Do former prime ministers wield influence after they leave office?
When I commenced my internship with the Australian Prime Ministers Centre in early August, my knowledge of our national leaders was woeful, bordering on embarrassing. My opinions on Gough Whitlam and his prime ministership were simply made up of echoes of comments from my parents, grandparents, newspaper columnists and teachers, none of which painted Whitlam in a particularly flattering light. However, when news of Whitlam’s death reached me on the morning of 21st October, I shed a tear.
What happened in those four months to cause me to feel such emotion for a man I had never met, and moreover a man whose imprint on Australia’s social consciousness is so deeply divisive?
My research here at the APMC was part of an internship run by the Australian National Internships Program (ANIP) over the second semester of 2014 at the ANU. With my supervisor at the APMC, I devised a plan for a research paper that focused on the activities of Australian prime ministers after they have left office. This project was designed to contribute, also, to a collaborative project between prime ministerial collecting institutions on letters exchanged between prime ministers.
I chose four case studies for this research, namely Billy Hughes, Sir Robert Menzies, Gough Whitlam and Malcolm Fraser, with the goal of achieving a balance between major political parties, and between recent and more distant ‘formers’. These four men, who to me earlier had simply been prime ministers, became more human and less ‘politician’ the more I researched them.
Whitlam, a man who had attracted such vitriol, became particularly interesting to learn about. Entirely aside from his contentious policies, Whitlam was a man of deep conviction and passion, and he pursued a long public life that saw a great number of achievements beyond the prime minister’s office. Was this secondary career an attempt to legitimise his acrimonious prime ministership? This question warrants further research, but what I learnt is simply that Whitlam, along with his fellow ‘formers’, was human first and a prime minister second.
It was for this reason that on Tuesday 21st, the day after I submitted my research paper for marking, I felt deeply sad about the passing of Gough Whitlam, not just Australia’s 21st prime minister, or the politician who sparked Australia’s worst constitutional crisis, or the Opposition leader who advocated recognition of China’s Communist Government in 1954. I simply felt sad to see the end of the great, long life of a man who lived with conviction and worked hard for his country.
I am so grateful that my time at the APMC, while originally designed simply to result in a research paper, gave me a greater understanding of, and compassion for, the dedicated individuals who accept the hugely demanding position that is the Prime Minister of Australia.