How do you sum up a truly extraordinary life in just a few words?
How do you edit the achievements of one of Australian history’s most prolific politicians, into a short and sombre speech?
Impossible tasks, taken on today by his family and Australia’s greatest politicians, artists and musicians as they gathered to remember former Prime Minister of Australia Gough Whitlam, who died on October 21, aged 98.
About 6,000 people registered to attend today’s state memorial service, but only 1,900 mourners could fit inside Sydney Town Hall — leaving many to spill across the pavement outside the hall, where they watched the moving service on big outdoor screens.
1. “Australia’s greatest white elder” – Noel Pearson.
Aboriginal Australian academic and activist Noel Pearson delivered a passionate, moving tribute to Whitlam, speaking in particular about his contribution to anti-discrimination and land rights.
“Without this old man, the land rights of our people would never have seen the light of day,” Mr Pearson said. “He truly was Australia’s greatest white elder…
“He harboured not a bone of racial, ethnic, or gender prejudice in his body.”
Mr Pearson also remarked on how much social change Whitlam spearheared in only three years as the nation’s leader.
“In less than three years an astonishing reform agenda leaps off the policy platform and into legislation,” he said of Mr Whitlam’s reign.
“The country would change forever. The cosmopolitan Australia finally emerged like a technicolour butterfly from its long dormant chrysalis.”
Academy-award winning Australian actress Cate Blanchett also gave an impassioned speech at the service that, at times, was almost drowned out by cheers.
She described the former Prime Minister as “mighty”, adding: “I am the beneficiary of free tertiary education … good free health care. I am a small part of Australia’s coming of age.”
“The nation was truly changed by him, through the Arts and through gender,” she said.
“I shall be grateful ‘til the day I die.”
3. Cheers and jeers.
Former prime ministers Malcolm Fraser, Bob Hawke, Paul Keating, John Howard, Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard, as well as current Prime Minister Tony Abbott, were among the mourners at today’s packed service.
The crowd cheered and gave a standing ovation as Ms Gillard entered the memorial service, and also gave Mr Fraser — who took over as Liberal prime minister after Mr Whitlam’s controversial 1975 dismissal — a warm reception.