It must be said that her passing was an event that would have gone by without contribution from me until the dopey passing barb from The Situation forced a reassessment.
Margaret Whitlam was the first modern Prime Minister's wife:
- Australian Prime Ministers' wives from Jane Barton to Dame Pattie Menzies operated in an environment where the media, and the population at large, was respectful of their role as behind-the-scenes support for their husbands (Dame Edith Lyons' political career in its own right only took off after her husband had died, and even then you should read some of the condescending tosh written about her at the time).
- Zara Holt would have been a hoot were she around today; but in her time she was of the old school where, in public, her guard was up and her upper lip was stiff and appearances were utmost.
- John McEwen was a widower during his short period as Prime Minister.
- Bettina Gorton used her husband's time at the Lodge to get the degree that she had left incomplete for marriage and children, but otherwise played little role in public affairs apart from escorting her husband to functions.
- Sonia McMahon was eye candy, the funkiest thing about her husband by a long shot. That said, if she was as flaky as was widely believed, and if he was only using her as a beard, that marriage would not have lasted as long as it did.
- Journos had their suspicions and their rumours about the three marriages described above; they stayed out of the papers and off the air, but they limp into history showing what a poor first draft journalism can often be.
- Tamie Fraser preferred to take a lower profile than her immediate predecessor, but she spoke out and advocated her own causes to a far greater extent than those of her predecessors she would have known personally Damie Pattie, Zara, Bettina or Sonia.
- Hazel Hawke championed social welfare issues to a far greater extent than Whitlam, a former social worker, had done in her husband's government. This would have upset a few of Hawke's ministers but hopefully they're over it.
- Annita Keating's championing of the arts is straight out of the Margaret Whitlam playbook.
- Jeanette Howard was the anti-Margaret Whitlam, preferring to be the hidden strut to her husband. Even though she underwent cancer treatment while living in Kirribilli House she felt herself under no obligation to advance treatment or understanding of that disease for anyone else one iota.
- Therese Rein running a global business - with significant social welfare interests - while her husband was PM was a continuation of Margaret Whitlam's insistence on being her own woman.
As Malcolm Farr pointed out, Whitlam had her own career as a social worker. From 1964 to 1967 was the only person of that profession working at Parramatta Hospital, then one of Sydney's major hospitals. While raising her own children, she would have been there when the babies of unmarried teenaged mothers were taken and adopted out. She would have been there when Aborigines would have been treated officially as non-people, even though their need for medical attention is part of their humanity. She would have seen workers from the James Hardie plant at nearby Granville dealing with the early stages of mesothelioma. I wonder what she thought of all that.
She later hosted a chat show on the ABC. Reruns of the show reveal her to be welcoming and appreciative of her guests without being gushy, and neither know-all nor facile in discussing their work; achieving a tricky balance in what might appear to be a simple format. The Coalition at the time criticised the national broadcaster for giving the Prime Minister's wife a plum role.
Much has been made of her participation in the arts, and she spoke eloquently of art in its various forms being indispensable to the life of a nation as well as a form of nourishment to individuals. She showed arts administrators that their role was to build a community around their companies rather than just hustle the government for ever more money. In their eighties, she and her husband insisted on entering the Sydney Opera House via the open stairs, as per Utzon's vision, rather than the cramped escalator off the carpark that was part of the abomination of Utzon's vision but which most people use.
Less has been made of her role as an athlete. She represented Australia as a swimmer in the 1938 Empire Games, a fact mentioned in passing but worth considering. Had war not prevented international sporting competitions from 1939 to the late 1940s it is entirely possible that Margaret Dovey (as she then was) would have played an important bridging role in Australian women's swimming between the pioneering efforts of Annette Kellerman and Fannie Durack, and the dominance of Dawn Fraser and successive generations who came after her.
Look at the video of Tony Abbott paying tribute to Margaret Whitlam (following Gillard doing so). It's clear he doesn't want to do it but he can't get over himself enough to throw himself into the task. He manifestly doesn't care that people are mourning her loss, and cares even less about her patronage of the arts. There is none of the for-whom-the-bell-tolls humility that comes from a recognition death and mourning as universal all-conquering human experiences. Taking a swipe at Gough Whitlam and his government on the way through may have been minor, but it reveals a character fundamentally too weak to become Prime Minister.
On the day before he dismissed the Whitlam Government, Sir John Kerr attended St Ignatius' College Riverview to give out prizes. He gave Tony Abbott some sort of consolation award for coming second in his class (beaten by someone who is unmarried and never had kids, but let's not go there). By the time Abbott enrolled at Sydney University the following year, Whitlam occupied the office that he holds today. Abbott might have developed his political position in reaction to Whitlam, but in his prime - and even afterwards - Gough Whitlam would have had Tony Abbott on toast had the latter been so stupid as to tackle him directly. Whitlam achieved what he did by leaving smarter and more principled people than Tony Abbott in the dust. The idea that Abbott should take a swipe at Whitlam on a day surely more devastating to him than all of 1975 put together is sickening.
Sickening, but not surprising. Had Margaret Whitlam died while Abbott was an undergraduate, a graceless comment from undergraduate Abbott might have been forgiveable - but not now. After numerous addresses-in-reply to foreign dignitaries and other formal occasions when addressing Parliament, we've seen that he can't resist getting a dig in at the cost of whatever message he's meant to be getting across. That lack of decorum and a sense of occasion in the context of what it means to be Prime Minister renders irrelevant all those people who insist that Tony is a lovely guy when you meet him face-to-face.
When blow-ups like this occur Abbott fans roll their eyes and say, "it's just Tony being Tony", and maybe it is; it won't be the last one, either. We're not obliged to have this joker as Prime Minister.
OK, so Abbott's comments about the Whitlam government weren't very nice. A lot of things in politics that aren't nice can be justified on the basis of being politically smart, the means justified by the ends of winning votes and holding power. Abbott won no votes at all by going after the Whitlams in that manner, at this time. No voter who is doubtful about the incumbents is encouraged to vote Liberal/National on account of that comment. From the perspective of hard-headed politics, every word that comes out of Abbott's mouth should reinforce Coalition voters in their inclination and discourage Labor/other non-Coalition voters in theirs. Any topic of conversation not conducive to those ends should not be uttered by him. Abbott has not only failed a test of decency, but also of politics at its most pragmatic.
John Howard is meant to be Abbott's role model, and even people who loathe Howard admit that he would have observed propriety on an occasion like this and would never have stooped so low as Abbott did. The first election I was involved in was 1987, and even as a Young Liberal I noticed that a lot of Labor voters were disappointed in Hawke. Come election day, even the biggest whingers rallied to their cause: because Howard had threatened to gut Medicare and the Conciliation & Arbitration Commission, and end race-neutral immigration, Labor people redoubled their efforts. By 1996 Howard had learnt that lesson and there was scant fuel for a Labor scare campaign.
Abbott might think he's jamming it up Labor by having a go at Whitlam on he day his wife died, but he underestimates how positive it will be for him or his party. Liberals too overestimate how easily small stuff like this doesn't vanish from the public mind but accumulates to the point where it's toxic to swinging voters going Liberal: just because it disappears from "the news cycle" doesn't mean that people will forget, and won't use it against Abbott in judging who should become Prime Minister. Abbott should want Labor discouraged by bad polls and stuff-ups, not fired up from a broadside on one of their icons as he mourns. You could point out that this is how it's done, but too late.
Margaret Whitlam (and her husband) showed that class need not be defined in economic terms. "Working class" had been clear enough but Labor failed in its historic task to monopolise their votes, and by any measure that "class" is dissolving and fragmenting to the point where it can barely be defined effectively, let alone represented. At the same time, in Australia the ruling-class has always been so thin and so fluid it consisted largely of those who stepped up and had a go.
No, "class" in Australia is something else entirely. Margaret Whitlam had it in spades and showed how it could be applied to help people and society/nation more broadly. That's why people who never met her are sad at her passing. Tony Abbott does not have nearly enough of it to maintain his current position, let alone ascend further. That is why people, whether they've met him or not, are sad that Abbott is occupying a job for which he's unfit and won't give over to someone who does have the class necessary for high office in this country.