Whitlam dismissal: the plot broadens and deepens

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.

As a way into the new information, perhaps start with John Menadue’s post The Dismissal – Forty years on. A smoking gun and Jenny Hocking’s guest post The Dismissal in History.

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.

12 thoughts on “Whitlam dismissal: the plot broadens and deepens”

  1. Fraser was only able to block supply because of the NSW and Qld government’s scandalous decisions re filling Senate vacancies.
    The good news is that the dismissal lead to changes that make a such a scandalous dismissal difficult for the future.
    As for Kerr? He would have come out of the affair much better if, after Fraser’s election he had resigned on the grounds that he could no longer provide the unifying force that is a key part of the governor general’s role.

  2. Who are Haydn and Frazer?

    On a more serious note, I guess we should count ourselves lucky that this yawn in a teacup counts as a major controversy. In so many ways, Australia remains the lucky country, at least for most of us.

  3. John, you are right about the scandalous actions of the Qld and NSW governments. And yes, Kerr should have resigned. Gareth Evans said back in 2013 that Kerr was the worst GG ever and was followed by two of the best – Zelman Cowen and Ninian Stephens.

    Evans thinks the Dismissal has delayed the coming of Australia as a republic. Terry Barnes reckoned our politics has become tame and centrist, lacking “imagination, perspective and vision”. He blames the Dismissal.

  4. Yes, thanks, Karen, it should have been Hayden, as in Bill Hayden, politician and later GG. Corrected now.

    I’ve corrected John D’s to Fraser also.

    It’s interesting that you regard it as a yawn in a teacup. To those alive and at all politically aware at the time it was cataclysmic and totally rivetting. I’d say most people over 50 can remember where they were when they heard.

    Paul Kelly told Richard Fidler that when he returned to Sydney it was a surprise to him that people were simply going about their business as though nothing had happened.

  5. Evans thinks the Dismissal has delayed the coming of Australia as a republic. Terry Barnes reckoned our politics has become tame and centrist, lacking “imagination, perspective and vision”. He blames the Dismissal.

    At the time I lived in hope predismissal that Whitlam would concentrate his mind on the economy to the extent required to win the next election. Even then I thought that Whitlam would lose.
    Oddly enough the dismissal may have helped protect the Whitlam legacy because it weakened Fraser’s legitimacy.
    Now I realise that Whitlam had been destroyed by the OPEC crisis and that Whitlam never showed much sign of economic wisdom or even interest.
    Funny thing is that Kerr is one of our most famous GG’s, a man who inspired important reforms to the Ausralian political system by exposing how vulnerable it was to the unscrupulous. (How is that for +ve spin?)

  6. Brian,

    I say yawn in a teacup because other western countries have had serious civil unrest, military coups, presidential assassinations and so on.

    I don’t believe The Dismissal has much lasting significance. The contemporaneous collapse of the Keynesian Consensus was and remains much more significant for left of centre parties.

  7. Karen, at this distance I’d have to agree. At the time, however, it seemed as though the fabric of the nation had been rent asunder.

  8. Removing unpopular sitting Prime Ministers is ” trendy ” nowadays.
    I was young that day.
    My focus was the sacrifices of our Soldiers serving our Nation, which seems to be ” untrendy ” nowadays.

  9. As for,

    The contemporaneous collapse of the Keynesian Consensus was and remains much more significant for left of centre parties.

    Fear not, the dragging, economically regressive, Keynesian stimulus debt foolishness is as popular as ever.
    Lead by the mendacious Piketty and his wilfully gullible flock.
    That little ball and chain is getting heavier by the day.

  10. Brian: It was not so much the collapse of some “Keynesian Consensus” that destroyed Fraser. The problem was that the unions believed that the real value of wages had to be maintained no matter what and a business community that had an equivalent belief that favoured business. To make matters worse the ACTU was lead by Hawke, a leader who was good at pushing up real wages and the country was lead by Fraser who the unions hated with a gusto.
    Australia resolved the problem by dumping Fraser and installing Hawke. Hawke was the man who could create the accords that Australia needed because he had the trust of the workers.

  11. John, I’d forgotten The Accord. Over the decade of the 1980s my salary reduced by a quarter to a third in relation to the average wage.

    Many of the increases were a fixed dollar value added onto the basic wage. Proportionately for a senior officer they were small and much disappeared in marginal tax.

    It’s effect for business was to favour profits over wages.

    Wages had blown out under Fraser. We also had the highest interest rates ever under John Howard as Treasurer.

  12. From where I sat the accord made a big difference in industrial relations and ended stagflation. It also meant that award negotiations were about trade offs instead of how much of what was being demanded by the unions they were going to get for nothing.

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