A handshake with Gough Whitlam and a divide between my parents that time couldn’t heal | Paul Daley

I grew up hating politics. No good could ever come of it, I knew that for certain. For as a kid I’d heard my parents arguing all those times about Gough Whitlam.

Dad, a lifelong Labor devotee, was at death’s door when he voted against John Howard at the November 2007 election that ended nearly 12 years of Liberal rule. It was, perhaps, Dad’s last moment of great pride.

His father was a leftwing Labor mayor in 1930s suburban Melbourne. Dad was also a member of a leftwing Labor union. He loved Whitlam, and his election as prime minister exactly 50 years ago, after Labor’s 23 years in electoral wilderness, was one of the greatest days of his adult life.

Mum loathed Whitlam. She wished federal Labor an eternity in opposition. And Gough, it turned out, was the ALP messiah – the one who eventually rescued Labor in the wake of the 1955 split that helped keep the party in penury for 17 years longer than it might otherwise have been.

“The split” happened amid the global atmospherics of Soviet communism’s spread across eastern Europe. Domestically, there was the “Petrov affair” after the defection of a Canberra-based KGB operative, Vladimir Petrov, the subsequent royal commission into his purported influence (including within the ALP), and the divisions in parliamentary Labor between communist sympathisers and anti-red, mostly Catholic MPs from Victoria (“the groupers”).

Mum’s favourite was one of the groupers who helped form, then sought re-election as a candidate for, the Democratic Labor party. He lost his seat in the fallout from the split. But Mum remained a rusted-on DLP supporter, voting for it until it lost its party status. She even letterboxed for it at subsequent elections.

The events of 1955 also fissured my mother’s family, across the generations. She and her siblings divided roughly between being pro- and anti-DLP. There were arguments – especially at Christmas when the extended family got together after lunch at an aunt’s house.

There was yelling. Once or twice a ruffled lapel. I recall Mum once being so upset she had a cigarette (she didn’t smoke).

A decade ago for a book I was writing (a part-memoir) I spoke to my sister about a family trip we took as kids to Canberra with our parents. The more we talked the more detail we salvaged.

Old Parliament House steps. Whitlam was walking down them as we arrived. Dad, holding me, accosted him. Whitlam politely exchanged pleasantries.

“Paul,” my father said, although he was actually addressing the great man, “this is the next prime minister of Australia.”

Whitlam said something suitably immodest like, “Correct, comrade – I am.”

“Shake hands,” Dad said, again addressing – ordering – Edward Gough Whitlam. He extended his hand.

I watched from below as Dad (he had swiftly deposited me on to the ground) used both hands to envelop and vigorously pump that which he viewed no less reverently than God’s. When Dad released Whitlam, my sister – six years older and a good deal taller than me – shook his hand too. I didn’t get the chance.

Piecing the memory together in my book, Canberra, I wrote, “Mum … stood remote from the small group that surrounded Whitlam. She was small, ivory-skinned and raven-haired, strikingly beautiful in middle age. She reserved her intimidating dark-Irish stare for the most egregious offenders against the political, social and religious sensibilities that guided her. And so she glowered her daggers from the wings at the spectacle – at her entranced husband who’d abruptly dropped her son so he might clutch Whitlam, and then at her daughter shaking his hand.’’

Back in the car Mum and Dad bickered. Dad, who rarely raised his voice, did so, shouting at her that her DLP brother was a Labor “twister’’. A twister? I had never heard of such a thing. Iwould later learn it meant traitor.

Now I had met him, of course I wanted Gough to win in 1972. I don’t remember the actual election night (I was probably avoiding the TV and my parents’ inevitable tensions about the result). But I can remember Dad’s delight and Mum’s quiet, brooding anger and her disparagement of Whitlam.

Even after (reluctantly) moving to Canberra to cover federal politics, which I did for 15 years, I avoided political discussions with my parents together. Had I not I would have said that I was the proud beneficiary of so much of Whitlam’s legacy, not least free university education, universal healthcare, a far more artistically creative, outward-looking and socially progressive country. How those all too short, sometimes dysfunctional, but always reforming Whitlam years enduringly benefited me and my generation.

Today I’ll remember what they meant for our father. And continue to ponder how it was that our parents came together at all when, clearly, as they met and married, they had such bitter fundamental political differences. In some ways these differences were emblematic of their marriage more broadly.

And yet they stayed together until Dad’s death, until which he was still relishing his final federal election vote.

Paul Daley is a Guardian Australia columnist

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