Cheap jibes ... Opposition Leader Tony Abbott.
Cheap jibes ... Opposition Leader Tony Abbott. Photo: Andrew Meares

THE death of Margaret Whitlam caused such an outpouring of
saddened fondness that comments by the Opposition Leader, Tony Abbott,
linking her passing with the sins of the Whitlam government appear to
have struck an extremely wrong note.

He said she was a ''woman of style and substance'' and ''a
marvellous consort to a very significant Labor leader and an epochal
Australian prime minister''.

''There was a lot wrong with the Whitlam government but
nevertheless, it was a very significant episode in our history and
Margaret Whitlam was a very significant element in the political success
of Gough Whitlam,'' Mr Abbott said.

Several letters to Fairfax newspapers accused Mr Abbott of inappropriately scoring a political point, of being vindictive, and an affront to basic decency.

Beth Muller, of Glenorchy, Tasmania, said Mr Abbott's comments were his most outrageous and unstatesmanlike yet.

''I apologise to Mr Whitlam and his family for this
disgusting and hurtful remark on the death of Margaret Whitlam, and
assure him and his family that Tony Abbott's churlish behaviour is not
the behaviour that I expect from any Australian, let alone one who
thinks this kind of behaviour will enable him to become the prime
minister,'' she said.

Meanwhile, Malcolm Fraser, the man who took Mr Whitlam's
place as prime minister, said Mr Whitlam had confided to him his
sadness at no longer living under the same roof as Mrs Whitlam when he
recently moved into a retirement centre for extra care.

''They were very close. I know that when Gough had to go into
a place where he had to get a bit more care than at home, he was very
upset that he wasn't under the same roof as Margaret,'' Mr Fraser said.

Mrs Whitlam, 92, died in St Vincent's Private Hospital in Darlinghurst on 7am on Saturday with her children at her bedside.

Mr Whitlam, 95, travelled from his Elizabeth Bay nursing
home to the hospital last week to be with his wife. He said: ''She was a
remarkable person and the love of my life. We were married for almost
70 years. She encouraged and sustained me and our four children, their
families and many other people in a life full of engagement with
Australians from all walks of life.''

The Whitlams's children, Antony, Nicholas, Stephen and
Catherine, called the couple an ideal match. ''Her marriage to Gough
in 1942 marked the beginning of a true political and personal
partnership. He admired her intellect, wit and commitment to improving
the lives of others; she described him as 'delicious' and ensured his
feet remained well-grounded.''

The federal government has offered a state funeral, if the family wishes.

with AAP