The thirtieth anniversary of the dismissal is impossible to avoid, so I’m wagging Parliament today to attend the launch of The Great Crash, NSW Solicitor General and former Whitlam staffer Michael Sexton’s book on the prime minister he served.

Australia
has had three great prime ministers. Alfred Deakin and Sir Robert
Menzies set the course for the first and second fifty years of our
Commonwealth respectively. The salesmanship and sheer star power of Bob
Hawke, mixed with the brains, balls and bastardry of Paul Keating and
Peter Walsh, brought about the structural reforms that have led to the
prosperity we enjoy at the start of our second century of nationhood.

And Gough Whitlam? He is our Ozymandias – a massive, fallen figure.

What
caused his government to crack and topple? Perhaps we should take a
look at how a man who is one of us but observed the events of 1975 from
a distance surveys the ruin of the Whitlam government. Clive James has
a brilliantly succinct essay on the events of November 1975 in the
current issue of The Monthly.

He
centres it around the writings of Diamond Jim McClelland, Whitlam
minister and one-time friend of Governor-General Sir John Kerr.

“According
to McClelland, the best Kerr can say for himself is that he couldn’t
warn Whitlam that dismissal might be in the wind because if he had
warned Whitlam, Whitlam might have dismissed him,” James writes.

He continues:

Kerr should have been thinking about more than the job.
Thinking about more than the job was the job, or else the job meant
nothing. McClelland quotes devastatingly to show Kerr advancing his own
silence as some kind of qualification. ‘I kept my own counsel as to the
constitutional rights and wrongs of what was happening until I decided
what must be done…’ Keeping his counsel was exactly what Kerr couldn’t
do and still be acting according to the Constitution, since the
constitutional provisions on the reserve powers stated clearly that the
governor-general’s first duties were to advise and to warn.

Kerr
had already kept silent on the crucial loans issue. By being silent
about that, Kerr encouraged Whitlam to slide further into folly.

By
even thinking of raising money to govern without the Senate’s approval
of supply, Whitlam was preparing to govern without a parliament – the
very thing the governor-general’s reserve powers are designed to stop.

While
proposing to govern without a parliament, Whitlam was already governing
without a cabinet… The Loans affair was the latest in a series of
bizarre episodes that had reduced Whitlam’s administration to a wreck?

Malcolm
Fraser, leading the Liberal opposition, was ready to break the crisis
by consenting to a double dissolution with a late election date.
Whitlam refused the offer. Whitlam preferred the crisis: he thought he
could face the opposition down. And indeed he might have done if Kerr
had given him another week. But Kerr’s decision isn’t the issue. The
issue is how Whitlam got his government into that situation. He did it
by making his isolated will prevail… McClelland is ready to accuse
himself of having been bamboozled by Kerr. He is less ready to admit
that he was buffaloed by Whitlam.

Many others were “buffaloed.” Many still are.

Whitlam
himself remains bullish as ever. “I said not only maintain the rage but
the enthusiasm. I’ve maintained the enthusiasm, and I still do,” he
told AM on Monday.

Yet
his antagonist from three decades ago, speaking on the same program,
had it right. “The government couldn’t get its budget through,” Malcolm Fraser
said. “The tradition had it that, you know, going back through a very,
very long period, both of Australian and of British history, that if a
government couldn’t get its budget through the Parliament, the
government did one of two or three things. It either resigned and told
the monarch we’ll get somebody else to form a government, it might’ve
recommended itself to the monarch that somebody else should form a
government, it should modify the budget. But the one thing that had,
until 1975, been totally out of court, regarded as wrong, and against
all precedent and practice was to ignore the position of the Parliament
and say well I’m going to govern regardless.”

It should always
be remembered that the checks and balances in our democracy gave
Australians two opportunities to overturn Kerr’s decision, and
reinstall Whitlam as prime minister – the elections of 13 December 1975
and 10 December 1977. Checks and balances matter, too, today.

No-one doubts Whitlam’s ability. But more would do well to remember that he fell, as James puts it, into “folly.”

“Whitlam’s government was big on symbolics,” The Australian
editorialised on Monday. In and out of power, symbolics matter to
Whitlam. A certain grandeur? Did Graham Freudenberg write three greater
words? Has there been any greater spin in the history of our nation?
Any spin that has lodged more in our psyche?

Gough Whitlam is our Ozymandias. Impossible to dismiss, but a ruin nonetheless.