In grade 6 our class did an "Australian of the Century" project. Each student picked someone who they believed to be the best Australian of the last 100 years. Then we all prepared posters on our candidates and toured the rest of the school, promoting our idol to all students, prep to grade 5. At the end of the campaign there was a school-wide vote and the winner was announced as Australian of the Century.
I picked Gough Whitlam.
I had a hard time explaining the achievements of the Whitlam government to most students. Mainly because many of them couldn’t even spell “apple”, let alone understand the complex, long-term impacts of free tertiary education on health, welfare, and the economy. But I soldiered on, utterly convinced that Gough was the best thing to have ever happened to Australia.
A few memories stick with me from the campaign. At one point, one of the teachers of a grade 1 class prefaced my presentation to the students with, “Now, some of your parents may not like what this man did.” I had already been exposed to The Young Ones by this point in my life, so I couldn’t help but think to myself, “Fascist!”
But in fairness, after I talked about Indigenous reconciliation she asked them, “What do you think is good about making friends with the Aborigines?” To which one small girl replied, “So they can teach us how to make fire!” Darn good point, little girl. Darn good point.
After the campaign had been waged and the votes had been cast, I anxiously awaited the results. Would Gough win, just like in 1972? Or would he be shot down, like in 1975?
Unfortunately Gough did not win Australian of the Century. Ian Thorpe did. Freaking Ian freaking Thorpe. And this was before he came out as a semi-ambassador for homosexual athletes. This was when he was just a guy who had big feet and could swim good. But I suppose when I consider who voted I shouldn’t be surprised. Philistines, the lot of them.
However, Gough didn’t just lose to Ian Thorpe. Oh no. An actual count of the votes for every single candidate was printed and pinned to one of the corridor noticeboards. And guess how many votes Gough got?
That one vote? That was me.
My faith in Australian politics died that day. John Howard was in power and as soon as my eyes fell on that vote tally I realised that Australia would be dragged through the fascist sludge for a long, long time to come. Sure, we’d have pockets of promise. Maybe even in the form of a first female prime minister. But even she would probably lack the support to show her true potential under the torrent of bullshit being flung at her from every direction.
So Gough, I want to apologise for failing you. My school should apologise for failing you. And maybe even the Australian people should apologise, given their recent voting efforts. You deserve to be Australian of the Century, and although my paltry promotional efforts could not win over the hearts and minds of my junior peers, you will forever be my Australian of the Century.