Social media may have tut-tutted at the display of partisan and nostalgic fury at Gough Whitlam’s memorial service, but it was an manifestation of the great and enduring battle of ideas
So of course there would be booing, and cheering, and foot stamping, and joy, and outrage. This was Gough Whitlam’s memorial, a unique and resonant gathering of the political tribes, still writhing in a combat that can never be satisfactorily resolved.
This was pure politics. Not the crimped, meaningless formulations of contemporary protagonists who are so meek and afraid of mistakes and of failure that they can only communicate in the language of sound bites, in words without meaning.
The outburst of emotion outside the Sydney town hall on Wednesday morning was a powerful affirmation, proof positive that Australian politics has a beating heart. This was the politics of real people: the people who remain engaged, the people who believe, and persist, and endure all the failings and the disrespect and the daily manipulation to insist that politics is and must be a noble cause, periodically inhabited by people of courage.
The man they had come to mourn believed in things, and he’d told them to maintain the rage – so they did. They delivered their verdict. The crowd booed John Howard as he climbed the steps to say farewell. Howard, understanding a little something of politics as cultural conflict, understanding the intrinsic merits of an enduring battle of ideas, responded to the cool reception with a wave and what looked like an extra spring in his step.
Tony Abbott, too, grinned up at the crowd. Fighters know fighters, they understand other fighters, they understand that fight is the craft and the life and the calling, however much you clothe the task in unifying, pacifying, words.
The mourners roared for Julia Gillard, and mumbled ambivalently for Kevin Rudd. The fighters were there to farewell one of their greats. As they roiled, and contested, and asserted their right to be partisan and nostalgic and furious in perpetuity at the moment of the official parting, the little vigil on social media tut-tutted primly.
How could people show emotion in such a setting? How could they boo and hiss? How could they feel and go so far as to emit their intemperate feelings?
How could they not be beaten down and lobotomised and straight-laced and platitudinous and terribly, terribly proper? Are we now so obsessed with process and petty intrigues that we’ve forgotten politics actually rises to greatness when it connects, when it empathises, when it imagines there are ideas worth having, worth asserting, worth getting a blood nose for?
Resolving the conflict, and standing mute at the point of manufactured resolution, misses the point. Whitlam – for all his limitations and imperfections – believed enough to change a country. Conviction animates politics, and politics soars when it connects with people who actually, resolutely, implacably, believe.