Australian Prime Ministers and Sport Series – Gough Whitlam

by Greg Blood


21st Prime Minister: 1972-1975 

Gough Whitlam had a limited interest in sport as a participant and spectator but he understood the role that sport could play in Australian society at a time where there was increasing leisure time. His government can be considered to have started the development of the modern Australian sport system.

Birth: 11 July 1916, Melbourne – Death: 21 October 2014, Sydney

Major Political Appointments

  • Federal Member for Werriwa, NSW: 29 November 1952 – 31 July 1978
  • Leader of the Federal Parliamentary Australian Labor Party: 8 February 1967 – 22 December 1977
  • Leader of the Opposition: 8 February 1967 – 5 December 1972, 11 November 1975 – 22 December 1977
  • Prime Minister:  5 December 1972 – 11 November 1975


Whitlam was born in in Melbourne in 1916 and was the eldest of two children to Martha and Fred Whitlam. His father held senior federal government roles in the Crown Solicitor’s Office and became Crown Solicitor in 1936. Whitlam’s father’s work led him to growing up in Sydney and Canberra. In Sydney, Whitlam attended Chatswood Church of England Girls’ School (accepted boys), Mowbray House School and Knox Grammar School. In 1927, his father moved to Canberra where Federal Parliament was being established. He attended Telopea Park School and completed his secondary schooling at Canberra Grammar School. It not well-known what sports Whitlam played at school but there are reports of Whitlam spending time on Sunday’s walking in the bush surrounding Canberra with his father. [1]

In 1935, Whitlam moved to Sydney to undertake a Bachelor of Arts degree including the classics at St Paul’s College, University of Sydney. Whilst at the university, Whitlam took up rowing as his College expected its students to participate in sport. In the eights, he rowed in the five seat but it is said that his height 6 feet 4 inches (1.94m) disrupted the crews rhythm. But he was awarded a rowing blue in 1938.[2]

In 1939, Whitlam enlisted in the Sydney University Regiment, part of the Militia and in 1942 transferred to RAAF where he trained as a navigator and bomb aimer. In 1942, Whitlam married Margaret Dovey who swam for Australia at the 1938 British Empire Games in Sydney. He was discharged from RAAF in 1945 and completed a Bachelor of Laws at the University of Sydney and was admitted to the federal and New South Wales bars in 1947.

It was during the World War II that Whitlam became an active member of the Australian Labor Party (ALP).  After World War II, the Whitlam’s and their four children moved to Cronulla with the assistance of a war service loan.  He unsuccessfully stood for the Sutherland Shire Council in 1948 and state electorate of Sutherland in 1950.

In 1952, Whitlam was elected the Federal Member for New South Wales electorate of Werriwa that included Cronulla at the time. Like many politicians, Whitlam became connected with many Cronulla community organisations including Cronulla Surf Life Saving Club and Sutherland Shire Cricket Club where he was vice president for many years. This was a patronage rather than management position. Cronulla Sutherland Surf Club acknowledged Whitlam contribution in its obituary to him in its 2014-15 Annual Report. [3] During Whitlam’s time as the Federal Member for Werriwa, its electoral boundaries moved southwest to be mainly focussed on Liverpool and Cabramatta and as a result he moved from Cronulla to this Cabramatta in 1957. But Whitlam kept an active interest the development of the Sutherland Shire including its sporting associations.

Whitlam was elected Deputy Leader of the ALP Federal Parliament in 1960 and then replaced Arthur Caldwell as Federal Leader in 1967. He became Prime Minister in December 1972 after defeating Liberal William ‘Billy’ McMahon. The ‘It’s Time ‘ federal election returned the ALP to government after 23 years.

South Africa and Apartheid

In the years leading to the 1972 federal election, Whitlam led the campaign to stop racially selected South African sporting teams visiting Australia. Future prime minister Bob Hawke led the union campaigns. The McMahon government supported the tours and at the time there was broad Australian community was support.

Whitlam in parliament and in the media spoke out against the proposed tours. Firstly with the winter 1971 South African rugby team tour of Australia. In April 1971 in the Melbourne Sun, Whitlam wrote:

Sport and politics do not mix. That is precisely why Australians should refuse to host racially selected sporting teams from South Africa. For South Africa, sport is an extension of politics by other means.

A ‘whites-only’ team – which can play only other all-white teams – is a visible and deliberate expression of the white supremacist theories on which South African society rests. [4]

One of the first decisions of the elected Whitlam government on 2 December 1972 was to ban South African sporting teams. On 8 December 1972, Prime Minister Press Statement – Racially Selected Sporting Teams:

The Prime Minister, Mr Whitlam, announced today that in future racially selected sporting teams would be excluded from Australia. The South African Government has been informed of the decision. Mr Whitlam said that transit through Australia for sporting teams selected on a racial basis would also be prevented. The Australian Government’s position on such visits is now quite clear. -Shipping and airline companies operating international services to Australia are being informed of the decision. Mr Whitlam said he was confident that the government would get the co-operation of the companies on the question.[5]

After leaving Parliament, Whitlam continued to be critical South Africa’s approach to apartheid. In June 1985, Whitlam was elected chairman of The International Conference on Sport Boycott Against South Africa.

Federal Government Involvement in Sport

Whitlam’s intervention regarding South African sporting teams, highlighted a change in Federal Government’s direct involvement in sport. Previously federal Coalition government’s took the view that it was not to interfere in the activities of sporting organisations.

Whitlam’s 1972 election platform highlighted that it would be more involved in the organisation of sport in Australia as it had an important role in Australian society. In lead up to Australian Labor Party’s 1972 federal election campaign, Whitlam in a broadcast on the Macquarie Network on 16 October 1972 stated:

I will be delivering our policy speech at Blacktown Civic Centre in an area typical of the great urban growth which has occurred since the war in all our principal cities and particularly the State capitals. And it is in areas like this that the new problems of land and housing costs, school opportunities, hospitals, public transport, unemployment, migrant welfare and access to the community’s resources for recreation, sport and culture are most acute. These areas in many ways represent a new Australia with new problems, new opportunities and new challenges unknown to our grandparents[6]

In Whitlam’s ‘Its Time” campaign launch at the Blacktown Workers Club sport was mentioned several times

  • We shall make a series of special capital grants for the establishment of large multi-purpose centres at schools. During the day the centres would be used as assembly halls or for other school activities, educational or sporting. In after-school hours the building could be used for adult education or for useful cultural or artistic activities, art, dancing, sport, photography, etc. by all members of the community.
  • The Labor Party will also develop a cost-sharing formula to develop improved sporting facilities at schools. As with the multi-purpose buildings these would be available for community use in after-school hours. Principally the facilities would be playing fields and swimming pools. At present an enormous amount of capital is poured into these facilities in those schools which have them. The facilities, however, are used for only a very small portion of each day, not at all at weekends and, when they are used, they are used by only a very small proportion of the community, those actually attending the school. The schools themselves will, of course, have first call on these facilities but the whole community will benefit by their usage outside school hours. The school can become a focal centre for community living. Initially the development of this program will be aa joint responsibility of the Departments of Urban Affairs, Education and Health and Welfare.
  • Sporting Teams We will give no visas to or through Australia to racially selected sporting teams.[7]

Whitlam governments’ first major decision regarding the development of sport in Australia was to appoint Frank Stewart as the Minister for Tourism and Recreation which took responsibility for sport. Stewart, a former rugby league player for Canterbury-Bankstown, is now recorded as the first Minister for Sport.  Due to the lack of a previous federal government sport policy, Stewart commissioned several sport and recreation reviews.

Professor John Bloomfield from the University of Western Australia reviewed the Australian sport system and his landmark report The Role, Scope and Development of Recreation in Australia was presented to Stewart in April 1973. [8] The report made 74 recommendations in relation to recreation, community sport and facilities, sport participation and high-performance sport.

Whitlam government’s first budget in August 1973 provided $4 million for state governments to build sport and recreation facilities and $1 million to sports organisations to help with programs to improve sport participation.

In April 1974, Whitlam in an address to National Seminar on Leisure provides insights into the development of sport by his government:

In the last sixteen months or so we have moved into areas previously uncharted: we have probed and experimented and acted on issues affecting the lifestyles of millions in this country, all with a single aim: to add a new and richer dimension to that lifestyle.


When the Department of Tourism and Recreation was created in December 1972, community recreation was a mere catchphrase; we had no national projects, no experience and very little data on this complex subject. Now, through a process of study, consultation and action with state and local governments and other interested organisations, real progress has been made towards developing a national recreation policy. [9]

Stewart commissioned leading sport administrator Gordon Young to report on sport structures outside Australia. Young recommended that an advisory committee be established to provide advice to government. This led to the Australian Sports Council being established and holding its first meeting on 28-29 August 1974.

A key recommendation of Bloomfield’s 1973 report was the establishment of national sports institute that was a feature of many of Australia’s international sporting rivals. On 7 October 1974, Dr Allan Coles, a senior sport academic, was appointed to lead a study group to report on the feasibility of a national sport institute. Coles report extensively looked at overseas sport institutes and recommended a model for Australia.  The Australian Sports Institute Study Group report was completed in November 1975 but not tabled in Parliament on 28 April 1976 – post the defeat of the Whitlam government .[10]

The Whitlam government did a great deal to set up Australian sport for future development after decades of Coalition governments inaction. It recognised that federal government had an interventionist role in sport participation particularly through community facility development, funding sports organisations and the role of high-performance sport. Whitlam government was dismissed by the Governor-General after three years in controversial circumstances, but its legacy is still impacting Australian sport today.

Sydney Olympics Bid

Whitlam’s stance on banning racially selected sporting teams endeared him to African nations. In a smart move by the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games Bid Committee, Whitlam and his wife Margaret were enlisted to persuade African nations to vote for Sydney for the 2000 Olympic Games. Australian bids in 1992 (Brisbane) and 1996 (Melbourne) had failed and it was surmised that they lacked the support of African International Olympic Committee (IOC) members. The Whitlam’s travelled to thirteen African nations in thirty days including a private meeting with Nelson Mandela. They also entertained African IOC members in their home in Sydney. [11]  John Coates made several statements regarding the importance of Gough Whitlam to the successful Sydney Bid.

He was revered everywhere he went. They knew that this was the man who, six days after he became prime minister in 1972, said that no more racially selected sports teams would be coming to Australia, or even be allowed passage through Australia to New Zealand. As ambassador to UNESCO in 1986 he chaired the second Conference Against Apartheid in Sport, Many leaders in African sport knew him. [12]


The trip they made to Africa made all the difference and we won by two votes. The previous bids by Brisbane and Melbourne lacked key African support and the Whitlams were instrumental in Sydney gaining at least six or seven votes on that trip, and We will forever be indebted to Gough and Margaret for the role they played in helping Sydney win and the impact that had on so many athletes and Australians. [13]

Sydney narrowly defeated Beijing 45-43 and Coates claimed four to six African votes were directed to Sydney.[14]

Rugby League

There are several interesting stories surrounding Whitlam and rugby league.

Whitlam was invited to attend the 1974 Brisbane Rugby League grand final by ALP Senator Ron McAuliffe, President of Queensland Rugby League.  This occurred at the time Whitlam government had lost community support in Queensland and was constantly criticised by Queensland Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen. Whitlam and McAuliffe were subjected to abuse and beer cans as they walked to centre of Lang Park. Whitlam is said to have told McAuliffe “don’t you ever again invite me to a place where you’re so unpopular”.[15]  Future prime ministers were to encounter this reaction at national sporting events such as rugby league and Australian football grand finals.

In September 1975, Whitlam released a press release regarding an appeal to save the Cronulla Rugby League Club. Whitlam still had a strong affinity to the area and his sons played rugby league in the district.  Whitlam stated:

It would be a tragedy for the shire and Sydney Rugby League football if this very young club which has achieved so much in such a short time should have to withdraw from the competition because of temporary financial difficulties”. [16]

The press release noted that Whitlam made a donation to the appeal and highlighted that he knew the importance of sporting teams in local communities.

The dismissal of the Whitlam government on 11 November 1975 led to six rugby league internationals – South Sydney’s Bob McCarthy, George Piggins, Eric Simms and Paul Sait, Canterbury’s Bernie Lowther and Manly’s Phil Lowe – taking out a full-page advertisement in Sydney newspaper advocating a vote for Whitlam in the 1975 federal election. The players stated:

In sport there are penalties against those who break the rules. Even in the dirty game of politics there were rules until this year. We believe Fraser has broken those rules. Penalise him on December 13. Make your goal democracy.[17]


Whitlam government was responsible for pursuing a multicultural Australian society and he took an interest in the men’s national soccer team to be known as the Socceroos. Many members of the team were from ethnic backgrounds as opposed to national men’s cricket, rugby league and union teams. The Whitlam government funded Under-23 Australian men’s soccer team to visit Indonesia on a friendship trip. The Holt Government had supported a team to South Vietnam in 1967.

In March 1973, Whitlam attended the opening match in Sydney for qualification for 1974 World Cup in Germany. Whitlam told the crowd “Soccer is one of the dividends of the migrants we have welcomed to Australia over the years” and “This tournament should really help to put soccer on the map in this country.” Australia defeated Iraq 3-1 and went on to qualify for the 1974 World Cup by defeating Korea in the final qualification matches in November 1973. It was the Socceroos first appearance at this significant world sporting event.[18]

In February 1974, Whitlam in discussion with West German Chancellor Brandt, said that Australia’s footballers “had improved immensely” and Brandt replied, “I hoped they haven’t improved too much, Prime Minister”. [19]

In March 1974, at APIA Italian club in Leichhardt in Sydney, Whitlam told the audience “Migrants are largely responsible for the great progress that has been made in the most international of team sports” and “When the Australian team goes to Germany soon, it will be fitting that the names of migrants will be as renowned as the names of our best rugby league and Australian rules players.” [20]

The Socceroos were the first Australian sporting team to use the new national anthem ‘Advance Australia Fair’ that was pursued by Whitlam Government.  At a friendly between Uruguay at the Sydney Sports Ground on 27 April 1974, Advance Australia Affair was played. The Australian coach Rale Rasic who had developed a strong friendship with Whitlam said in an interview:

He [Whitlam] had a tear in his eye,” remembers Rasic. “I said to him ‘you hear this national anthem sometimes four or five times a day’. He said ‘Rale, I feel that, and tears are not embarrassing.’ Ever since, if I had a tear, I never wiped it. The national anthem does definitely create that. [21]


Another example of Whitlam government using sport for diplomacy occurred in April 1975 when it decided:

To offer a new trophy for cricketers in the West Indies. The trophy will be known as the Australian Award for the Best West Indian Cricketer of performances in the Intra-regional Shell Shield competition on the basis of the recommendation of West Indian cricket authorities. The trophy will be passed on from year to year, but each winner will retain a miniature of the trophy.[22]

Whitlam announced this trophy when meeting with several Carribbean prime minister’s in Jamaica.


Whilst prime minister, Whitlam was invited to many major sporting events and the opening of community sports facilities in Australia. Australian sporting organisations and athletes were appreciative of the increased commitment and investment in sport after years of limited involvement by the federal government. In August 1975, near the end of his government, Whitlam summed up his view:

The fact is that the government has a number of programs designed to make life happier and more enjoyable for people in small, and some would say, rather unusual ways, we see these as an essential part of the government’s work, government isn’t just a matter of providing roads and pensions and education, we want to do what we can to enliven and invigorate people’s lives, to make sure that the rewards and satisfactions of the arts, and decent opportunities for sport. For one thing, opportunities for sport are building a much healthier generation for young Australians, we ought to be on guard against mean-spirited people who resent the idea of games and pleasure for communities which lack decent facilities for sport and recreation.[23]

Whitlam biographer, Jenny Hocking stated, Whitlam ‘had absolutely no interest in sport either as a participant or viewer’. [24] There is strong evidence to show that whilst he may not have been an active participant or spectator, he understood the power of sport and recreation to the community. Whether it was the role of sport in his community/electorate or the broader view in areas such as multiculturalism, health, diplomacy or national pride. Through his sport minister, Frank Stewart, the Whitlam government set Australian sport on a new path – Australian sport system today has its roots in the Whitlam government. The dismissal of his government after three years led to several of the proposed sport initiatives like a national institute of sport being placed on the backburner.

Finally, Whitlam in opening of the Arthur Dibdin Complex at the Brisbane Cricket Ground on 1 December 1974 stated “We have at last dragged sport into politics, or politics into sport, and I am proud that we have”.[25]



[1] Online biographies – Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Archives of Australia, Museum of Australian Democracy

[1] Australian Oarsman and PM Dies, Hear The Boar Sing, 21 October 2014

[3] Cronulla Surf Live Saving Club, Annual Report 2014-2015.

[4] Article for the ‘Melbourne Sun’ regarding Racially selected Sporting Teams from South Africa dated 16 April 1971

[5] Whitlam, Gough, Racially Selected Sporting Teams, Press Statement, no.8, 8 December 1972

[6] Labor’s Programme, Macquarie Broadcast, 16 October 1972

[7] Whitlam, Gough, Policy Speech for the Australian Labor Party , Blacktown Civic Centre, in Sydney, 13 November 1972,

[8] Bloomfield, John, The role, scope and development of recreation in Australia, Canberra, Dept. of Tourism and Recreation, 1974

[9] Gough Whitlam, Paper, Leisure, a new perspective: papers presented at a National Seminar in Canberra, 22-24 April 1974, Canberra, AGPS, 1975, p.34

[10] Stewart, Frank, Sports Institute, Minister for Tourism and Recreation News Release, 7 October 1974 

[11] Larkin, Steve. How Sydney won the 2000 Olympic bid, Canberra Times, 7 September 2000

[12] Gordon, Harry. Australia and the Olympic Games, 2nd ed., Brisbane, University of Queensland Press, 2003, p.436

[13] Coates Pays Tribute to Gough Whitlam and His Sydney 2000 Role, Australian Olympic Committee, 2014.

[14] Gordon, p.436

[15] Mathews, Race, Gough Whitlam Remembered: Gallows Humour and Monumental Rages, The Guardian, 21 October 2014

[16] Whitlam, Gough. Cronulla-Sutherland Rugby League, Prime Minister Press Statement, 30 September 1975

[17] Masters, Roy. Fibros and silver tales: Rugby league and politics always a strange brew – Half a century ago, six internationals were vocal in their support for Gough Whitlam. The story is different in 2022 with modern-day players taking a wide berth, Brisbane Times, 21 May 2022

[18] Gorman, Joe. The Forgotten Story of … Advance Australia Fair and the Socceroos, The Guardian, 24 April 2014

[19] Whitlam and Brandt Talk on TV Link,  The Canberra Times, 22 February 1974 . p.

[20] Gorman 2014

[21] Gorman 2014

[22] Whitlam Gough, West Indian Cricket Award , Prime Minister Media Release, 30 April 1975, PM Transcripts

[23]   Whitlam, Gough, Prime Minister’s Queensland Broadcast – No. 20, Quality of Life, 3 August 1975, PM Transcripts

[24] Hocking, Jenny. Gough Whitlam: His Time, Melbourne, Melbourne University, 2014

[24] Whitlam, Gough, Notes for the Prime Minister  Opening of the  Arthur Complex Brisbane  Cricket Ground, 1 December 1974,  PM Transcripts 

The author is currently researching every Australian prime minister and their interest in and impact on Australian sport. Articles will be published in Australian Sport Reflections as research has been completed on a prime minister. The author appreciates feedback on published articles.

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