Vale Margaret Whitlam. What a beacon of intelligence and warmth you were in Australia’s political and cultural history. A national treasure, not just as the wife of a former prime minister, Gough Whitlam, but in your own right.
One evening, many moons ago (almost 19 years ago), I encountered Margaret Whitlam. It was at Launceston University and Gough was there to give a lecture on the Mabo ruling - the High Court recognition of Native Title. An empowering, passionate, clear and exciting lecture that left no moments for distraction or mind wandering and would have had us all running to vote for Gough if we could. An expert, Gough held us all in the palm of his hand. Margaret sat on stage with him, listening intently, exuding her own presence.
After the lecture, the audience crowded around the statuesque couple as they left the hall - these wonderful people who spoke with passion and inspiration, who never seemed wearied by experience or bleak about the future. Two powerful people cutting swath through a room like a hot knife through butter. There was something so appealing and inspiring about the energy of them.
I was there, very small of stature, mesmerised, holding my three month old baby girl in my arms. Looking back now, I realise that being a young Uni student with a baby, I actually stood out. Margaret, with warmth, gravitated straight to the baby, who obligingly gurgled and grinned and gazed into Margaret's sparkling blue eyes. Despite the crowd and the noise, Margaret was perfectly composed and asked all about me and the baby – our names and what I was studying (Fine Art). She called Gough over and he was immediately at her side. Guiding him with a touch on his arm she said, “Gough! Look here.”
Well! The great man looked at the baby with that penetrating gaze, framed by those famous eyebrows, and swept her out of my arms! Margaret placed her hand on my shoulder reassuringly as if to let me know my baby was safe – mind you I had no qualms handing her over.Gough, with all eyes on him, kissed the baby and raised her into the air. “There!” he announced to the crowd, “She’s been blessed by Gough!” The crowd clapped and cheered and he very gently passed her back down into my arms. Margaret coordinated the whole moment.
The perfect end to this story would be to say that the child grew up to be a great orator and political thinker. Well. I can say she is a good talker!
Margaret had the aura of a great person and the unpretentious warmth of a grandmother. The connection between her and Gough was, evidently, amazing. One word from her and he stopped what he was doing to pay her instant attention. It was one of those wonderful moments when your head buzzes with inspiration and possibility.