WA Premier Colin Barnett has enraged WA Labor MPs by saying Gough Whitlam should not be remembered as a great Australian prime minister.
In an interview with 96fm this morning, Mr Barnett revealed he had personally been saved from being sent to Vietnam under the draft.
While he paid credit to the former prime minister, who has died aged 98, describing him as a reformer and moderniser, Mr Barnett said Mr Whitlam’s government descended into chaos.
Mr Barnett said Mr Whitlam “certainly changed Australia” during a time of “big thinking in terms of where Australia sat in the world.
“He broke the last vestiges of our colonial thinking and there were legacies like Medicare and the like, but it was also a highly controversial time,” Mr Barnett said, adding that he had been called up for conscription to the Vietnam War and had completed his medical, but was spared after Mr Whitlam came to power.
“It was a very tumultuous time, it was a time of Governments spending lots of money, and I think there was a fair bit of waste.
“But there was a change in Australia.
“I don’t think Gough should really be remembered as a great prime minister."
Opposition Leader Mark McGowan was one of many WA Labor MPs to take to Twitter to criticise Mr Barnett.
“We have a Premier without any sensitivity or grace,” Mr McGowan tweeted.
“As far as I can tell the only nasty ungracious commentary on the passing of Whitlam is from the Western Australian Premier,” WA Labor shadow treasurer Ben Wyatt tweeted.
Shadow energy minister Bill Johnston tweeted: “Colin Barnett will be remembered as a man who changed nothing. WA will have had no reforms on any issue. He will be forgotten by history.”
Shadow finance minister Rita Saffioti tweeted: “Premier's comments on Gough Whitlam today totally inappropriate and disrespectful. Shows what type of person Barnett is.”
Mr Barnett said Australia had much to be grateful to Mr Whitlam but that not all his grand thinking paid off.
“He changed our thinking and he modernised Australia, but a lot of the things he set out to do didn’t really work," the Premier said.
“There were grand spending programs that didn’t really come off.
“He was a reforming prime minister, he’s got his place in history, I don’t want to be miserable about it, but he ended up with a government in chaos.
“He didn’t leave his government well, but he certainly painted a big new modern picture for Australia and for that he deserves his place in history.
On his way to Parliament this morning Mr Barnett said Mr Whitlam would always be thought of as a controversial prime minister.
“I think some people build an image of Gough Whitlam which I don’t think is quite true.
“He certainly was a visionary, he certainly changed Australia but he did not run a competent Government."
Asked by a reporter about outcry by Labor MPs in response to his comments, he said they should “grow up”.
“I think I’m being very fair. I remember well,” he said.
“I had just graduated from university and it was chaotic, that government.”