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November 11 is Remembrance Day, but it’s important in Australian history for another reason: the constitutional crisis of 1975, when Labor Prime Minister Gough Whitlam was dismissed from office by Governor-General Sir John Kerr. The Opposition had used its control of the Senate to block supply bills which had been passed by the lower house – a move which was within the letter of the law, but went against parliamentary tradition. Without supply, the government was unable to finance itself, and effectively stymied.

The Governor-General took the highly unusual step of breaking the deadlock by dismissing Gough Whitlam without any warning, and installing Opposition Leader Malcolm Fraser as caretaker prime minister until an election could be held. Known as “The Dismissal”, Tuesday November 11 1975 was a day of high drama, with the proclamation read from the steps of Parliament House to a crowd of angry ALP supporters, all booing furiously, until it finished with the traditional sign-off, “God save the queen”.

Gough Whitlam then made his famous speech, which began, Well may we say “God save the queen”, because nothing will save the Governor-General, went on to call Malcolm Fraser Kerr’s cur, and ended by urging his followers to maintain the rage until polling day. These statements became Labor catch phrases, even battle cries, although as it transpired, not enough people maintained sufficient rage, as the Coalition won the pre-Christmas election in a record victory. By some accounts, the Coalition senators would have eventually caved in, rendering The Dismissal unnecessary.

Edward Gough Whitlam, always known by his middle name, was the 21st Prime Minister of Australia, and an enduring icon of the Labor Party. Tall, cultured, articulate, and witty, he modernised the ALP, and after it had spent 23 years in the political wilderness, was able to turn the party from one of protest into a viable alternative government.

Elected in 1972 under the simple but effective slogan It’s Time, Gough Whitlam was a whirlwind of change in the nation, enacting a record number of bills during his three years in office. Troops were withdrawn from the Vietnam War, and draft-dodgers released from prison; a universal health care system was brought in, now called Medicare.

The Family Court was created, Legal Aid established, the death penalty abolished, and no-fault divorce brought in. The Department of Aboriginal Affairs was established, the Racial Discrimination Act enacted, the Aboriginal Land Rights Act passed, and the prime minister handed back traditional lands in the Northern Territory to their original owners. Whitlam was the first prime minister to visit communist China, granted independence to Papua New Guinea, changed Australia’s stance on South Africa’s apartheid policy, and fought against nuclear testing in the Pacific.

His list of achievements roll on and on like the credits of an epic movie. He supported women’s rights, appointing a women’s advisor to the Prime Minister, pushing for equal pay, bringing in welfare for mothers, and increased access to contraception. He supported young people, ending conscription, lowering the voting age to 18, introducing youth radio 2JJ, and abolishing university fees. He supported the arts and the environment, gave us our own national anthem, dumped the out-dated system of knights and dames, got rid of radio and TV licenses, and connected homes to sewerage. Gough brought Australia into the modern age.

After they had both left parliament, former prime ministers Gough Whitlam and Malcolm Fraser made friends and even worked together on political causes, but Whitlam never spoke to Kerr again. Gough Whitlam became an elder statesman in the ALP, and was the first person to be given life membership of the party. The oldest Australian former prime minister thus far, he passed away this year on October 21 aged 98, and his state memorial service was held on November 5, attended by the current, and six former living prime ministers.

Gough is a Welsh surname meaning “red”; the name would have been given to someone with a ruddy complexion or red hair. The surname may pre-date the Norman Conquest, and originates from the Powys region. It is pronounced to rhyme with cough.

Gough has been used as a personal name since the 17th century, mostly for males. It isn’t uncommon in Australian historical records, although far more frequently found as a middle name than a first (just as with Gough Whitlam). Although it isn’t particularly strange, it is very closely associated with the former prime minister, and some Australians may think of it as a “one person name”.

I am sure that at this point I would have warned parents of the obvious pitfalls of using the name Gough on a baby – except that I know someone, have known them very well for a long time in fact, named Gough. He was born during Gough Whitlam’s term of office, and his parents named him in honour of the prime minister, for whom they had an enormous respect.

As it turned out (and this is something else I would have warned about), their son did not share their ideals when he grew up, and his politics are much further to the right than theirs. It sounds as if Gough’s parents did everything wrong, making a foolish and perhaps even selfish decision to saddle their son with a name which might cause him embarrassment in the future.

But the truth is that Gough loves his name, and although he has a perfectly serviceable middle name that he could have used instead, nothing would induce him to be called anything but Gough. Like many people with unusual names, he finds it a wonderful ice-breaker, and nobody ever forgets his name. And because it’s such a famous name, everyone knows how to spell and pronounce it too, which isn’t always the case with unusual names.

That he more or less views Gough Whitlam as a blot on the politico-historical landscape is a source of great amusement to him, and he says people no more expect him to be left-wing than they would expect someone named Elvis to be a great singer. He doesn’t feel that he is under any pressure to emulate Gough Whitlam in any way, but I suppose some might wonder if he has unconsciously fought against his name by taking a very different path (although he has a strong ethic of service to his community, like the former PM).

So I can’t in all conscience warn you that you are making a mistake in choosing the name Gough for your baby. It might have more advantages than you’d initially imagine, and there is no evidence that it will ruin your child’s life or cause name bullying. Perhaps now that Gough Whitlam has passed away after a long and honourable lifetime of public service, it seems even more usable than it did in the early 1970s.

However, I am still fairly sure that even if you insist that your son is named for your great-grandfather Frank Gough who married his cousin Annie Gough and called his first child Gough Gough, everyone will assume that he is really named after Gough Whitlam and that you have outed yourself as a “true believer”. Not that there’s any dishonour in that.

POLL RESULTS
Gough received an approval rating of 46%. 36% of people thought it sounded too much like cough or off, but 15% saw it as strong and unforgettable. 4% of people were put off the name by Gough Whitlam.

(Photo of Gough Whitlam from the Sydney Morning Herald)

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