Edward Gough Whitlam was born in the Melbourne suburb of Kew on 11 July 1916. He was the elder of two children of Martha (Maddocks) and Frederick Whitlam. Frederick Whitlam joined the Commonwealth Public Service and worked at the tax office. In 1913 he was promoted to the office of the Crown Solicitor, in the Attorney-General's Department headed by Robert Garran. He was 12 when his father was transferred to the new federal capital of Canberra in 1928. There he went to Telopea Park High School, completing the leaving certificate in 1931. He went to Canberra Grammar School to further his grounding in the classics by studying Ancient Greek. Gough Whitlam enrolled at the University of Sydney in 1935. He completed an arts degree, and began a law degree. When the Japanese attacked the US naval base at Pearl Harbour in Hawaii, he applied to enlist in the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF). He was called up in May 1942 and served as a navigator. He was based for much of the war at Gove, which is on the eastern Arnhem Land coast of the Northern Territory, and his squadron protected convoys off northern Australia. He later moved further north to undertake bombing raids on enemy supply camps in the islands.
In 1943 when Whitlam was on leave in Sydney, he and Margaret Whitlam went to a Labor Party election meeting addressed by one of Prime Minister John Curtin's ministers, and a rising Labor parliamentarian named Arthur Calwell. When he returned to his base at Gove, he handed out Labor material to his squadron members. The Curtin government was returned and the following year began campaigning for a referendum giving the Commonwealth wider post-war reconstruction powers. Again Whitlam campaigned for the Labor government, firmly supporting the cause of expanding Commonwealth power. The referendum on 19 August 1944 was unsuccessful, though the vote from those serving in the defence forces was overwhelmingly in favour. On his discharge from the RAAF, Whitlam joined the Darlinghurst branch of the Labor Party and completed his Law degree at the University of Sydney. He was admitted to the New South Wales and federal courts as a barrister in 1947.
Whitlam stood for the local government election for the Sutherland Shire Council in 1948, and for the Sutherland seat in the New South Wales parliament in 1950. Most of Whitlam's campaigning was door-to-door along unfinished streets in the rapidly growing southern suburbs. He was not elected to either seat, but the campaigns made him a well-known local figure.
He also became a radio celebrity, winning successive rounds of the 'Australian National Quiz' in 1948, 1949 and 1950. The quiz was arranged to promote popular interest in the Chifley government's security loans for post-war reconstruction. Broadcast live by the ABC, the quiz was avidly followed by many and the prizes for championship winners were security bonds. Whitlam's winnings totalled £1000, and the family used the money to buy the block of land next door to their house in Wangi Street, Cronulla.
Whitlam stood for the federal seat of Werriwa at a by-election in November 1952, after the retirement of HP Lazzarini. Whitlam won the seat, and celebrated by buying the family's first car, and a hat - then essential to the politician's outfit.
In 1955, Whitlam's electorate, was divided into two. The south-eastern section was named after WM Hughes. The western section retained the name Werriwa, and became Whitlam's new electorate. The family, now with four young children, moved from their Cronulla house to make their home in Cabramatta, within the electorate. In 1959 Whitlam was elected to the Caucus executive, and was a member of HV Evatt's Shadow Cabinet. On 7 March 1960 Whitlam won the deputy leadership of the party.
Whitlam was the initiator and driving force behind a systematic revision of Labor policy. With Labor's first full-time national secretary, Cyril Wyndham, Whitlam devised reforms targeting both the structure and the policy-making processes of the party. Key goals included representation of the parliamentary party leadership on the federal executive, direct representation for ordinary members and reducing the power of paid officials. Despite the opposition of Victoria's party executive, major changes were effected.
In the overhaul of policies to create a new and topical platform, the emphasis was on urban development, housing and education. But foreign affairs - the independence of Papua New Guinea, relations with China, Vietnam and Indonesia - health and defence were also included. In 1968 the Opposition forced through the Senate the appointment of a select committee into health costs. The government's partial measures in response to the Nimmo Committee report, and doctors' opposition to its recommendations, made Labor's "Alternative National Health Program" attractive to electors.
Campaigning for the 1972 election on an "It's Time" slogan, Whitlam declared: "Men and women of Australia! The decision we will make for our country on the second of December is a choice between the past and the future, between the habits of the past and the demands and opportunities of the future". At the election on 2 December, enough voters responded to this declaration to elect a Labor government, with Gough Whitlam as Prime Minister.Although Whitlam's government had a comfortable House of Representatives majority, it did not control the Senate. The Senate's threat to block the government's Budget in April 1974 prompted Whitlam to obtain a double dissolution of parliament, only the third time this had occurred since the foundation of the Commonwealth in 1901. The ALP retained government at the subsequent general election on 18 May but still lacked control of the Senate. Whitlam's government began implementing its reform program as soon as it was elected. Among its many other initiatives were:
The 'Loans Affair' as it was referred to occurred from December 1974 to October 1975. The government had secretly contemplated bypassing the Loans Council to raise $US4 billion in foreign loans but had abandoned the plan. However, Rex Connor, the Minister for Minerals and Energy, continued negotiating for such loans through Tirath Khemlani, who was an international broker. When Connor's role was revealed, Whitlam sacked him. However, the new Liberal leader, Malcolm Fraser claimed that the 'extraordinary and reprehensible circumstances' of the case justified the Opposition in refusing to pass the Budget Bills in the Senate.
The crisis climaxed on 11 November 1975, when the Governor-General, John Kerr, withdrew Whitlam's commission as Prime Minister. He then commissioned the Liberal leader, Malcolm Fraser to form an interim government until a general election could be held and dissolved the parliament.
Whitlam thus became the only Prime Minister in Australian history to have been removed from office while commanding the confidence of the lower house.
On 13 December 1975, after what may be described as the most bitter and divisive election campaigns in Australian history, Malcolm Fraser's Liberal-NCP coalition won 56% of the overall vote. This resounding victory gave the coalition a record majority in the House of Representatives, and a 6-seat majority in the Senate.
After a further defeat at the 1977 general election, Whitlam quit the ALP leadership. He resigned from parliament in July 1978 to become a visiting fellow at the Australian National University. He later held visiting professorships at Harvard and Adelaide Universities. In 1979 he published a book about the events leading to his dismissal, The Truth of the Matter. In 1983 he was appointed Australian Ambassador to UNESCO by R.J.L. Hawke's ALP government.
In retirement Whitlam continued to lecture and comment on political and constitutional issues.