Former Australian prime minister Gough Whitlam dead at 98

Former Australian prime minister Gough Whitlam dead at 98
Former Australian prime minister Whitlam (standing), who led his country's early engagement with China in the 1970s before being controversially removed from office, has died at 98, his children said in a statement on October 21, 2014.

SYDNEY - Former prime minister Gough Whitlam, one of Australia's most admired figures who led the nation through a period of massive change, died Tuesday aged 98, his family said.

"Our father, Gough Whitlam, has died this morning at the age of 98," his children Antony, Nicholas, Stephen and Catherine said in a statement.

"A loving and generous father, he was a source of inspiration to us and our families and for millions of Australians."

Conservative Prime Minister Tony Abbott called the Labor stalwart "a giant of his time" and instructed flags around the country to be flown at half mast.

"He united the Australian Labor Party ... and seemed, in so many ways, larger than life," said Abbott of a man who spent the later years of his life in a Sydney aged care home.

The flamboyant Whitlam remained one of Australia's most towering figures despite being the only prime minister to be sacked, a touchstone moment in the nation's political history.

He led Labor to its first victory in 23 years at the December 1972 election on the back of the famous "It's Time" campaign, before being sensationally sacked in 1975 by Governor-General Sir John Kerr, the Queen's representative.

His dismissal was prompted by a refusal by parliament's upper house, where his Labor Party did not hold a majority, to pass a budget bill until the government agreed to call a general election.

To end the impasse, Kerr took the unprecedented step of sacking Whitlam and installing then opposition leader Malcolm Fraser as caretaker prime minister.

Despite being in power for only three turbulent years, Whitlam launched sweeping reforms of the nation's economic and cultural affairs, cementing his place as one of Australia's most revered and respected leaders.

He stopped conscription, introduced free university education, recognised communist China, pulled troops from Vietnam, abolished the death penalty for federal crimes and reduced the voting age to 18.

The Labor titan was also the first Australian leader to visit China.

His family said there would be a private cremation and a public memorial service.

Nation lost a legend

Abbott paid tribute to Whitlam's lifetime of service to his country, in the air force during World War II, as a politician and ambassador.

"In his own party, he inspired a legion of young people to get involved in public life," said Abbott.

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