acerbic after-dinner speaker, was awarded an honorary Doctorate in Literature, and credited with kickstarting Australia’s evolution into a more modern and internationalist nation.
Born Edward Gough Whitlam in Kew, Victoria, on July 11, 1916, Whitlam read law at Sydney University and became a successful barrister and Queen’s Counsel. He also served in Australia’s air force during World War Two.
In 1942, Whitlam married Margaret Dovey. They had three sons and a daughter during a marriage which lasted 70 years until Margaret’s death in 2012, aged 92.
Editing by Chris Reese and Gunna Dickson