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Research Guides

Gough Whitlam: Guide to Archives of Australia's Prime Ministers


Image a: Gough Whitlam: Guide to Archives of Australia's Prime Ministers - front cover

Gough Whitlam: Guide to Archives of Australia's Prime Ministers - front cover
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This guide to the archives of former Prime Minister Gough Whitlam has been produced by the National Archives of Australia to assist researchers find records relating to both Gough and Margaret Whitlam in the National Archives and other collections.

It is the seventh volume to be published in the National Archives' Guides to Archives of Australia's Prime Ministers series and is a companion publication to the Australia's Prime Ministers website (

Gough Whitlam became Australia's 21st Prime Minister on 5 December 1972 following the Australian Labor Party (ALP) victory at the election on 2 December. His Labor government, the first after more than two decades, set out to change Australia through a wide-ranging reform program and was re-elected at the double dissolution election of 18 May 1974. Whitlam's term abruptly ended when his government was dismissed by the Governor-General on 11 November 1975.

The public lives of Gough Whitlam and his wife Margaret extend over half a century. After serving in the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF), Whitlam joined the ALP in 1945. He became the Member for Werriwa in Sydney's south at a by-election on 29 November 1952 following the death of ALP member Bert Lazzarini. He retained the seat in 11 more federal elections over the next 25 years.

Whitlam led the reform of the ALP platform during the long years in Opposition. As Prime Minister he immediately set about implementing a reform program that included recognising communist China, lowering the voting age to 18, ending conscription, releasing draft resisters from prison, equal pay for women, Indigenous land rights, universal health care, no-fault divorce, ending the British honours system and introducing an Australian national anthem. His government drew on international agreements to develop programs on human rights, the environment and conservation.

Margaret Whitlam played an important role as a political and prime ministerial wife. An outspoken public speaker, broadcaster and columnist, she accompanied Gough Whitlam on his countless overseas travels. As a qualified social worker, she was particularly interested in social conditions. Their public lives continued after they left The Lodge in 1975.

There are several significant holdings of records of or about Gough Whitlam. In addition, there are numerous smaller holdings that illuminate the work and lives of his family, among whom his father Fred Whitlam was particularly influential on Whitlam's career. Archives relating to Margaret Whitlam are included in the final chapter of this guide.

In December 2002, Whitlam said of the pending release of the archival records of his government under the former '30-year rule' covering official documents: 'I cannot exaggerate the importance of these records. It is not a matter of vindication but of verification. If there is any such thing as the "inside story" of the Whitlam government, it is to be found in these records'.1

National Archives of Australia

The National Archives of Australia holds a substantial collection of records created by Gough Whitlam during his years as Prime Minister and Member of Parliament. Commonwealth records – including Cabinet records – of the Whitlam government are available, having entered the open access period. The open access period for Commonwealth records begins after 20 years; for Cabinet notebooks after 30 years. Some records are held in the Sydney repository of the Archives, while the Cabinet records of the Whitlam government are held in the Canberra repository. Many records are digitised and available online through the Archives' website. 

Archives fact sheets cover several aspects of the Whitlam government including Gough Whitlam, the Loans Affair and the Dismissal, and contain links to relevant archival series. A list of relevant fact sheets is included in the bibliography. 

The Archives' Australia's Prime Ministers website provides links to institutions around the world that hold records on, or relevant to, Gough Whitlam.

National Library of Australia

The National Library of Australia holds a significant collection of oral history interviews with former parliamentarians and an extensive manuscripts collection. It holds the papers of several parliamentarians who served as ministers during the Whitlam government, scholars, journalists and authors, as well as key ALP identities. Relevant holdings include records of ALP federal caucuses, the ALP federal secretariat, and an important set of letters from Gough Whitlam to his parents while a student at the University of Sydney and during his war service. The National Library holds the original interviews undertaken by Professor Jenny Hocking for her two-volume biography of Gough Whitlam.2

Whitlam Institute

The Whitlam Institute at the University of Western Sydney holds a Prime Ministerial Collection that includes many of Whitlam's own records, as well as those of his wife Margaret, and material donated by Whitlam's speechwriter and confidante Graham Freudenberg. In 2001 the Institute began to digitise Whitlam's hardcopy collection of papers, diaries and photographs, including press releases (1972–77) and speeches (1958–2007), as well as key documents relating to the Dismissal. These are being progressively placed online for free and ready access. They are available through the Institute's e-Collection (

The Whitlam Prime Ministerial Collection's strength lies in its mixture of very personal records and documents from his time in parliament and retirement. The collection is also enriched by a collection of ephemera – including a wide range of iconic 'It's time' merchandise, Whitlam's personal library and collection of cartoons, gifts from foreign governments (including an Australian flag which had been flown to the moon) and personal memorabilia such as photographs from Whitlam's war service. The crown jewel, so to speak, is the original letter of dismissal handed to Whitlam by Sir John Kerr.

The Whitlam Institute has developed a number of online features including Whitlam and China, Whitlam and Western Sydney, Treasures from the Collection and Whitlam Government Achievements.

Other Australian collections

There is a number of useful smaller holdings within Australia, including the NSW ALP records in the Mitchell Library, the political ephemera and picture collections of the State Library of Victoria, and the Australian National University (ANU) Archives. 

The collections of the ANU Archives, which relate to the history of the university, and the closely associated Noel Butlin Archives Centre can be searched in a single database. The Noel Butlin Archives Centre is Australia's first and largest collection of business and trade union historical source material. The ANU records include material on Whitlam's lifelong association with the university and the Australian Dictionary of Biography as both subject and author. They also hold material on Whitlam's father Fred Whitlam, and Gough Whitlam's time as a national fellow with the ANU after parliament, including the internal controversy over his appointment. Its holdings relating to trade unions and, it follows, the ALP, illuminate Whitlam's efforts to reform the party. 

The ANU publication Prime Ministers at the Australian National University: an archival guide can be accessed online ( It includes the observation that 'often the most rewarding source of a prime minister's views and thoughts is not in their own collection but in collections preserved elsewhere by their correspondents'. The guide also points out that it was not until 1984 that the government archives was mandated to collect prime ministers' official and personal papers. Consequently, some personal papers of earlier prime ministers, including Whitlam, are held by institutions other than the National Archives of Australia.

Overseas collections

The US National Archives and Records Administration provides an online catalogue through which the records from a range of American institutions can be searched ( 

The UK National Archives contains extensive documentation of British Government and departmental exchanges with Whitlam and key members of his government. Of particular interest are files maintained by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and the Prime Minister's Office correspondence and papers. Material in division FCO 24 covering Whitlam's visits to Britain and his Attorney-General Lionel Murphy's visit in early 1973 suggests the British official attitude to the new ALP government was not positive. The British Foreign and Commonwealth Office anticipated that Murphy would 'be a rather difficult guest' (FCO 24/1643). Division FCO 24 also contains correspondence and briefings for the Foreign Office on the constitutional crisis, reaction to the Dismissal and its aftermath.

Using this research guide

This guide aims to make it easier for researchers to access records in the National Archives and other collections relating to Gough and Margaret Whitlam. It contains:

  • basic biographical information on Gough and Margaret Whitlam
  • descriptions of records created by Gough Whitlam, including official records, letters and diaries
  • records about Gough Whitlam including photographs, memorabilia, oral histories, films and other audiovisual materials
  • information on records of or about Margaret Whitlam.

This guide aims to be as comprehensive as possible. However, given that the National Archives' collection runs to 363 kilometres of records, only a proportion of records could be included in this guide. Accordingly, the guide has focused on presenting the most likely sources of relevant material in public collections in Australia.

Record descriptions

Each entry in the guide describes a group of records that has been maintained together as a series. A series is made up of items, which are often individual files (sometimes volumes, sets of cards or photographs) that were received by the National Archives from the creating agency or person. Series usually consist of many items (that is, files), but occasionally consist of just a few or even a single item. Note that items described within particular series are usually only a selection of what is held. 

National Archives records on Whitlam have been grouped under relevant headings, with series and item descriptions organised chronologically as far as possible. In many instances, particular series contain relevant material on several aspects of Whitlam's activities and responsibilities; these have been included more than once, with a full description of the series given in the first instance. 

A similar approach is adopted for records held in other libraries and archives. These collections are arranged by location, and then alphabetically by manuscript collection or chronologically depending on the material. 

A sample description of a National Archives record appears below.

[1] Whitlam Ministries – Cabinet files, single number series with 'CL' prefix, 1972–75
[2] This is the main series of correspondence files maintained in the Cabinet Office for the administration of Cabinet business for the period of the Whitlam government, 1972 to 1975.
Series: [3] A5931
Quantity: [4] 28 metres, Canberra
Recorded by: [5] 1972–75: Cabinet Office (CA 1472)
[6] First Whitlam Ministry decisions and other administrative actions, 1975 CL48
[7] Consists of a full list of the first 40 decisions, press releases and Executive Council decisions of the Duumvirate. Staff of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet were directed to compile this file by the department's Secretary Sir John Bunting, who recognised the significance 'for future historians' of the Duumvirate and its work.
A12909, CL48


[1] This information gives the series title and the date range of the records that make up the series. The series number is shown below in [3]. A series is the organisational arrangement used by the National Archives to control and manage records. It may contain one or more items. Some series may contain hundreds or thousands of items.

[2] This paragraph gives a brief description of the record series.

[3] This is the series number attributed to the records that make up the series.

[4] This line shows the total volume of records in the series. In some cases only a few items within a series will relate to the topic, but in other instances the entire series will be devoted to it. The location of the National Archives' office where the series is held is also shown.

[5] This entry shows the agency or person that created the series, and the date range when the series was created or recorded. The CA (Commonwealth Agency) and CP (Commonwealth Person) numbers are unique identifiers allocated by the National Archives to each agency or person. This number can be used to retrieve more information about the agency or person and the records they created from the National Archives' RecordSearch collection database.

[6] This entry shows the title given to an item within the series. The title is usually applied by the person or agency creating the record. The date of the item contents is included at the end of the title. The item's series number and identifying number appear on the right-hand side. These numbers must be quoted when requesting a copy of, or access to, a record.

[7] Where included, this paragraph provides further information on the item.

Accessing the records

The National Archives' records described in this guide are listed in RecordSearch, the Archives' collection database. It is accessible online ( and in National Archives reading rooms in all capital cities. Indexes and inventories of records, providing item lists for some series, are also available in National Archives reading rooms.

To view original records listed in this guide, you will need to visit the National Archives reading room in the location where the records are held. However, much research can be undertaken online using RecordSearch, where many digitised records can be viewed and requests to view other records submitted.

Access to archival records is governed by the Archives Act 1983, which gives a right of access to most Commonwealth government records once they reach the open access period. The open period was reduced from 30 to 20 years following amendments to the Archives Act in 2010. This change to the open period took effect in January 2011 and is being phased in over 10 years.

Records in the open period are available for public access unless they contain information that falls into certain exemption categories defined in section 33 of the Archives Act. Before the National Archives releases records for public access, they are examined to ensure they do not contain exempt information. Most records (98 per cent) are wholly released for public access, while 1.75 per cent are released with some exempt information deleted. The information withheld from public access falls into two broad areas: sensitive personal information, and information about the security of the Commonwealth and its residents.

Most access examination is completed within a month but it may take up to 90 days to examine some files as consultation with other government departments is often required. The National Archives will inform researchers if delays are expected.

More information on accessing records is available in Fact sheet 10 – Access to records under the Archives Act, and Fact sheet 11 – Viewing records in the reading room, available at

Citing the records

The correct citation of archival records is important, both when requesting the records and when referring to them in published works. Using proper citations will help staff locate records more readily and will assist other researchers to find the material. 

The correct form of citation for records held by the National Archives is: 'National Archives of Australia' followed by a colon and a space, the series number followed by a comma and a space, and then the item control symbol. An example is: National Archives of Australia: A2443, 3

'National Archives of Australia' may be abbreviated to 'NAA', provided the full name has been used in the first citation. Further details about correctly citing records from the National Archives' collection are available in Fact sheet 7 – Citing archival records, available at 

Correct citations for other institutions should be checked with the relevant institution.


Chapter notes | All notes

1 Hocking, Jenny, Gough Whitlam: a moment in history, Volume One of Gough Whitlam: the biography, Melbourne University Press, Carlton, 2008.

2 ibid., Hocking, Jenny, Gough Whitlam: his time, Volume Two of Gough Whitlam: the biography, Melbourne University Press, Carlton, 2012.