As Crikey hits deadline, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull is launching a book on the dismissal of the Whitlam government in Canberra.

Getting a Liberal PM to do the honours might seem somewhat odd, given the Liberal Party and many of its members rallied around Malcolm Fraser in 1975 (for example, Tony Abbott, a slightly younger student than Turnbull, responded by organising rallies in governor-general John Kerr’s support). But Turnbull, at the time and since, has been a stronger critic of the decision to dismiss Whitlam than any Liberal leader since it occurred.

When he was 21 and still at Sydney University, he wrote his immediate reactions to the Dismissal in progressive magazine the Nation Review:

“I doubt that Kerr considered that by dismissing Whitlam he has condemned himself to an eternity in the history books portrayed as a villain. He will be seen as a more despicable version of Philip Game, who dismissed the elected government of NSW premier Jack Lang in 1932.”

Turnbull, while believing Whitlam would lose any election, argued that he should have been allowed to go to the people as prime minister. Attempts to hasten his demise ensured his elevation to “the status of a political martyr”. “No matter what may happen to him in the coming elections, he is assured of the foremost place in the hagiography of Australian Labor.”

In The Dismissal, the book by Paul Kelly and Troy Bramston Turnbull is launching today, he tells Kelly his views have not substantially changed.

“I was shocked and surprised that Kerr did it,” he is quoted as saying in the book. The future PM would later meet Kerr in London, where he says Kerr told him that if he hadn’t sacked Whitlam, Whitlam would have sacked him. “I think that’s a very poor excuse … [A]ll of us should be fulfilling our duty and not having regard to self-interest like that.”

Turnbull already had an interest in the reserve powers of the constitution before November 1975. He had interviewed Depression-era NSW premier Jack Lang, who had also been dismissed, in a slightly different manner to Whitlam, by the NSW governor after Lang refused to pay the interest owed on British government loans. When Lang died, Turnbull wrote a nuanced obituary in the Nation Review.

But he didn’t see the Dismissal coming. In a piece he wrote about a month before in Nation Review, the young law student said that while “Messrs Fairfax and Murdoch” were demanding a dismissal, “Kerr won’t dismiss Gough”. But previous governors-general might have. “Could we have trusted Paul Hasluck not to obey the pleas of Malcolm Fraser, Warwick Fairfax and Rupert Murdoch?”

When the Dismissal did occur, Turnbull sheeted the blame straight to Kerr. “Can this unelected ribbon-cutter be permitted to act on the advice of people other than the elected government?” In his interview with Kelly earlier this year, Turnbull absolved Fraser. “You can’t blame Fraser for what Kerr did … I think the opprobrium that attached to him [Fraser] and blocking supply would have been much, much less if Kerr had not sacked Whitlam in the way that he did.”

Peter Fray

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