Whitlam Institute


Mr Carillo Gantner AC

Mr Carillo Gantner AC delivered the below speech at the opening of the exhibition Dedicated to the Dedicated: Whitlam, the Arts and Democracy on Thursday 6 June 2019 at the Margaret Whitlam Galleries, Whitlam Institute within Western Sydney University, Rydalmere.


Good Evening. Thank you for the invitation to speak this evening.

I feel a bit of a fraud in this distinguished company with members of the Whitlam family, senior political figures from the Labour Party and with aura of Gough hovering around us. Compared with many, my links to Gough are slender. I can only claim:

·        to be a devoted fan;

·        to have been a life-long beneficiary of Gough’s investment of money, status and structure in the arts;

·        To have travelled with Gough twice in China during my term as Cultural Counsellor at the Australian Embassy in Beijing in the mid 1980s;

·        To be the nephew of the man who, had he accepted Gough’s first invitation to be the Governor General, would quite probably have changed the course of Australian history.

In April, I gave a lecture here at this University’s Australia-China Institute for Arts and Culture. The general thrust of the lecture was that you could be a “Panda Hugger”, that is, someone who was attracted to many aspects of China and, in my case, have a particular attraction to the performing arts of China, while at the same time also being a sturdy, patriotic Australian, or as I called this, a “Koala Hugger”. Almost like my professional life in the theatre, my lecture started with Gough because, when I returned to Australia in 1969 after my graduate theatre studies at Stanford University to work at the Adelaide Festival, Gough was on the rise towards the Prime Ministership. Coming out of the hothouse liberalities and flower power of California during the Vietnam War straight into the rather drab conformities of Adelaide, Gough seemed to me to be a figure of heroic proportions in every sense: a huge physical presence but, more importantly, a man of enormous imagination, vivid intelligence, deep compassion and utter charisma. It is almost unkind even to mention that the political comparator was William McMahon, a little man in every sphere where Gough was grand.

I was first married in November 1972. My wedding then to a fellow drama student from my Stanford class took place in the garden at my grandmother’s property in central Victoria. I used the occasion of my wedding speech to give a passionate rallying call for the election of Gough’s Labour team. She loved me dearly, but this was all too much for my very conservative grandmother who hopped into her car and drove back to Melbourne. She was subsequently ambushed again by her eldest child, my uncle Ken Myer who, with a group of prominent Australians from many different fields, signed a famous letter just before the election saying it was time for a change of government and for the election of Gough. Being a very senior business leader at the time as Chairman of the Myer Department Store business, it was Ken Myer’s name that was trumpeted by the press as having turned against the conservatives, the natural ally of business.

As I said in my April lecture, it was truly exciting to be young when Gough was finally elected in 1972 after long years of conservative political torpor in Australia. In his first week in office, when only he and the Treasurer Lance Barnard had been sworn in to Cabinet holding 27 Ministries between them, Gough did three extraordinary things towards which the majority of young Australians had been working for years: he began the process towards recognised the People’s Republic of China, he ended conscription and he withdrew Australian troops from the quagmire of the Vietnam War. Not a bad week’s work.

As the English poet William Wordsworth wrote in relation to the start of the French Revolution:

“Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,

  But to be young was very heaven.”

I was in fact working as the very first Drama Officer at the Australia Council in North Sydney at the time of the Gough’s election win in early December 1972. I had been in this role since July 1970 when I moved across from Adelaide to work at the Council at the invitation of the Council’s founding Executive Officer, Dr Jean Battersby.

Everyone thinks that Gough established the Council but, in fact, it is not so. It was initially legislated by Liberal Prime Minister Harold Holt in 1967 just before he drowned in wild surf near the Victorian beach resort of Portsea. Then in 1968, Holt’s successor as Prime Minister, John Gorton, made it a division of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, incorporating within the Council other government arts programs such as the Commonwealth Literary Fund and the Commonwealth Art Advisory Board. Gorton stepped down in 1971 when he suffered a humiliating tie with Billy McMahon in a confidence vote within the Liberal Party.

In May 1971, Peter Howson was appointed as the Minister responsible for a new Department of Aborigines, Environment and the Arts. The Council was part of this new Department and new letterheads were printed for every branch. Some wag promptly christened this the “Department of Abo Farts”, so the names had to be shuffled quickly and we became part of the Department of the Environment, Aborigines and the Arts. Howson felt this was a demotion from his previous role as Minister for Air under Menzies. He was expecting to be rewarded by McMahon for supporting him against Gorton but, after his appointment to the new Ministry, he was reported as commenting that, ”The little bastard gave me trees, boongs and pooftas”.

As an aside, I note that it is curious to me that the Liberals have never claimed credit for establishing the Council but perhaps they are too embarrassed by the miserable status and support they gave it at the beginning, a tradition that sadly continues to this present day.

When I went to work at the Council, it had a staff of seven, and this number included the EO Dr Battersby, the sole administration officer and myself as Drama Officer. The others included Project Officers for Music, for Film, for Dance and for Special Projects. The Chairman was Dr H.C “Nugget” Coombs, small in stature but a Titan of the Public Service who is said to have served under seven Australian Prime Ministers including Gough.

To the great joy of artists and the great benefit of the country, what Gough did do in 1973 was to turn the Australia Council into a new statutory body, the Australia Council for the Arts, at arm’s length from government interference and control, with a doubling of its budget in its first year and 50% the next, and with artists at the centre of decision making by being a majority on the various art form boards that made the grant decisions. So much good has flowed to Australia from this transformative act, this ‘consummation devoutly to be wished’ as Hamlet said.

The creation of the Aboriginal Arts Board made up entirely of Indigenous artists was especially noteworthy, not least because it led to a complete re-evaluation of Indigenous art and its elevation across the Australian community. I attribute my own interest in this area to the advocacy of Jennifer Isaacs, the first Aboriginal and Torres Straight Island Arts Officer at the new Council and of course to Nugget Coombs who backed Jenny to travel the country opening the first Indigenous arts centres in remote Aboriginal communities across the North.

My whole career in the performing arts grew from my experience of this exciting time and the resulting flowering of the Australian arts scene. I had a very privileged position with a ringside seat through my work at the Council through which Gough’s democratic philosophy and financial largesse was delivered. I was able to travel the country meeting everyone who was anyone in the theatre scene of the day, devising programs to support them through company and project grants and, in states where professional theatre companies did not yet exist, to assist in their creation.

If the election of the Whitlam Government was “very heaven”, the Dismissal in 1975 was a sickening trauma inflicted on the body politic and, felt by many of us not only as a national shame but also as a deeply personal sorrow.  The Whitlam government may have grown chaotic and been damaged by poor economic management, but for so many young people like myself it inspired an intensity of loyalty and even feelings like love. It seems to me that the passionate involvement of the young in today’s climate change debate is the first time since Gough that I have felt this same broad intensity of feeling among the young around a political issue. The Neanderthal forces of reaction against climate science could also be said to be reminiscent of the forces that pushed Gough out, but let’s not go there now.

My life in the theatre led me into a parallel universe of dealing with Asia, and most especially with China. Having brought various Chinese performing companies on tour to Australia and taken Australian theatre delegations to China since 1978. I gave up my job as Artistic Director of the Playbox Theatre Company to take up the role of Cultural Counsellor at the Australian Embassy in Beijing in early 1985.

One of the great experiences of my term in Beijing was twice to travel around China accompanying Gough in his new role as the Chairman of the Australia China Council. On one of these trips he was accompanied by his wife Margaret and by his then personal secretary Mark Latham. I recall meeting them at the bottom of the steps as they came off the plane at Beijing airport. Mark thought he was too grand to carry Gough’s briefcase and insisted that the Embassy staff should carry it for him. Gough thought the sun shone out of Mark’s derriere but Margaret couldn’t stand him. As Gough’s introductions of Mark became more and more grandiloquent at each subsequent meeting, Margaret’s less than subtle interjections and coughing to put Gough on notice became more and more obvious. I have to tell you that the Embassy staff were very much on Margret’s team in this.

Everywhere we were treated like kings because the Chinese remembered that Gough had gone to China in 1971 even before Henry Kissinger was sent as Nixon’s emissary, and had brought about diplomatic recognition well before the Americans. I took the notes for his meetings with Deng XiaoPing who chain smoked and spat into a spittoon between their chairs while Gough paused his question in mid-air waiting for the phlegm to land in the pot, and with Premier Li Peng, a dry technocrat who was no match for Gough’s supple mind. We travelled in motorcades and were accommodated in state guest houses or the Presidential suites of five star hotels. In Shanghai we were accommodated in the same suites with huge black marbled bathrooms that President Nixon had occupied on his visit to China in February 1972. They gutted a cabin and built a special long bed for Gough when we travelled down the Yangtze on the ferry The East is Red No 52.

As we cruised down through the Three Gorges, the weather was foul, with sleet and rain making it too miserable to stand on the front deck outside the First Class Lounge. Instead we sat in the Lounge looking out through the rain streaked windows at the mountains shrouded in heavy clouds as in a traditional Chinese ink painting. For several hours we enjoyed the privilege of talking intimately with Gough. I recall asking him a Question without Notice: Why did Ken Myer turn down your offer to be Governor General? “Ah”, said Gough. “You can read about that in my biography, but of course that’s not the real story.” “What is the real story?” I asked, because none of this was in the public domain, let alone known to Ken’s own family. At this point, Gough reeled off the contents of Ken Myer’s letter to him of 12 years earlier, not word for word but paragraph by paragraph: ‘After the role of Governor General, what could I do as I would not be able to go back into the Myer business. My children would not want to transfer schools to Canberra. My wife has an academic career and does not want to move, etc etc. I could feel him  visualising each paragraph of the letter in his extraordinary mind. “Of course, none of these excuses were the real reason,” said Gough regretfully. “The real reason was that he had started a relationship with Yasuko Hiraoka, a Japanese artist, and he didn’t want this on the front page of every paper.” It was an extraordinary feat of memory, and not the last on this trip.

In Xian our Chinese minders took us out to the south of the city to see the Giant Wild Goose Pagoda. The local guide told us proudly that this beautiful Buddhist shrine was built in 652 AD in the Tang Dynasty under the reign of Emperor GaoZong. Gough reflected for a moment and then said, ”652AD, that was the year of the Battle of …..” and he reeled off the name of some obscure battle in the Arab-Byzantine War which none of us had ever heard of, but we were certainly not going to contradict him because we knew he was likely to be right.

Gough had a brilliant capacity to capnap in the car between meetings. He would say, “Wake me five minutes before we get there” and promptly nod off. I would wake him and read the briefing notes for the next call. “We ae visiting the Chengdu Light Industry Factory No 27, a joint venture between the Sichuan Department of Light Industry and the Australian Company XYZ. The General Manager, Mr Wang Li, will be receiving us”. Then our Red Flag limousine would sweep into the factory driveway and Gough’s towering frame would step out of the car, hand extended to the receiving hosts. “Mr Wang, I have heard so much about your distinguished career and have been looking forward with enormous anticipation to meeting you and visiting the great Chengdu Light Industry Factory No 27, a glorious joint venture between our great Australian company XYZ and the famous Sichuan Department of Light Industry that has contributed so much to the well-being of the people of New China”. Mr Wang reeled back and we were led inside for an inspection of the manufacturing processes in the spotless factory. At some point as the tour progressed, Gough leaned towards me and whispered in a conspiratorial voice, “Comrade, what am I looking at?”

About eight years ago I had a coffee with Jim Spiegelman who had been a friend when I lived in Sydney and worked at the Australia Council in the early 1970s. At that time, Jim was Gough’s personal secretary when Gough was Leader of the Opposition. In more recent years, Jim had been Chief Justice of the NSW Supreme Court. I asked him how Gough was getting on in the Sydney nursing home where he was seeing out his last years. I recall Jim saying that Gough was losing it a bit, but was still quite remarkable.  “You have to remember,” he said, “that Gough has a lot more synapses to lose than most of us.

There was another story from the nursing home that confirms this assessment. Gough was sitting in his wheelchair when a nurse saw one of his sons walking down the corridor to visit him. “Here comes your son,” said the nurse brightly. “How many sons do you have, Mr Whitlam?” she asked. “Only three. So far,” replied Gough.

SpeechesJenna Beck