OPINION: Respect the office. Respect the occasion. Even if you don't respect the man.

Tony Abbott at Gough Whitlam's memorial.
Tony Abbott at Gough Whitlam’s memorial. Image via Getty.

Is it ever okay to heckle the Prime Minister?

Of course it is.

In a country like Australia, we have the right to make our voices heard in the democratic process and we are free to say when our leaders make decisions we disagree with.

But is it okay to heckle the Prime Minister as he walks into a memorial?

Well, mourners who gathered outside of Sydney’s Town Hall yesterday for Gough Whitlam’s memorial service certainly think so.

Yesterday’s state memorial made headlines for a lot of wonderful reasons.

Noel Pearson’s speech was immediately lauded for being one of the greatest of our times; Whitlam’s son Tony joked as he fondly recalled campaigning with his father and actress Cate Blanchett said she would remain forever grateful for the free education she received as a result of changes spearheaded by the Whitlam government.

But one detail from the Sydney Town Hall memorial service drew attention for less favourable reasons: the moment when Prime Minister Tony Abbott entered the service and received a frosty reception.


Seven Prime Ministers all in a row. 

Other former prime ministers, Julia Gillard, Bob Hawke and Malcolm Fraser were cheered when they entered the hall — but Prime Minister Abbott was booed by crowds outside when he arrived. Former Prime Minister John Howard also received boos and disrespectful comments from the assembled crowd of mourners.

The response from the crowd was immediately criticised on social media. Here’s a taste:

Surely, even if you are not a fan of Tony Abbott and his Government, you can respect the fact that he was attending a sombre and significant occasion. A memorial can be a difficult time for all who attend, it is a time when we reflect on our own mortality and shed a tear for the person we have lost.

It is not the time to attack or boo an individual who is trying to pay their respects.

As Prime Minister, it was right and proper that Tony Abbott attend Gough Whitlam’s memorial. While politics may divide down party lines, those who have served as Prime Minister have all made incredible sacrifices for the good of their nation and it is a shared bond that the rest of us cannot understand. Yesterday would have a been a difficult day personally for the Prime Minister, and surely we can all take a step back from our politics to allow him time to grieve and reflect.

To boo and shout at mourners is also deeply rude behaviour towards the Whitlam family. As a public figure, Gough Whitlam’s life will be mourned by thousands but ultimately yesterday was for those closest to him; his friends and family. They deserved to be able to pay tribute to a loving father, grandfather and friend, free from the petty rough and tumble of today’s politics.

You can respect the office. You can respect the occasion. Even if you don’t respect the man.

Click through our gallery below for photos from the memorial.