Gough Whitlam, Australian premier who made '70s social reforms, ties with China, dies at 98

Former Australian Prime Minister Gough Whitlam, whose government was credited with instituting lasting social reforms during a short tenure that ended in a bitter constitutional crisis, died Tuesday at the age of 98.

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

Whitlam's four children said their father died in a Sydney nursing home. They described him as "a loving and generous father."

"He was a source of inspiration to us and our families and for millions of Australians," they said in a statement.

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

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

Abbott noted that 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 recognition, preceding the United States and other Western nations, redefined Australian foreign policy.

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

Regarded either as visionary or egotistical, 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, Whitlam and his Cabinet introduced sweeping reforms at a cracking pace that sometimes astonished voters and angered opponents.

It ended military conscription and withdrew all Australian troops from the Vietnam War, where they had fought alongside U.S. 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 finally abolished.

Whitlam's government boosted expenditure on education, the plight of Aborigines, health, the arts and welfare. Divorce was simplified and social reforms for women and minorities were instituted.

But the visionary social policy agenda was not matched by sound economic management, and his Cabinet was rocked by scandals.

Whitlam called and won a snap election in 1974, and 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 budget and demanded another election be called.

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

Governor-General Sir John Kerr, the then-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 Whitlam as prime minister.

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

Whitlam retired from Parliament in 1978. He remained a highly admired figure among Labor Party members, many of whom regarded him as a political martyr.

His sharp wit and towering ego were recalled in tributes on Tuesday.

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

"'You can be sure of one thing,' he (Whitlam) said of a possible meeting with his maker," Shorten told Parliament. "'I shall treat him as an equal.'"