PM Whitlam's sacking was key moment in Australian history

This May 8, 2007 file photo shows former Australian prime minister Gough Whitlam in Sydney.

SYDNEY - Gough Whitlam remained one of Australia's most admired figures despite being the country's only prime minister to be sacked, a key moment in the nation's political history.

Whitlam, who died on Tuesday aged 98 was a flamboyant and erudite war veteran who ushered in a series of important social reforms during just three years in power from 1972 to 1975.

His centre-left Labor government 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.

But Whitlam will be best remembered for the events of November 11, 1975, when he became the nation's only leader to be dismissed by the representative of Britain's Queen Elizabeth II, governor-general Sir John Kerr.

His removal from office did little to diminish his stature and Whitlam remained an enduring presence in the national consciousness.

Despite increasing frailty which left him wheelchair-bound and living in an aged-care home in later years, Whitlam regularly visited his office and remained a key figure in the Labor Party.

"Whitlam, in the days of his power, had an enormous presence which filled the Australian room in a way that very few others have ever done," said Graham Freudenberg, his advisor and speechwriter from 1967-1977.

"He did have a charisma that very few Australian leaders have had."

Freudenberg said Whitlam's passing marks the end of an era of nation-building leaders whose ideas were forged on World War II battlefields, and who felt as a result that "not only was change urgently needed but that change was possible".

Pushing for "a more independent Australia, a more independent foreign policy, a lesser dependence on the United Kingdom, less sycophancy towards the United States was very much in the mood of those times", he said.

Australia's 'greatest social democrat'

Whitlam's 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, governor-general Kerr took the unprecedented step of sacking Whitlam, installing then opposition leader Malcolm Fraser as caretaker prime minister.

Freudenberg said it would never had occurred to his friend to fight Kerr's decision.

"The idea of going to barricades would have been inconceivable for a parliamentarian like Whitlam," he said.

"He believed deeply in the parliament as an institution for social reform and the expression of Australian democracy. He had a great love and respect for the parliament. The irony is that it was through the parliament he was destroyed."

Born in an affluent Melbourne suburb, Edward Gough Whitlam was a law student at Sydney University when his studies were interrupted by the war. He served as a navigator with the Royal Australian Air Force before returning home to resume his studies.

Politics soon beckoned and he joined the Australian Labor Party in 1945, winning a seat in the federal House of Representatives in November 1952.

But it was a long journey to the prime ministership, during which he reshaped the Labor Party into a more liberal, intellectual organisation.

When he did attain office in 1972, Whitlam immediately set about removing the influence of decades of conservative rule.

In its short term -- Fraser won the post-dismissal election in a landslide -- Whitlam's government left a remarkable legacy of social reform.

Under his leadership, the last traces of the White Australia policy designed to exclude non-white migrants were removed, benefits were introduced for single parents, the British honour system was scrapped and women gained equal rights in government employment.

Freudenberg said Whitlam was a transforming force in Australian politics who placed some issues on the domestic agenda for the first time, including Aboriginal land rights, the arts and the environment.

"Whitlam took the ideas of social democrats in Britain and West Germany and to some extent in France and tried to deliver a programme which was applicable to Australian circumstances," he said.

"He was undeniably Australia's greatest social democrat."

The University of Western Sydney's David Burchell, who has written widely about Australian politics, says it's ironic that the 1973 oil crisis, inflationary pressures and economic stagnation provided one of the worst times for Whitlam's big-spending, socially reforming government to be in power.

However, he adds: "Even though the government was dismissed, a lot of their policies remain popular. Few of the social reforms enacted were ever rolled back."

Whitlam stayed in opposition until he resigned from parliament in 1978. He was later appointed Australia's ambassador to UNESCO in Paris. He is survived by four children.