On Saturday morning, Margaret Whitlam passed away at the age of 92. She was an advocate and champion for women’s rights, a patron of the arts, an indomitable character and so much more.
She also happened to be the wife of Gough Whitlam. Rarely do two such dynamic and confident people strike up a partnership; it’s rarer still when it stands the test of time. Over almost 70 years they stood by each other, supported each other in everything they did.
The tributes flowing for Margaret Whitlam have been many and gracious. All sides of the political arena have been united in their remembrance of one of
’s most respected and remarkable women. Emotions have been strong, events fondly remembered, her place in Australian history not only written but deservedly so. Australia
No one denies that Margaret Whitlam was fiery, opinionated and sometimes more forthright than she needed to be. Yet we remember those traits fondly, rather than with dismay. The strength and purpose of her life shines through. Our recollections focus on that.
Which is why it is so very, very disappointing that there has been one discordant voice in the chorus. I am, of course, speaking of Opposition leader Tony Abbott. Many have taken Abbott to task for describing Margaret as a “marvellous consort” to Gough, but I disagree with this position. I believe I know what he was trying to say; I believe the intentions behind these words were good.
No, it is Abbott’s reference to the Whitlam government that grates on me. Tell me: when the country is remembering the life of Margaret Whitlam, why does Tony Abbott feel the need to say this?
“There was a lot wrong with the Whitlam government but nevertheless, it was a very significant episode in our history and Margaret Whitlam was a very significant element in the political success of Gough Whitlam.”
My problem with this is not political. It’s not about which party I follow, or whether or not what Abbott said was true. The events of the Dismissal of the Whitlam government are embedded in our history.
No, my problem with Abbott’s statement is that it shouldn’t have been political. This was not the time nor the place for such gamesmanship; it was a time of remembrance for a woman who greatly influenced our country, and of condolence for her husband of so many years.
This is a question of grace. There was grace in the words and thoughts of so many who shared their sorrow at the passing of Margaret Whitlam, grace in the appreciation and respect for what she had accomplished. And there was grace in the consideration and respect shown to Gough, who at the age of 95 is left to travel onwards alone.
Sadly, there was a distinct lack of grace in the words of Tony Abbott. Thankfully there were many within his party who were far more gracious, who did not feel the need to cheapen the gravity of the moment with political pot-shots. Even Malcolm Fraser, Gough Whitlam’s successor as prime minister, was candid and affectionate in his recollections of his former opponent’s wife.
And it bothers me. Like most of us I’ve experienced the loss of people close to me; I can remember the words of consolation, the graciousness of those around me while I mourned. It’s a grace, a respect that comes naturally to most people. We expect it of ourselves, of our friends and family, even of those we are not close to.
We should also demand it of our leaders, when the occasion warrants it. We need leaders who will take us forward not only with strength and conviction, but with grace.