GOUGH Whitlam was the nation’s greatest white elder and friend without peer to the original Australians, Noel Pearson told a packed Sydney Town Hall today during a special send-off for the former Labor prime minister.
The Cape York indigenous leader paid tribute along with four other speakers — former speechwriter Graham Freudenberg, Labor senator John Faulkner, actress Cate Blanchett and Whitlam’s eldest son Tony — at a state memorial service held a fortnight after Whitlam’s death aged 98.
Saluting Labor’s hero prime minister for the opportunity he gave to all Australians — but especially in opening the way for indigenous people to win land and human rights — Mr Pearson said his grandparents and parents could not have imagined the doors opened to him.
“I can scarcely point to any White Australian political leader of his vintage and of generations following who it could be said without a shadow of a doubt he harboured not a bone of racial, ethnic or gender prejudice in his body,” Mr Pearson told the crowd to rapturous applause.
“I speak to this old man’s legacy with no partisan brief. Rather, my single honour today on behalf of more people than I could ever know, is to express our immense gratitude for the public service of this old man”.
He went on: “This old man was one of those rare people who never suffered discrimination but understood the importance of protection from its malice. He harboured not a bone of ethnic or gender prejudice in his body.
“The cosmopolitan Australia finally emerged like a technicolour butterfly from its long dormant chrysalis. Was any more time needed. The breadth and depth of reforms secured in that short and tumultuous period were unprecedented and will likely never again be repeated.”
Graham Freudenberg, who served as Whitlam’s speechwriter and adviser for the entirety of his federal ALP leadership from 1967 to 1977, said his former boss believed that the Labor Party was the mainstay of Australian democracy and equality.
Mr Freudenberg said Paul Keating was right when he said “there was one Australia before Whitlam, and a different Australia after”.
Tony Abbott and all his living prime ministerial predecessors were at the front of the hall often referred to as Labor’s “Cathedral” — Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard, John Howard, Mr Keating, Bob Hawke and Malcolm Fraser.
Papua New Guinea’s prime minister Peter O’Neill and three of his predecessors including Whitlam friend Sir Michael Somare also attended.
A bevy of Labor royalty was present to join the celebration of Whitlam’s life including Bill Shorten, Anthony Albanese, Bob Carr, Wayne Swan, Stephen Smith, Barry Jones and Penny Wong.
Blanchett, speaking for the arts community, said Whitlam made it possible for students such as herself to pursue their careers and succeed without enduring poverty.
Admitting she was just 3 years old when Whitlam’s Labor government took office in 1972, Blanchett said she was the beneficiary of free education, good free health care and Whitlam putting Australia on the world stage by engaging with other countries and engaging honestly with its own indigenous people.
Tony Whitlam, speaking on behalf of his siblings Catherine, Nicholas and Stephen, gave thanks to the Prime Minister’s office for organising the occasion, and to many others including the Sydney Symphony Orchestra and the Sydney Philharmonic Choir for providing music. The music, such as Jerusalem by Hubert Perry, and “Un Bal” from Hector Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, was chosen by Whitlam himself.
Mr Whitlam also spoke for the family at the funeral of his mother, Margaret, in 2012.
Senator Faulkner, who maintained close contact with Whitlam to the end, said the former Labor prime minister had made the ALP electable and worth electing. He pointed out that amid the current cynicism of many about politics, Whitlam had chosen politics as a lifelong calling.
The service included a “Welcome to Country” by Aunty Millie Ingram, a descendant of Victor Lingiari, into whose hands Whitlam famously poured a handful of dust in 1975 to symbolise the return of land rights.
“Thank you because you shone a light for all our people,” Ms Ingram said.
The event was hosted by ABC compere Kerry O’Brien, who briefly worked for Whitlam in the twilight of his political career. William Barton played a special piece on Didgeridoo. Paul Kelly and Kev Carmody sang From Little Things Big Things Grow — in recognition of the emblematic moment between Whitlam and Lingiari.
The RAAF conducted a flypast of F/A-18 Hornets in “missing man” formation afterwards.
With places limited because of the Town Hall’s 2000-seat capacity, the audience was filled with people from prior bookings and those specially invited. A crowd outside watched the event on a large screen.