Former Australian prime minister Gough Whitlam dead at 98

SYDNEY - Former Australian prime minister Gough Whitlam, a towering figure who led the nation through a period of massive change and remains the country's only leader to be sacked, died Tuesday aged 98.

"A loving and generous father, he was a source of inspiration to us and our families and for millions of Australians," said his children Antony, Nicholas, Stephen and Catherine in announcing his death.

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 while suspending normal parliament for the day as a mark of respect.

"Whitlam represented more than a new politics. He represented a new way of thinking, about government, about our region, about our place in the world and about change itself," said Abbott.

Despite being in power for only three turbulent years, Whitlam launched sweeping reforms of the nation's economic and cultural affairs.

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.

Under his leadership, the last traces of the White Australia policy designed to exclude non-white migrants were also removed, and he became the first Australian leader to visit China, now the nation's biggest trading partner.

But the flamboyant Whitlam was also divisive while in office, with an autocratic reputation, falling out with minister after minister.

Ultimately he became Australia's 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 fired 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.

"I don't think Gough ... I never felt he bore me personal animosity. He regarded that as politics," Fraser said Tuesday of that tumultuous time.

"He wasn't the sort of person who bore grudges. He didn't carry a bitterness into the future. He was a much larger man than that, a more generous man than that."

Nation lost a legend

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

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

"He established diplomatic relations with China and was the first Australian Prime Minister to visit China. China is our largest trading partner. That is an enduring legacy." Former Labor prime minister Julia Gillard described him as a great leader.

"Mr Whitlam lived on in Australia's universities, its health system, its suburbs, its family law, its relationship with China and its multicultural society," she said in a blog for Guardian Australia.

Another former Labor leader Paul Keating, who served as a minister under Whitlam, credited him with giving Australia "new vitality and focus".

"Along his journey he also renovated the Labor Party, making it useful again as an instrument of reform to Australian society." Current Labor leader Bill Shorten said the country had lost a true legend, regardless of politics.

"Gough Whitlam redefined our country and in doing so he changed the lives of a generation," he said.

"His vision, his ambition, offered Australia a new sense of what it might be. Our country is different because of him." mp/mfc/st Australia-politics-WhitlamAFP 210249 GMT OCT 14