The gods chose a hell of a day for a political crisis to come to a head and result in an executive coup d’etat in Australia, 40 years ago today. It was the day that the country might have erupted into political violence and open conflict had things gone differently, occurring half a century after the day that the guns had gone quiet at the end of the Great War in Europe, and a century after Ned Kelly had been hanged in Old Melbourne Gaol, outlaw or rebel or both, but a man who came to understand that, in Australia, the old imperial powers will get you in the end. It’s striking when you put it with those two dates, how much a part of modernity it is, and of our high history, our national formation. To remember it all, you have to be pushing 50. To have witnessed it as an adult, you’re on your way to your concession movie pass.

We are separated from the Dismissal by great intervening events: the abandonment of any form of democratic socialism by Labor, in the Hawke-Keating years, the collapse of old forms of class affiliation — a unionised working class, a coherent entity of “Catholic” Australia — and the rise of new ones; but above all by the fall of the Berlin Wall and the market turn of Asian Communist nations, and the rise of a world with no “other” to global capitalism. That extraordinary turn of events — which no one would have predicted in 1975 — is the missing context of the Dismissal. Looking at the old footage of the event, the solid colours and dense textures of news footage done on film, Gough on the Parliament House steps, Sir John stumbling drunkenly around Flemington, is not enough to understand what happened then, and what didn’t happen here, later, as a result.

So, for those whose parents were yet to meet in 1975, a quick recap. The ALP, led by Gough Whitlam, was elected in 1972, the first Labor government for 23 years. While waiting for a few seats to be determined (and thus to give him a caucus that would elect a ministry) Whitlam had himself and deputy Lance Barnard sworn into all 23 ministerial positions and enacted a raft of decisions and regulations, from ending conscription and recalling what was left of the army from Vietnam to eliminating sales tax on contraceptive pills. This audacious move left the right in no doubt that this was not going to be a government promising much to its base and then moving to the centre.

From the start, the Liberal-National (National Country as it was then) Party never regarded the government as legitimate — and soon came to be see it as terrifying, a government likely to implement an irreversible democratic socialist wave of reform. Determined to destroy it, they were aided by the fact that the Senate remained in control of the right (including four DLP senators), its elections having fallen out of sync with the House of Reps in the 1960s. Continued obstruction by the Senate of the reform program persuaded Whitlam to call a double-dissolution election in 1974, which he won in the house with a slim, five-seat majority. Senate control remained elusive. A cunning plan to spill an extra Senate seat had been frustrated by hard-right Queensland premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen, who then broke the convention of appointing replacement senators from the same party as a departing one, and filled an ALP vacancy with a man who said he would never vote Whitlam’s way.

With the Senate still in hand, new opposition leader Malcolm Fraser blocked the process of supply, which would guarantee funds for daily government, beginning a process of brinkmanship and the beginnings of a crisis. By mid-1975, with a global recession having plunged the West into stagflation (recession plus inflation), the Whitlam government began an ambitious plan to buy up Australia’s entire resources sector, much of it yet untapped. To do this, large loans were sought on the global market — from private capital, petrostates, the USSR’s Narodny Bank, and finally via a carpetbagging chancer, Tirath Khemlani, who had won the confidence of resources minister Rex Connor.

This hair-raising fundraising scheme became public at the same time as the supply block raised the possibility of the government running out of money. Whitlam was convinced that the Liberal-NCP opposition would be seen as the villain, and that party room pressure would convince Fraser to back down, or even topple him as leader. However, the loans affair tarnished the government so badly that Fraser’s resolve was stiffened, and by October, a real crisis of governance was looming. By then, unbeknownst to Whitlam, John Kerr, the new governor-general he had appointed, had been consulting chief justice of the High Court (and staunch Liberal) Garfield Barwick, as to what the “reserve powers” of the governor-general, as Australian head of state, actually were. Both Kerr and Barwick were getting advice on this from Anthony Mason, a future chief justice — all of which was against the Westminster convention that the head of state should seek advice only from the ministry (i.e. the PM, and the attorney- and solictor-general in this case).

By November, Kerr was also dealing directly with Malcolm Fraser. Fraser was demanding a commitment to a full election by 1976 as a condition of releasing supply; by early November, Whitlam determined on a strategy of getting a half-Senate election from the G-G, which would allow Labor to campaign on the issue of legitimacy. Kerr, increasingly fearful that Whitlam would sack him (Kerr had demanded two full terms, or 10 years as G-G, as a condition of accepting the job), kept all private discussions from him, and several days before November 11, had decided to dismiss Whitlam. Fraser was worded up on this — and was already at Yarralumla (the G-G’s residence) in an anteroom on November 11 when Whitlam arrived to advise Kerr to call a half-Senate-only election. Kerr then dismissed him and appointed Fraser caretaker PM. The Senate passed the supply bills in the afternoon, and the house passed a vote of no-confidence in Fraser as PM. However, Kerr refused to take any communication from the house, dissolved Parliament and issued the writs for an election in both houses. In the ensuing December election — to the surprise of most, on both sides — Labor was devastated, reduced to 36 seats in the 127-seat House of Representatives.

Much of this has been known and chewed over for decades; it’s only in the last five to 10 years that a crucial aspect of it has come to light, largely through the researches of Jenny Hocking, and, following in her wake, Paul Kelly and Troy Bramston. That aspect is the degree of plotting, conspiracy, deception (of Whitlam) and determination practised by John Kerr in his obsessive drive to have a situation in which Whitlam could be sacked. That Fraser had been tipped off, Barwick consulted, and Mason tangentially involved had always been “known”. In fact we knew wrong. As Kerr’s private notes, correspondence with the palace and other newly available documents discussed in The Dismissal Dossier and The Dismissal make clear, Fraser and Kerr had multiple discussions directed towards timing and conduct of the coup, and Mason was a key player, “tutoring” Kerr in a highly convenient version of the reserve powers. Barwick, we now know, was something of a cover (though he supported the dismissal) for Mason’s involvement. Indeed, Barwick and Kerr called Mason “the third man” in their communications on the matter.

These researches have been vital for our understanding of the event — Hocking deserves the lion’s share of the credit, though Kelly and Bramston have been pretty assiduous and comprehensive too — and make the description of it as an executive coup unarguable, in my opinion. That’s because this documentation of the Kerr-Barwick-Fraser-Mason collusion adds the other side to what was the crucial coup event — not the dismissal itself, but what Hocking calls the second dismissal, which was Kerr’s refusal to take the call, phone and personal, of house speaker Gordon Scholes mid-afternoon of the 11th. For obvious reasons: as soon as the Senate had passed supply, the house, having a Labor majority, voted no confidence in Fraser as PM, and made a recommendation to the head of state that Gough Whitlam be appointed prime minister.

This, as former PM William McMahon, an opponent of Fraser’s actions, had pointed out, would always be the next stage in any dismissal, a simple product of the fact that a Westminster parliament is not simply a legislative body; it is de facto quasi-executive and the place where the people believe executive power to lie. To prorogue a parliament by avoiding the communication that the appointed prime minister does not have the confidence of the house is clearly dictatorial. One can see that from a circumstance where it would not have been — if Kerr had simultaneously appointed Fraser (and a new ministry) and prorogued parliament, the sort of thing one might do in a national emergency. But Kerr needed parliament to stay in session to pass supply. Had they not, the government would have run out of money during the election campaign, and the whole point of dismissing Whitlam would have been moot.

Thus, the key anti-democratic moment of the dismissal/coup has always seemed to be that later event, with opinion divided as to whether the G-G had the authority to dismiss Whitlam in the first place — even given the communication of Fraser and Barwick with Kerr. But the revelations over the past years and now summarised in these two books blows that out of the water absolutely. The conspiracy is multiple, concerted, and complex — with Kerr, via Prince Charles, drawing the palace in — and predicated on keeping Whitlam in the dark about a vast movement of power. The pre-dismissal conspiracy and the post-dismissal proroguing together form the coup. The dismissal itself, the one element of arguable constitutionality, was essentially the front for what occurred.

That’s where Hocking and Kelly/Bramston divide, and they do so along the obvious lines, between Hocking’s critical scrupulousness and the cynicism of Kelly and Bramston. The latter aren’t in any doubt that Kerr was conspiratorial, paranoid, vengeful, lying and destructive — and so their only possible course of action to avoid an actual moral judgement on the right is to paint Whitlam as a hopeless boobie, a man so out of touch as to be criminally negligent — and thus to almost deserve the coup against him. Hocking demolishes most of the feints at this — the idea that Whitlam had switched to a half-Senate election strategy too late, that he was a pompous and self-flattering orator with no political nous, etc, etc. In the end, after 300 pages documenting how the right trashed the institutions they purported to uphold in the pursuit of power, Kelly/Bramston say this:

“Yet Whitlam’s ineptitude in his conduct of the crisis is almost beyond belief. He bears a serious share of responsibility for the dismissal.”

Whitlam’s assessment of Kerr’s (and others’) genuine commitment to the Australian Westminster system was unquestionably in error, as was his assessment of the man that John Kerr had become in the decades since he had been part of the Sydney Labor establishment. But much of what Kelly and Bramston identify as ineptitude with 20/20 hindsight was simply a series of white-knuckle strategic decisions.

Many of them are ones Kelly and Bramston don’t explore — the fact, for example, that the Liberal party room was, by the first week of November, starting to crack up, and that, at that time, the Liberal Party still had a genuinely liberal faction who were increasingly disturbed by the damage Fraser’s strategy was doing to the country. Since this faction — led at the time by Senator Alan Missen and three or four other senators, enough to undermine Fraser’s strategy — has now vanished from the Liberal makeup, Kelly/Bramston can present 1975 as if it were 2005, and Fraser’s Liberal Party was simply Howard/Abbott’s Liberal Party in cheaper suits. It wasn’t, and Whitlam was clearly relying on that in playing a little brinkmanship of his own. The idea that a combination of incorrect interpretation and unsuccessful feints make one “responsible” for someone else’s illegal state action is a true measure of those authors’ desperate desire to have an each-way bet. Pathetic.

Yet in their assessment of Whitlam’s mis-assessment of John Kerr the man, Kelly and Bramston are spot on — yet not for reasons they would admit to. Whitlam clearly saw in Kerr something of a fellow traveller on the long road through the 20th century of war, socialism, the titanic struggles of modernity. Both were Syndey barristers from the Labor establishment that Evatt had anchored, and one suspects that Whitlam — a centrist social democrat, for all his later canonisation — saw in Kerr a man who had come to the same conclusions about the importance of the liberal state to social reform. The party Whitlam joined contained men of a style and life experience rather alien to Whitlam’s, and the Don’s Party generation that he brought in were equally alien, in a way.

Whitlam missed the degree to which Kerr, a working-class boy risen to great heights, had, by the ’70s, lost all connection or empathy with the Labor tradition. What they don’t note of course is that long before that, Kerr’s “anti-Stalinism” had led him down a path familiar in the last century, into the shadowy world of official anti-communism. It is here that Kelly and Bramston simultaneously decry any notion that Kerr might have been influenced by global Cold War considerations or contact, in his actions, while noting earlier that he was a member of “the Australian Association of Cultural Freedom, a group of anti-communist intellectuals associated with the publication Quadrant”.

Anti-communist intellectuals, you don’t say. Come off it, gentlemen. The AACF was the Australian branch of the Congress for Cultural Freedom, the global front established by the CIA to funnel money to publications and activities, all of them designed to look hands-off, and to monitor and steer intellectual activity in the West. That is a matter of public record, and no one believes that James McAuley and other AACF luminaries in the ’50s didn’t know where the money was coming from. Kerr was present at the creation of shadowy intelligence in Australia, as a member of Alf Conlon’s intelligence directorate in World War II, and through being caught up in the brutal late ’40s Sydney Communist/anti-communist labour conflicts from which US involvement in Australian labour affairs was born.

Kelly and Bramston don’t want to acknowledge this because they are desperate to obscure any notion of US involvement in the Dismissal — and their way of doing that is to discount any soft or informal forms of influence; look for a 10/11/75 telex to Yarralumla saying “The balloon goes up tomorrow, white squirrel”, find none, and thus decry any influence. In that they follow Whitlam to a degree, who could not see that Kerr was not merely no longer a Labor man, but now saw himself as part of a global power structure guarding against an insurgent global populace — people who wanted to do things like own their own resources. That was not a failure of Whitlam’s personal assessment, but of his political worldview.

Like Allende, who also appointed his (actual) executioner, Whitlam’s political error was in not being left enough in assessing how power was flowing. Kelly and Bramston do themselves and their readers a disservice with that omission. The full story is far more interesting. As we shall see. Lest we forget, as they would wish us to, how our past, and present, were made.

This story is part one in a four-part series. To keep reading, go here

Peter Fray

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