SYDNEY- Former Australian prime minister Gough Whitlam, a towering figure who led the nation through a period of massive change and remains the country’s only leader to be sacked, died Tuesday aged 98.
“A loving and generous father, he was a source of inspiration to us and our families and for millions of Australians,” said his children Antony, Nicholas, Stephen and Catherine in announcing his death.
Conservative Prime Minister Tony Abbott called the Labor stalwart “a giant of his time”, and instructed flags around the country to be flown at half mast while suspending normal parliament for the day as a mark of respect.
“Whitlam represented more than a new politics. He represented a new way of thinking, about government, about our region, about our place in the world and about change itself,” said Abbott.
Despite being in power for only three turbulent years, Whitlam launched sweeping reforms of the nation’s economic and cultural affairs.
He stopped conscription, introduced free university education, recognized communist China, pulled troops from Vietnam, abolished the death penalty for federal crimes and reduced the voting age to 18.
Under his leadership, the last traces of the White Australia policy designed to exclude non-white migrants were also removed, and he became the first Australian leader to visit China, now the nation’s biggest trading partner.
But the flamboyant and driven Whitlam was also divisive while in office, with an autocratic reputation, falling out with minister after minister and earning enemies along the way.
Ultimately he became Australia’s only prime minister to be sacked, a touchstone moment in the nation’s political history.
He led Labor to its first victory in 23 years at the December 1972 election on the back of the famous “It’s Time” campaign, before being sensationally fired in 1975 by Governor-General Sir John Kerr, the Queen’s representative.
His dismissal was prompted by a refusal by parliament’s upper house, where his Labor Party did not hold a majority, to pass a budget bill until the government agreed to call a general election.
To end the impasse, Kerr took the unprecedented step of sacking Whitlam and installing then opposition leader Malcolm Fraser as caretaker prime minister.
“I don’t think Gough … I never felt he bore me personal animosity. He regarded that as politics,” Fraser said Tuesday of that tumultuous time.
“He wasn’t the sort of person who bore grudges. He didn’t carry a bitterness into the future. He was a much larger man than that, a more generous man than that.”