Gaham Freudenberg obituary gough whitlam
Gaham Freudenberg (Image: Youtube)

Who writes the words to read over the grave, and tell us what it was all for, when the speechwriter goes?

Graham “Freudy” Freudenberg is the latest of the Whitlam generation to go, departed at 85, a year after the documentary The Scribe picked out his unique contribution to those anni mirabiles. Best known for his work bringing Gough Whitlam’s words into truth — a job of constraining rather than filling out Whitlam’s vision, running as it did from the Gracchi of Rome to FDR by way of the Glorious Revolution — he worked also for Bob Hawke as PM, Neville Wran as NSW premier and a host of others, producing well over a thousand speeches.

He began writing for Arthur Calwell, which is like having written for Keir Hardie, coming out of the last years of clear and simple class struggle now sealed off from us in newsprint and black and white film. He always delivered, those who relied on him said, but not without terrifying people first — leaving it until the evening before to write all night.

Like many at the head of the movement at that time, he was intoxicated with a love of high romantic classical music, blasting out Beethoven as he wrote, on successively better hi-fi systems over the decades. Having started as a journalist, he wrote to express the thoughts such as they were, and the personality of the politician in question, but he was not without his own views — publishing a new treatment of the relationship between Churchill and Australia.

“We have heard the chimes of midnight,” Freudenberg said in the wake of the ’77 election, speaking for many. But he went on, and it was a pretty good life; an ascension with the century.

Freudenberg lived across the era when the collectivist and conservative Labor Party became attractive to young intellectual men and women coming out of childhoods shadowed by WWII, by “The War”, the great struggle of human possibility against radical evil. They joined a party less “progressive” in a number of areas than elements of the new Liberal Party. By the time they retired a whole progressive class had followed them in, and the party had become a social coalition.

It becomes clearer with each passing year that the great post-war liberal-progressive-social-democrat push had taken its energy from the war’s epic struggle and the foregrounding of the question of what it was to be human, of what was at stake. As the gravity of that event weakened by distance in time, a vacuum formed, and into it rushed the beguiling and annihilating power of the market.

The Hawke government can be seen as something of an accommodation of the two processes; under Keating the floodgates opened. The purpose of Labor became not merely a better world, but what its likely voters most immediately wanted. It’s good to give voters what they want, but if you offer them only that, then you enter a spiral — and one not pointing upwards — chasing the contradictory demands of a now fragmented base.

Witness, for example, the mess Labor has got itself into with its simple inability to argue for a rise in Newstart on the grounds that no consideration of rorting should dissuade such a party from saying that people should not have to half-live like animals, which on Newstart they half-must.

There’s no point in damning the present through the past, not least because the Whitlam pushers were damned, at the time, as fey successors to the hard men of an earlier era. The times create the men and women; to be offered the chance to be great is impossible without a degree of luck.

Still and all, as that generation departs, it would be worth looking back at the words this man wrote, and for Labor to discover the lost art of telling us what it is all for.