Former Australian prime minister Gough Whitlam dead at 98

 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.

AFP| Updated: Oct 21, 2014, 16:45 PM IST

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 and driven Whitlam was also divisive while in office, with an autocratic reputation, falling out with minister after minister and earning enemies along the way.

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."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."

Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying praised Whitlam as an "eminent statesman" and an "old friend of the Chinese people".

The official Xinhua news agency also paid tribute to the politician as "a dear old friend" and "a great helmsman in the China-Australia relations".

Former prime minister John Howard hailed Whitlam`s belief that an activist and interventionist national government was always the appropriate response to Australia`s challenges.

"Gough Whitlam brought to public life high intelligence, a commanding presence and a strong belief that government intervention could solve most of society`s problems," he said.

Another ex-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, while fellow Labor titan Paul Keating credited him with giving Australia "new vitality and focus".

And British Labour leader Ed Miliband described him as "a truly great Labour leader and a great Australian" who "changed his country forever". 

"Gough remains an inspiration to social democrats around the world," Miliband said.