Forty years on, the ranks of those who personally remember November 1975 grow thinner, and its demands to be treated as history, not as partisan controversy, become ever more insistent. But some people just can’t let go.
I outlined my thoughts at the time of the last big anniversary, 10 years ago.
Briefly, if you can’t be bothered reading the whole thing, I think that the opposition was wrong to block supply; given that they had, the government was wrong to try to tough it out; given that it did, the governor-general John Kerr’s actions were underhanded but understandable; and Gough Whitlam’s election campaign should have focused on the opposition, not the governor-general.
What I didn’t consider at the time, however, was the international dimension of the crisis. And that’s where this year’s new crop of “revelations” have been concentrated, with claims that Kerr had prior discussions about his plans not just with two High Court justices (and perhaps Malcolm Fraser as well), but also with such foreign actors as Prince Charles, with the Queen’s private secretary, Martin Charteris, and even the CIA and the Ford administration in the United States.
The last is perhaps the easiest to dispose of. My colleague Guy Rundle has written, “The 1975 coup was a soft version of the 1973 [Chilean] coup,” but he doesn’t explain what actual use the CIA would have been.
We know (roughly) how the CIA helped General Augusto Pinochet: military logistics, intelligence, propaganda and so forth. But where’s the analogy to any of this on November 11, 1975?
No one disputes that the Americans wanted to see Whitlam gone, and it’s entirely plausible that the CIA would have somehow communicated that view to Kerr (although he could have worked it out himself from reading the newspapers, especially if, in Rundle’s words, he “saw himself as part of a global power structure guarding against an insurgent global populace”).
It’s even conceivable that might have influenced his decision, although there’s no evidence for that. But the idea that this was somehow central to what he did is hard to understand.
The palace connection is much more interesting, because it ties into the peculiar nature of Kerr’s (or any governor-general’s) position. In form he was the agent of the Queen, but in reality the Queen has no involvement with the way a governor-general does his or her job. The role of a queen is to appoint and remove them, and she can do this only on the advice of her Australian prime minister.
And of course, removal was at the heart of the crisis: not just Kerr’s dismissal of Whitlam, but the potential for the Queen, on Whitlam’s advice, to dismiss Kerr instead. That possibility was what forced Kerr, at least in his own mind, to act swiftly and secretly.
Hence the particular interest in the claim that there was “a ‘secret arrangement’ between the Palace and Yarralumla to delay acting on the advice of the Prime Minister to recall the Governor-General, should Whitlam have decided to remove Kerr”. Jenny Hocking, Whitlam’s biographer, gives a full account in yesterday’s Crikey (first published on John Menadue’s blog, Pearls and Irritations).
This revelation is presented as evidence of Kerr’s duplicity and the palace’s complicity in it. But it can equally be seen to cut the other way: if the palace was assuring Kerr that it would provide a breathing space — that Whitlam would not, in fact, be able to secure his instant dismissal — then that gave him the opportunity to warn Whitlam of what was up and try to secure some sort of compromise settlement.
He chose not to take that opportunity, a decision for which he accepted responsibility and can be fairly blamed. Hocking calls it his “great moral and political failing”. But the palace couldn’t tell him how to do his job, or try to do it for him by communicating with Whitlam behind his back.
John Menadue, former private secretary to Whitlam, says, with some justice, “Surely it is time we kept these London meddlers out of Australian affairs,” but at that point his (and Hocking’s) complaint really seems to be that they didn’t involve themselves enough.
The events of 1975 made a lot more Australians think about the desirability of a republic, although 40 years later that still seems a fair way off. The great benefit of a republic would be not that the head of state would suddenly become unimportant or their reserve powers unproblematic, but that it would allow us to solve this particular problem of the governor-general’s uncertain tenure, with the danger that things could come down to a contest of “who sacks whom first”.
At the time, Labor partisans often said that Kerr had acted in a way that the Queen herself would not dare. But this missed the point: the Queen would never have to act secretly, because she cannot be summarily dismissed. She could afford to let her prime minister know what she was thinking.
When and if we get our own head of state, it will not solve all of our problems. Presidents, whether appointed or elected, can act in dubious ways, and the actions of other political players can put them in positions where they must make impossibly difficult decisions.
But we should at least be able to craft our constitutional arrangements to stop the recurrence of the circumstances that made November 1975 so traumatic.