Forty years ago on 11 November 1975 John Kerr, the Governor-General, dismissed an elected government with a majority in the House of Representatives. In doing so he he collaborated with judges, senior members of the opposition in parliament and the media. Contact with the Palace was early and extensive.
New information shows that the plot was wider and deeper than previously thought.
Two new books have been published on the dismissal. Professor Jenny Hocking of Monash University wrote The Dismissal Dossier: Everything You Were Never Meant to Know About November 1975. Phillip Adams interviewed her on Late Night Live. More recently Richard Fidler interviewed Paul Kelly, who with Troy Bramston wrote The Dismissal: In The Queen’s Name.
Much of Hocking’s story comes from the copious notes kept by Kerr himself.
Kerr was discussing the possibility of dismissing Whitlam with the Palace in September 1975, a month before supply was blocked in the senate. Specifically Kerr spoke to Prince Charles in Port Moresby in September:
- Kerr raised with Prince Charles his concern that Whitlam might move to recall his commission if he became aware of the possibility of dismissal, and Kerr recounts Charles’ solicitous response, ‘But surely Sir John, the Queen should not have to accept advice that you should be recalled at the very time when you were considering having to dismiss the government’. This is an astonishing revelation by Kerr, one that profoundly challenges our previous understanding of the dismissal.
Menadue gives evidence that Kerr was in contact with Malcolm Fraser, something Fraser has always denied. Menadue also thinks that Rupert Murdoch was in on the plot. Menadue says:
- Rupert Murdoch threw his newspapers into a frontal attack on the Whitlam Government in October and November 1975. He also applied direct public pressure on John Kerr to ‘do his duty’ and dismiss Gough Whitlam.
Paul Kelly told Richard Fidler that Bill Hayden had reason to visit Kerr four or five days before the dismissal. Hayden got the distinct impression that Kerr was about to dismiss the government so instead of going directly to the airport Hayden went back to the Lodge to warn Whitlam. Whitlam said, “Comrade, he wouldn’t have the guts!” or words to that effect.
Whitlam’s misjudgement of Kerr left him completely blind-sided when it happened. Nevertheless that afternoon Whitlam was able pass a no confidence motion in the Fraser caretaker government, but Kerr refused to see the Speaker of the House when he sought to advise the GG of the fact. That, from memory, is what Jennifer Hocking told Phillip Adams.
Many conservatives like Tony Eggleton say that the Whitlam government was shambolic (it did appear that way after the Khemlani loans affair), and had to go. Labor supporters and many constitutionalists are simply outraged.
Turnbull believes that Kerr should have advised Whitlam of his intention even if it cost him his job. Writing at the time as a 21 year-old Turnbull called Malcolm Fraser and his supporters “political fascists”. Abbott, by contrast, has no difficulty with what Kerr did.
Normally the governor general acts on advice from the prime minister. In this case Kerr took a range of advice and used it against the prime minister.
Hocking says that Kerr had long been a student of the reserve powers of the GG to the point of obsession. He was also, above all, concerned about himself, his position, his thwarted political ambitions, and a desire to make a mark on history.
Hocking has also revealed the fact that Sir Anthony Mason, then a High Court judge, was consulted by Kerr. This, according to Anne Twomey, is unremarkable and not without precedent. Nevertheless we should have known about it and Hocking reveals that Kerr and Sir Garfield Barwick conspired to keep it a secret. Mason himself only fessed up when outed by Hocking.
Fraser’s real problem was somewhat like Julia Gillard’s in more recent years. The ruthlessness he demonstrated in gaining the top job impacted on his legitimacy and his ability to do the job. In a fascinating piece in the AFR we learn that one Dr Timothy Pascoe, a former director of the Liberal Party, while attending a Liberal Party Council meeting in Canberra in mid-October 1975 penned a memo to Fraser warning him about his intentions, copyning the memo to several other people, some of whom agreed with it.
- the Pascoe memo is the first to link the ruthless planned manner of taking office with the likely character and record of the subsequent Fraser government.
Prophetically, it says: “If you attempt to take power now and, in the process, break your principles, then I question whether you will have the moral force and credibility to solve Australia’s long-term problems.”
Fraser insisted in recalling all copies of the memo and personally burnt them in a waste paper basket in his office.
A fuller story of the dismissal will have to await the release of Kerr’s correspondence with the Palace, which from his notes was extensive. Unless the Queen decides otherwise the correspondence will be embargoed until 2027, 50 years after Kerr’s death. It seems Her Majesty wants to keep it that way.