Books, News & Commentary, Non-Fiction

Bob Ellis on Noel Pearson at Gough Whitlam’s funeral

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Bob Ellis: In His Own Words shows the best of the late writer’s essays, speeches, diaries and scripts, in addition to previously unpublished work, archival photos, and reflections from close friends and family. This book honours Ellis’s illustrious and prodigious writing legacy. It is compiled by Anne Brooksbank and is published by Black Inc. The following is an extract from the book.


Fifteen years ago I called Noel Pearson ‘Australia’s best orator’ after sharing a stage with him in Mosman. He proved it again before a vaster audience in the Town Hall with an oration rich in wile and fury, almost Elizabethan in its intimacy, clarity and beauty, in which, being now himself a man of no party, he extolled ‘this old man’ to whom he, his people, and Australia, owed so much.

. . . Raised next to the wood heap of the nation’s democracy, bequeathed no allegiance to any political party, I speak to this old man’s legacy with no partisan brief. Rather, my signal honour today on behalf of more people than I could ever know is to express our immense gratitude for the public service of this old man . . .

. . . And thirty-eight years later we are like John Cleese, Eric Idle and Michael Palin’s Jewish insurgents ranting against the despotic rule of Rome, defiantly demanding ‘and what did the Romans ever do for us anyway?’ Apart from Medibank and the Trade Practices Act, cutting tariff protections and no-fault divorce in the Family Law Act, the Australia Council, the Federal Court, the Order of Australia, federal legal aid, the Racial Discrimination Act, needs-based schools funding, the recognition of China, the abolition of conscription, the law reform commission, student financial assistance, the Heritage Commission, non-discriminatory immigration rules, community health clinics, Aboriginal land rights, paid maternity leave for public servants, lowering the minimum voting age to eighteen years and fair electoral boundaries and Senate representation for the territories. Apart from all of this, what did this Roman ever do for us?

Only those born bereft truly know the power of opportunity. Only those accustomed to its consolations can deprecate a public life dedicated to its furtherance and renewal. This old man never wanted opportunity himself but he possessed the keenest conviction in its importance.

For it behoves the good society through its government to ensure everyone has chance and opportunity. This is where the policy convictions of Prime Minister Whitlam were so germane to the uplift of many millions of Australians …

We salute this old man for his great love and dedication to his country and to the Australian people. When he breathed he truly was Australia’s greatest white elder and friend without peer of the original Australians.

Quickly hailed as the ‘best Australian speech, ever’, it became, like Lincoln’s second inaugural, a new benchmark of the language well used in a great cause on a high occasion. Kelly and Carmody then sang ‘From Little Things Big Things Grow’ in an atmosphere charged like none since wartime.

Faulkner’s tribute and Tony Whitlam’s thanks then swiftly followed, and the first chords of ‘Jerusalem’, as always, had me in tears. I remembered Gough at Margaret’s funeral theatrically steering his wheelchair out of the church as the choir sang ‘I shall not cease from mental fight, Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand’, and knowing, I think, precisely knowing, that this was the last that most of us would see of him, heroically engulfed in this great Labour anthem, tragically leaving, making his exit, the job unfinished. And here was the song again. It was swiftly sung, and that was it. No coffin was carried out. There was silence. The orchestra conductor stood undecided. Would there be more? No. An inconclusive, shuffling silence. And that was it.

It was an occasion memorable for its reticence, proud good taste and almost Anglican harmony of soul. No humorous montage of wacky television moments was projected. Gough’s own voice did not occur, though the imitations of others, on stage and at the party after- wards, were many and usually good, Mike Carlton’s, as always, the best. There was a feeling not so much of sadness, or even happiness at a great life well concluded, but of an enormous, high-vaulting life interrupted, diverted, dislocated, and of thirty-eight years then somewhat, though not altogether, hobbled or diminished in a sort of haughty nightclub act of a stand-up elder statesman for a nation’s regretful posterity.

‘For language honours and forgives / Everyone by whom it lives,’ as Auden said of Yeats. Lincoln, Churchill, the Kennedys, Obama had varying successes and great failures in war and peace, but their gift of language, of the smooth, self-mocking utterance, of bringing the house down with gales of laughter, made up for their failings, while millions died.

Whitlam’s record was better than theirs. He embarked on no new war. He ended one. He uplifted three generations to a possibility of personal excellence like none before him, or after. He fought the good fight; he finished, or almost finished, the course. He kept the faith.

From the blog Bob Ellis Tabletalk, 2014

Bob Ellis: In His Own Words, compiled by Anna Brooksbank. Published by Black Inc.


2 responses to “Bob Ellis on Noel Pearson at Gough Whitlam’s funeral

  1. I miss Ellis also, I didn’t know him personally but our paths often crossed, either at film festivals or at Labor Party conferences. You could grab a coffee and sit at his table and he would just chat away passing opinions and analysing situations with intelligence and wit, the gruff exterior concealing the sociable individual beneath. I know what I want for Xmas, his book.

  2. Strangely this article confirms my very thoughts on that day! Gough was always wondrous and Noel was eloquent on the day! Thank you Gough and Noel.

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