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Gough Whitlam, at 98; Australian prime minister ushered in many changes

In 1999, former prime minister Gough Whitlam campaigned in Melbourne to make Australia a republic.
In 1999, former prime minister Gough Whitlam campaigned in Melbourne to make Australia a republic.Will Burgess/reuters

CANBERRA, Australia — Gough Whitlam, a flamboyant Australian prime minister and controversial social reformer whose grip on power was cut short by a bitter constitutional crisis, died Tuesday in a Sydney nursing home at the age of 98.

Although Mr. Whitlam was a national leader for only three turbulent years until 1975, the legacy of his Labor Party government remains. Many of its legislative and social innovations, once regarded as radical, are now accepted as part of daily life.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott, who leads the conservative Liberal Party, said Mr. Whitlam ‘‘seemed, in so many ways, larger than life.’’

‘‘Gough Whitlam was a giant of his time,’’ Abbott said in a statement.

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Abbott noted that Mr. Whitlam established diplomatic relations with communist China and became the first Australian prime minister to visit the country, which is now Australia’s largest trading partner.

The current Labor leader, Bill Shorten, credited Mr. Whitlam with abolishing capital punishment and outlawing racial and sex discrimination.

Mr. Whitlam was a tall, imposing, and eloquent lawyer, and won the 1972 general election with the campaign slogan ‘‘It’s time.’’

Labor’s victory ended 23 years of sometimes stodgy rule by the conservative Liberal-National party coalition.

Impatient for change after so long in opposition, Mr. Whitlam and his Cabinet introduced sweeping reforms at a pace that sometimes astonished voters and angered opponents.

The government redefined Australian foreign policy when it recognized communist China, before the United States and many other Western nations did.

More dramatically, it ended military conscription and withdrew all Australian troops from the Vietnam War, where they had fought alongside US forces. It then set up diplomatic links with the North Vietnamese government.

The ‘‘White Australia’’ policy, which had restricted immigration by non-Europeans for about a century, was abolished.

On the home front, the government boosted spending on education, health, the arts, and welfare.

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Divorce was simplified and social reforms for women and minorities were instituted.

But Mr. Whitlam’s visionary policy agenda was not matched by sound economic management. Scandals also rocked the Cabinet, which was hit by a string of resignations and firings of ministers.

Mr. Whitlam called and won a snap election in 1974 after the conservative opposition tried to block many of his reforms.

Although Labor retained dominance in the lower House of Representatives, it failed to control the Senate.

Conservative senators triggered a constitutional crisis in 1975 when they refused to pass the government’s budget and demanded another election be called.

Mr. Whitlam, whose standing among voters had sunk, steadfastly refused.

Governor General Sir John Kerr, who was the representative of Queen Elizabeth II, Australia’s official head of state, broke the deadlock when he exercised little-known constitutional powers and dismissed the government and Mr. Whitlam as prime minister.

Despite a divisive national debate and public outcry, Labor lost new elections and stayed in opposition until 1983.

Mr. Whitlam retired from Parliament in 1978, after Labor lost another election the previous year.

Despite his failure to win back power, Mr. Whitlam remained a highly admired figure among Labor Party members, many of whom regarded him as a political martyr.

Edward Gough Whitlam was born in Melbourne. He was brought up in the Australian capital of Canberra, where his father, Fred, was a government lawyer.

Mr. Whitlam studied law at Sydney University and served as an air force bomber navigator during World War II before entering Parliament in 1952.

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His wife, Margaret, whom he married in 1942, died in 2012. He leaves four children.

Mr. Whitlam’s sharp wit and towering ego were recalled in tributes on Tuesday.

Shorten recalled in Parliament a speech that Mr. Whitlam, an atheist, gave on his 80th birthday when he reflected on his mortality.

‘‘ ‘You can be sure of one thing,’ [Whitlam] said of a possible meeting with his maker,’’ Shorten told Parliament. ‘‘ ‘I shall treat him as an equal.’ ’’