December 2012 – January 2013

The Nation Reviewed

Messages for Gough

By Michael Gurr
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.
Forty years since ‘It’s Time’

The moment comes well into the night. Jonathan Biggins is at the lectern. The satirist isn’t joking as he holds up a walking stick and tells us that it has been found in the Ladies’. Would anyone like to claim it?

The occasion is the 40th anniversary of Gough Whitlam’s “It’s Time” speech, delivered here in Sydney’s Blacktown Civic Centre on 13 November 1972. There are a fair few walking sticks around tonight, propping up a sea of silver heads.

Tom Uren is here, dispensing tender smiles to strangers. So is Col Joye, he of the Joye Boys, who lined up with Bert Newton and Little Pattie and Bobby Limb and Jimmy Hannan to sing ‘It’s Time’, the only political campaign song ever to make the pop charts.

When the Liberal Party does nostalgia it goes for eras – imagined times of social order and people knowing their place. The Australian Labor Party, home of the collective, goes for individuals. They are lionised, forgiven and expanded in the re-telling. None more so than Gough Whitlam.

The 96-year-old isn’t here tonight. Instead we have black-and-white footage taken in this venue four decades ago of a lean and hungry Whitlam, declaring: “There are moments in history when the whole future and fate of nations can be decided by a single decision. For Australia, this is such a time.”

We each receive a souvenir copy of the podium speech, complete with Whitlam’s scribbles and scrawls. I get my copy signed by its co-author, Graham Freudenberg. The flipside of NSW Labor’s legendary heartlessness is a misty sentimentalism, and Labor people are very sentimental about Freudenberg. He is the hero of the unsung, the patron saint of the Labor foot soldier. If you were told that Graham Freudenberg still occupied an office in Old Parliament House, and was allowed to smoke there, you would believe it.

He tells the story (we know it, but that’s all right) of how Whitlam would always touch the speechwriter’s shoulder for luck before a big speech. On this occasion, Whitlam said, “It’s been a long road, comrade, but I think we’re there.”

Bob Hawke talks of Whitlam’s speech as setting the gold standard for the ALP. He regrets the passing of speeches delivered in public halls, of the rowdy engagement with a never-quite-controllable public. Watching the black-and-white footage, you can hear a heckler. A heckler? At a campaign launch? These days, you virtually need a police check to gain admittance. In 1972, it was expected that people would yell things.

Hawke relishes the idea of a hall full of disagreement; for him, rancour is a challenge to the force and charm of the speaker. But no one heckles Hawkey tonight.

He tells us of a hall that was meant to seat 1000 but had 1500 crammed in, with hundreds more outside. He talks about the “feverish enthusiasm” of the night, of the light at the end of the tunnel. I am beginning to feel a little woozy with the nostalgia. I don’t believe that the past was a better place. While history is our scaffold, it’s the future that must be better.

But this feeling is dispelled when Hawke nails it with a number. By 1972, Australia’s sad and foolish involvement in the war in Vietnam had put around 500 Australian families into mourning, and harmed many more soldiers incurably. It was coming to an end, and Whitlam was saying that conscription would end “forthwith”. (Not “immediately” of course; in Whitlam‘s world things happened “forthwith”.)

Graham Freudenberg grounds us again in the atmosphere of 1972. He reminds us of the media’s response to Whitlam’s use of the words “liberty, equality, fraternity”. The Sydney Morning Herald was horrified. Fancy invoking the language of the French Revolution in Australia! Remember what that led to! He reminds us that the paper also compared the Blacktown speech to a Nuremberg rally.

If we have come expecting a gathering of grandees eating posh nosh, we are in for a humbling. Some at my table think the meal has a ’70s theme. There are cheese cubes, folded ham slices, something that might have been risotto once and butter in little foil packets. People at our table argue about Keating. They disagree about Hawke. At a Labor bunfight, you never agree about anything – until you do, and then you fight like mad for it.

The Blacktown Civic Centre sits right in Whitlam’s old electorate of Werriwa. Mark Latham, also a former Member for Werriwa, is absent tonight, but then he did buy himself a falling-out with his mentor. The talk around our table goes to Latham. Did the party, and the country, dodge a bullet with that one? Does the electorate always get it right? In Latham’s case, it’s hard not to feel that he was writing himself into history before history had happened. The pulse was too fast. You can’t declare yourself a legend.

On every table is a folder labelled “Messages for Gough”. People’s pens are in the air; no one knows what to write or how to express the debt they feel. What do you say about universal health care? About decent sewers in Brisbane? If the party platform was the Old Testament, said Tom Uren, then Whitlam’s Blacktown speech was the New. “Modern” is a very ’70s word, but modern is what Gough Whitlam made the ALP.

The night ends with music. Tim Freedman, of The Whitlams, does his unique melancholy best, that very Sydney voice seducing old survivors with a song about when they were beautiful. And then, inevitably, Patricia Amphlett, aka Little Pattie, gives us ‘It’s Time’, backed now by a teenaged choir from Campbelltown Performing Arts High School. The kids sway and sing, and you wonder: as they look down from the stage, what is it that they see? Walking sticks and arguments. It’s still time. It always is.

Michael Gurr
Michael Gurr is a playwright, author and speechwriter.

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