Thirty years on, it’s still hard to agree on whether Whitlam was right or wrong, as the reader feedback to Charles Richardson’s comment suggests.

Subscriber email – 4 January

The annual release of cabinet papers under the thirty-year rule (itself an absurdity – why not make it five years?) has been pushed off the front pages by the Asian tsunami disaster. Nonetheless, this year they are more than usually interesting, dating as they do from the heart of the Whitlam government in 1974.

Especially interesting is the hypocrisy that they have exposed in certain quarters of the left. For some years now, we have been warned that John Howard is destroying the independence of the public service; that its capacity to give fearless advice and resist imprudent or illegal activity by ministers has been fatally compromised.

But in 1974 we had a fearless and independent public service on the traditional model, and, as the cabinet papers confirm, it did all it could to obstruct the government’s mad overseas loans scheme. So do its actions meet with praise from the left?

Quite the contrary. Treasury in 1974, we are told, were “traitors”, defying the will of the people by undermining the policies of the democratically elected government.

As is often the case, however, one side’s hypocrisy is a mirror image of the other’s. On the right, the treasury officials who subverted the Whitlam government are heroes. But under the Howard government, the same people have done all they can to ensure that no such disobedience will ever happen again.

There should be a middle way here. It should be possible to structure the system to provide adequate checks and balances without defeating the goals of democratic government. But the sad truth is that every party wants a public service that will be subservient to it but resistant to its opponents.

We are supposed to just choose our side, and then stick to it as it pursues its cause by fair means or foul. Personally, if we have to choose, I’d rather be remembered as an economic vandal than a war criminal. But I don’t much like having to make the choice.

Reader feedback:

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Charles Richardson is dead wrong

The Treasury mandarins who tried to thwart Whitlam over the Khemlani loan affair were sabotaging an elected government, and this was probably a criminal conspiracy. His discussion of the issue is totally ignorant – as was the other commentary I’ve seen.

Any public servant knows there are appropriate channels to raise legal and ethical issues. Instead these mandarins pulled strings behind the scenes, contacting Scotland Yard which had no jurisdiction in Australia.

No matter their rank, they were employees, and their job was to advise the government and carry out the wishes of the government even if that government did not follow their advice. (The independence and fearlessness that Richardson refers to, but doesn’t understand, relates to the giving of advice, not insubordination.) If the job they were asked to do was unacceptable, they had the option of resigning and going public. That was what Andrew Wilkie did. (And I believe there was a staffer to Jeff Kennett who acted similarly.)

If Wilkie had remained in the intelligence service and tried to sabotage the Howard government, he would have been clearly a criminal. The only grey area is the leaking of confidential information – but the anti-Whitlam mandarins were operating in secret. Richardson’s attempt to link these conspirators with Wilkie, Scrafton, or any other whistleblower is just completely ridiculous.

Niall

PS In case you were wondering I was born in 1972 so I’m not the angry old Whitlamite you might imagine.

There is no “middle way”

The Constitution and the concept of ministerial responsibility demand no less than that the public service perform the administrative tasks required of it by the properly elected government of the day, regardless of whether it agrees with the method or the outcomes being sought. It does not have the right to obstruct a government.

The Whitlam government and the Left is justified in calling the 1974 Treasury Department big wigs “traitors” because they refused to limit themselves to just expressing their views. On the other hand, the Howard government would prefer its public service had no views at all and actively seeks to gag its public service from expressing its view. (eg Children Overboard). The public service needs to be able to express its view without fear or favour. It should not, however, seek to usurp the power vested in the elected government of the day.

Bruce Hogan

Response to Niall

Having been born in 1972 what “Niall” fails to acknowledge is that the Public Service could not “carry out the wishes of the government”. It was a requirement of the time that any and all international loans by a state or federal government be approved by the loans council. NO application was ever made to the loans council in regards to the Khemlani affair.

If public servants had acceded to the Whitlam governments demands they would have been complicit in breaking the law. No public servant can break the law in such a manner merely because a government or it’s Ministers instructs him or her to do so.

Far too many people forget the basic fact that Whitlam and some of his ministers were attempting to break the law. They should be reminded of that fact before they rush to judgement on issues which they clearly have little or no knowledge of.

Paul Cox

Whitlamites rewriting history

Well may you say the Treasury mandarins were traitors and saboteurs, but thank you to those brave Cardigan wearing men and women of that department for standing up to the most economically irresponsible and criminally incompetent Prime Minister Australia has ever seen.

Instead of recognising that the Cardigans in Treasury prevented a catastrophic mistake which could have put Australia into debt, the myopic morons of the Labor Left won’t admit that borrowing billions of dollars through a shady intermediary was daft. Rather than admit the great man is
in fact a great flop, they label these dedicated economic soldiers as treacherous. If we had one, I wouldn’t be surprised if they felt sending them to the Tower was in order.

Whitlam was a bad Prime Minister, who has been seen to be arrogant and out of touch. He didn’t listen to advice, let alone take it. Hmmmm. I wonder who else is a bit like that. Or are we not allowed to mention the pancreas guy while he’s on leave?

As to Andrew Wilkie, the major difference is that Andrew is a solo act. He thinks he’s right, but there would appear to be dozens who don’t. The test of whether or not the minister is ignoring advice is public service leaks. If Wilkie is right, where are the leaks which support Wilkie?

Go ahead history revisionists and revise revise revise. The only people you’re hurting are yourselves.

Qld Liberal Chick

Le plus ça change …

1970s: bureaucrats withhold information from government (loans for a long-term temporary purpose) because ministers have made it clear that they only want information that supports its already-decided opinion. If the information subsequently comes out, the government can make a hue-and-cry about being misled and discipline/sack some public servants.

Maybe there was some other reason that old Fred Wheeler has taken to his grave – perhaps John Stone will cough it up before he goes? Do not underestimate just how determined Connor was, and how important a minister he was in Whitlam’s government.

2000s: bureaucrats withhold information from government (kids overboard, Iraq) because ministers have made it clear that they only want information that supports its already-decided opinion. If the information subsequently comes out, the government can make a hue-and-cry about being misled and discipline/sack some public servants.

The more things change …

Andrew Elder

Charles Richardson responds:

I think people like Niall might have leapt to criticise me a bit too quickly. I actually agree that Treasury went too far in the Whitlam years; that’s why I said that we should find a middle way.

The problem is that drawing a line between fearless expression of advice and obstruction of government policy is not as easy as it sounds.
For example, are public servants entitled to disobey instructions they believe are illegal? How far must they be constrained by government policy in what they say to the media, or to parliamentary enquiries? Are ministers entitled to replace public servants who are totally opposed to the aims of government policy, even if they have not engaged in actual disobedience?

My point was not that these issues are insoluble, but that discussion of them is nearly always dominated by partisan politics, and that Whitlam and Howard are more similar than either of them would like to think.