Companion of the Order of Australia (1978)

5 December 1972 — 11 November 1975 2 years, 341 days

Gough Whitlam became Australia's 21st prime minister when the Labor Party won office, replacing the Liberal-Country Coalition government led by Billy McMahon.


11 July 1916
Melbourne Victoria


21 October 2014
Sydney, New South Wales


Margaret Whitlam


Australian Labor Party

Photo: Fairfax

5 December 1972 — 11 November 1975 2 years, 341 days


Gough Whitlam considered it his 'destiny' to lead the Labor Party, and the country. He came to office with a detailed reform agenda known as ‘the Program’ and the resolve to implement it. During his rollercoaster years as prime minister, Whitlam established social policies which endured long beyond his government and achieved significant reform of his party organisation.   

Gough Whitlam addressing a political rally in Melbourne City Square

Photo: Fairfax

Whitlam was educated at Knox Grammar and, later, Canberra public and private schools. He studied classics at Sydney University in 1935 and reportedly reorganised the college library. In 1941 he enlisted in the Air Force, reaching the rank of flight lieutenant, and became interested in the post-war reconstruction policies of the Curtin government. Whitlam completed his legal studies and was admitted to the Bar in 1947.

After standing unsuccessfully in council and state politics, Whitlam was elected in a by-election for the federal seat of Werriwa in 1952. Whitlam became deputy leader to Arthur Calwell in 1960 and clashed on party reform with the executive who he labelled as the ‘twelve witless men.’ Whitlam became opposition leader in 1967 and, on 5 December 1972, was sworn in as prime minister after running an innovative election.

Whitlam was dismissed by Governor-General Sir John Kerr on 11 November 1975, who appointed Malcolm Fraser as prime minister until an election was called. Whitlam suffered a heavy loss in that election and stayed on as opposition leader. After losing the 1977 election he resigned on 31 July 1978. The Whitlam government is remembered as a period of significant reform which responded to the needs of a changing Australia, but was also characterised by political and economic uncertainty.  


360° VIEW


The 1972 election was a landmark victory for the Labor Party and presented an opportunity for Whitlam to bring an end to what he viewed as a long period of policy inertia by previous governments. Whitlam and deputy leader Lance Barnard set to work immediately, sworn in after just three days and operating as a duumvirate ministry that divided every position between them and made 40 decisions within two weeks.

Whitlam’s ambitious policy reform impacted on Indigenous Australians, migrants, women and included the introduction of Medibank, new ACT and Northern Territory Senate seats, a new national anthem, Order of Australia honour, as well as the abolition of university fees, the death penalty and military conscription. Whitlam had a strong commitment to parliament and its conventions and a great ability to use it as his stage.

Often Whitlam’s outstanding rhetorical skills were not matched by equivalent strategic or tactical skills. In 1973 the House of Representatives sat for over 900 hours, the greatest number in half a century. The Liberal opposition continued to block government bills in the Senate and Whitlam requested a double dissolution election. After the election held on 18 May 1974, Whitlam still did not have control in the Senate and so invoked an unused provision of the Constitution to call an historic joint sitting of both Houses to vote on the rejected bills. The bills were passed on 6 August 1974, but the ongoing turmoil in parliament did not abate. 

Gough Whitlam wearing a superman symbol on his shirt.

Photo: News Ltd/Newspix


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