Gough Whitlam: His Time
by Jenny Hocking
The Miegunyah Press, 2012, 596 pages, $49.99
The United Kingdom with its fine tradition of political biography has done sterling service to its foremost statesmen and its lesser lights in many noteworthy publications. In 1999 Andrew Roberts published an outstanding biography of the third Marquess of Salisbury, a long-neglected subject, which he appropriately subtitled Victorian Titan—for he was a distinguished Foreign Secretary (1878–80) who often held that same office when he was the Prime Minister (1885–86, 1886–92 and 1895–1902). In 1991 Roberts published The Holy Fox, a study of the first Earl of Halifax, another Foreign Secretary who might have succeeded Neville Chamberlain as Prime Minister in May 1940 but for his determination not to assert his claim against Winston Churchill’s. Leo McKinstry in 2005 published a notable biography of an undeservedly forgotten figure, the fifth Earl of Rosebery, W.E. Gladstone’s ill-starred successor as Liberal Prime Minister from March 1894 to June 1895. Angus Hawkins’s two-volume biography of the fourteenth Earl of Derby appeared in 2007–08, subtitled “the forgotten PM” despite his having held that office in 1852, 1858–59 and 1866–68 as the Conservative Party’s longest-serving leader from 1846 to 1868.
Among the biographies of lesser lights one could list Ben Pimlott’s Hugh Dalton (1985), Clement Attlee’s first Chancellor of the Exchequer; Geoffrey Lewis’s Edward Carson (2005), the subject of many earlier biographies; Gerald De Groot’s study, entitled Liberal Crusader, of Sir Archibald Sinclair (later Viscount Thurso), Secretary of State for Air in Churchill’s war coalition (1993); and Lewis Baston’s Reginald Maudling (2004), Harold Macmillan’s fourth and Sir Alec Douglas-Home’s only Chancellor. The indefatigable D. R. (Richard) Thorpe launched himself as a biographer in 1980 with The Uncrowned Prime Ministers, a study of Sir Austen Chamberlain, Lord Curzon and R.A. Butler, all distinguished as senior cabinet ministers but disappointed in their ambition to be Prime Minister. He published biographies of Selwyn Lloyd, Foreign Secretary under Sir Anthony Eden and Macmillan and the latter’s third Chancellor (1989); Douglas-Home (1996); Eden (2003) and Macmillan (2010). Anthony Howard, Rab Butler’s choice of biographer (1987), vindicated his confidence that an author of opposing political views could depict him in a favourable light. But then Gough Whitlam emerges as a much more sympathetic figure from the published diaries of Peter Howson, a political opponent, than from any of the books to which he has been prepared to put his name.
Australian political biography still appears as something of an underworked lode even when one acknowledges the two-volume studies of Alfred Deakin and Sir Robert Menzies by J.A. La Nauze and A.W. Martin respectively. Two worthwhile biographies were published in 2010: David Lowe’s Sir Percy Spender, an outstanding Foreign Minister (but never so designated), and David Lee’s Stanley Melbourne (later Viscount) Bruce, an underestimated Prime Minister. These followed David Bird’s study of J.A. Lyons as Prime Minister (2004). Anne Henderson produced a biography of Lyons in 2011, after publishing one of his wife, Dame Enid, in 2008.
Has Jenny Hocking’s second volume of her biography of Gough Whitlam earned a rightful place in this category? Some reviewers may well conclude that it has; but I cannot. Hocking’s treatment of Whitlam’s time in office, while falling short of hagiography, is a gravely flawed assessment—so flawed indeed that itemising and elaborating on all its shortcomings would call for an incomparably longer review than this one.
The book’s text runs to almost 480 pages with fifty-eight pages of end notes, a bibliography of twenty-nine pages, and an index of twenty-four pages. These details signify that the book has at least the trappings of scholarship even if not all the end notes are uniformly consistent with the citations in the text. But as J.R. Nethercote noted, “Hocking works entirely within fatally flawed Whitlamite doctrine” (Spectator Australia, September 22, 2012). Nethercote quoted her opening paragraph on Whitlam’s “remarkable journey from chaotic opposition to party revival”, and added that she “might equally truthfully have written about a lamentable journey from party revival to chaotic government”. This reinforces Ferdinand Mount’s observation in reviewing Thorpe’s biography of Macmillan (London Review of Books, September 8, 2011): “Alas, the qualities required for being prime minister are not the same as those required for becoming one.” As Mount had already observed:
Almost at the end of his book, Thorpe tells us, though without giving a source, that “Macmillan and Home both came to think that it might have been better if Rab Butler had become prime minister in 1963.” I would go a lot further. It might have been better if Butler had succeeded Eden in 1957 or even Churchill in 1955.
One of Whitlam’s first acts as Prime Minister, which Hocking brushed over approvingly, disclosed a disturbing and persistent failing—his vetoing of the New Year Honours List for 1973 submitted by the McMahon government. Whitlam ignored the generous conduct of Frank Walsh who as incoming South Australian Premier confronted a similar situation after the 1965 election. Walsh forwarded the honours list submitted by the outgoing Premier, Sir Thomas Playford, to the Palace remarking that he had no wish to disappoint the expectations of those already notified of their inclusion. Neville Wran as an incoming Premier after defeating Sir Eric Willis in 1976 was to conduct himself similarly and for the same reason. Whitlam’s precipitate action revealed his imperviousness to this consideration—and worse. Out of respect for those who refuse honours the authorities take great care to ensure that they are bestowed only on those willing to accept them. When questioned whether those in the list he had torn up had been notified of their awards Whitlam retorted that he had been advised that they had not been. Apparently he expected those who raised this issue to believe that the authorities responsible for a list due to be published in less than a month, which included the Christmas break, would have left that all-important preliminary still to be completed. Either Whitlam’s adviser, if there was one, had misled him or he himself was being misleading.
Whitlam’s approach to a distinctively Australian honours system—one he was determined would depart significantly from the Imperial system—exhibited that very same mean-spirited caprice. By making it a slavish copy almost to the last detail of the Order of Canada—itself a substandard product by design—Whitlam ensured that the highest class in his Order of Australia (Companion or AC) would have insignia comparable to the third class in multi-class Imperial Orders, the CBE (Commander of the Order of the British Empire) being an example. He thus deliberately set this Australian Order apart from almost every foreign Order, whether conferred under monarchical or republican auspices. Consequently when heads of state visit Australia officially there can be no exchange of Orders, as with most state visits elsewhere, for a painfully obvious reason—such visiting dignitaries would consider themselves short-changed on receiving the AC in exchange for the top class of any Order they might present to the Governor-General. New Zealand abandoned the Imperial system in 1996 and inaugurated its own Order; but it was not modelled on the Order of Australia. New Zealand’s five-class Order of Merit is comparable in its insignia to almost all foreign five-class Orders.
I once remarked to Sir John Kerr that one consequence of Whitlam’s ungenerous zeal in this matter was that the Chief Justice of the High Court, who under the discontinued Imperial dispensation could have counted on being arrayed as a Knight Grand Cross of the Order of St Michael and St George, now has to be content with the demeaning status of an AC. Sir John observed that that outcome would have been deeply satisfying to Whitlam. I recall this from our many lengthy conversations as his only sour reference to Whitlam of a purely personal nature. Yet Hocking has acclaimed this honours system, which still carries the stigma of Whitlam’s perversity, as one of his notable achievements.
Hocking has been burdened with more impedimenta than being encased “within fatally flawed Whitlamite dogma”. David McKnight, whose political background has ensured that he cannot be dismissed as a hireling in all manner of conservative causes, has criticised Hocking’s past publications for their hostility to ASIO, a disposition she shares with a still unrepentant Whitlam. With particular reference to her book Terror Laws: ASIO, Counter-Terrorism and the Threat to Democracy (2004) McKnight (Labour History, November 2008) observed:
What is remarkable about this account is that it entirely and systematically avoids the vast body of new evidence about ASIO and the Cold War which has emerged since the opening of the Australian security archives in the 1980s, the Soviet archives in the 1990s and the release of the “Venona decrypts” in 1995–97 …
Rather than attempting to deal with this material and the debate it has engendered, Hocking simply does not discuss it. It is as if this information does not exist. Instead she uses accounts [re the Petrov affair] such as [Nicholas] Whitlam and [John] Stubbs’ 1974 Nest of Traitors, and the statements of Evatt’s secretary of External Affairs, Dr John Burton, both of which reflect various conspiracy theories developed and published long before access to archives of any sort, overseas or local, became possible … Hocking reproduces Whitlam and Stubbs’ suggestion that no information was passed to the Russians and that documents presented to the Royal Commission on Espionage were probably forged by ASIO and/or Petrov. Elsewhere, Soviet espionage in Australia is referred to as a “persistent accusation” and “allegations” with inferences that these were fanciful. Yet it turns out that the allegations of forgery were fanciful and those of espionage were well founded. Hocking’s conclusion that “Petrov’s defection … was an archetypal case of the political use of the domestic security organization” reduces the defection and the subsequent Royal Commission on Espionage to mere politics … It is hard to see how Hocking could have concluded this given the secondary literature available for many years before her book was published.
[Squared parentheses added]
Hocking in the volume under review has consistently exhibited this same wilful and perverse determination to ignore evidence in conflict with her presuppositions. This has damaged her assessment of so many issues, including security issues. She accepts that long-discredited canard that Whitlam had
long believed that Menzies had “manipulated” ASIO, particularly the Petrov Royal Commission (the 1954 Royal Commission on Espionage) by instructing [Charles] Spry to withhold key documents from the commission in order to protect Liberal members of parliament and inflict the greatest damage on Labor leader, H.V. Evatt.
She has thus attempted to justify the Labor Party’s “decades of suspicion and mistrust” against ASIO.
I have spent a great deal of time—more time I daresay than good sense should have decreed—examining the controversy arising from the Petrov defections in 1954 and the conduct of the Prime Minister, Robert Menzies, and of ASIO. With the assistance of publications by Professor Robert Manne, by Professor Desmond Ball and Professor David Horner, especially in their jointly authored work, Breaking the Codes, and by many others, I have concluded that every single charge of foul play respecting the Petrov affair—from the most trifling to the most grave—is demonstrably false. All these false charges leading to “decades of suspicion and mistrust” had their fons et origo in the paranoid fantasies of the Labor leader, Dr Evatt, when he was so conspicuously off his trolley.
An ASIO officer, a university college contemporary, informed me that his Director-General in order to dispel that very same “suspicion and mistrust” had arranged for Whitlam on assuming office to be given the most comprehensive briefing on ASIO’s conduct respecting the Petrovs. I found this credible not only because this was the testimony of a trusted friend but also because it would have been extraordinary indeed if ASIO’s Director-General had resolved not to confront the first Labor Prime Minister holding office since the Petrov affair with such a vitally important démenti. Whitlam, I was informed, responded positively to this briefing; but he has never publicly acknowledged this. He obviously never confided the essence of this briefing to his cabinet. One of his former ministers, Lionel Bowen, when debating the ASIO Bill on August 28, 1979, elaborated on the Petrov affair as “a political scandal”.
Despite his acceptance of ASIO’s justification of its conduct Whitlam has continued publicly to encourage that very “suspicion and mistrust”. He was even prepared to abuse his office as Prime Minister on November 27, 1974, by launching Nest of Traitors, co-authored by his son Nick. The book he so fulsomely endorsed regurgitated all the old Petrovian conspiracy theories when he must have known from ASIO’s briefing that it was a grotesque misrepresentation. That book and Whitlam’s disgraceful speech when launching it would have appalled ASIO and the security services of friendly countries. It subsequently came to light that, in correspondence with son Nick in 1966–67 when he was studying at Harvard, his father had encouraged him to “research” that very topic for his final-year thesis. The book his son co-authored was largely based on that thesis with a significant input from those letters, now held in the Whitlam Institute, University of Western Sydney, which vividly illustrate Gough Whitlam’s unbelievably flawed judgment.
Whitlam first subjected ASIO to acute embarrassment and frustration by his immediate reaction to the raid on March 16, 1973, on their Melbourne headquarters by his Attorney-General, Senator Lionel Murphy. From the early 1960s, Whitlam and assorted Labor MPs had repeatedly but falsely claimed in Parliament that numerous violent acts which they linked to local Croatian organisations had been treated by Coalition governments with indifference and even encouragement. Official records disclose, however, that from as early as 1963 Coalition governments had taken a close and responsible interest in the matter. In that year Croatian nationalism was first made the subject of a serious examination by the Department of Immigration; the Commonwealth Police initiated its first co-ordinated study of it; and the Cabinet directed ASIO to monitor it. On November 25, 1963, a conference of senior officers from Immigration, External Affairs, Attorney-General’s and ASIO discussed its domestic and foreign implications. The considered statements of Coalition ministers to the effect that consistent investigation of those violent incidents did not disclose any link to such organisations were treated with derision by Labor parliamentarians. An eleven-page ASIO report dated April 13, 1972, presented to the Attorney-General, Senator Ivor Greenwood, argued that it was difficult not to believe that the majority of violent incidents involving Yugoslavs in Australia
—if they are indeed the work of Croatian nationalists—must also be the result of activity by isolated individuals or very small groups. Certainly the incidents themselves have been of a type not requiring organizational support, but rather, limited ingenuity on the behalf of an individual to obtain explosives and construct a simple detonating mechanism.
ASIO and the police noted that the devices had often been timed to explode when the targeted premises were almost certain to be unoccupied. This suggested that either those responsible were, as terrorists go, inordinately squeamish or that they were agents provocateurs the Yugoslav secret service engaged to perform such “inside jobs” in order to publicise the resulting extensive damage to property.
Hocking had this to say in her biography of Murphy:
Since 1963 Australia had been used as a training ground for a self-styled “government in exile” of Croatian Ustasha extremists determined to overthrow the communist government in Yugoslavia.
She cited as authority for this her book Terror Laws—one of many examples where she treated her own publications as authoritative. She continued:
In October that year Prime Minister Menzies had acknowledged that nine Yugoslav exiles, recruited and trained in Australia “for the purpose of carrying out terrorist activities” had been arrested in Yugoslavia.
Her Hansard reference reveals that Sir Robert Menzies in answering four questions on notice gave a statement significantly at odds with her confident conclusion:
1. The Yugoslav Ministry for the Interior announced on 4th September that nine Yugoslav exiles, said to have been recruited in Australia, had been arrested after entering Yugoslavia illegally late in July for the purpose of carrying out terrorist activities. The report stated that the men had attended courses in Sydney before being sent to West Germany and Italy for training in the use of arms and explosives.
2. The nine persons concerned, including two said to hold Australian passports, are under detention pending their trial.
3. In the absence of Australian representation in Yugoslavia, the British Embassy in Belgrade has ascertained from Yugoslav authorities the names of those charged and has initiated inquiries into their national status and the circumstances of their arrest.
4. Inquiries are being made into alleged training of Croatian nationalists in Sydney. At the moment there is no conclusive information that such training has taken place. However, investigations into this matter are currently proceeding.
Hocking had attributed the wording of the Yugoslav Ministry for the Interior’s announcement to Menzies when he had in fact pointedly questioned its accuracy.
Whitlam and his colleagues were determined on gaining office to justify their conduct on the Croatian issue while in opposition—conduct which like Dr Evatt’s catalogue of allegations on the Petrov affair was no less “reckless and villainous”, to adapt Menzies’s words. They exploited the impending official visit of Yugoslavia’s so-called Prime Minister, Džemal Bijedić, by singling out Croatian organisations as possible perpetrators of life-threatening acts against him. There was certainly a risk that some undetected maverick might have made an attempt along those lines but, despite such understandable concern, Bijedić completed his visit unscathed. Hostility to Bijedić was unremarkable given his blood-drenched record but a demonstration staged in Canberra before his arrival had been peaceful.
Much of the hysteria the government fomented at first went unchallenged because the ASIO raid and the Bijedić visit both took place when Parliament was in recess and Whitlam and Murphy could not be called to account there for their extraordinary conduct. At a dinner at The Lodge in Bijedić’s honour, Whitlam in fully backing Murphy’s raid made a fire-eating speech, which Hocking quoted, in which he “described the previous governments’ failure to act against these acts of political violence as a ‘national shame’ and pledged his government to review and restructure the security service to ensure greater accountability and adherence to its charter”:
The threat of political violence has been allowed to go on too long. I have nothing but contempt for those who—often knowingly—have allowed it to go on and grow … Crimes against the internal peace of Australia, and the use of Australia as a launching-pad for violence abroad, have been tolerated in the past. They will not be tolerated by my Government … I shall use unremittingly and support without qualification my colleagues who join me in using the constitutional and institutional powers invested in my Government to end political violence in Australia. All Ministers in my Government are resolved to co-operate in ending this national shame.
Hocking quoted this to justify the “assertion of ministerial control over a recalcitrant and politicized security service”. ASIO and the security services of friendly countries must have reacted with horror at Whitlam’s airing of such wild accusations in the presence of a visiting communist apparatchik, and their concern would have not been allayed by the subsequent revelation under the scrutiny of Parliament and of a Senate Select Committee that all his accusations were false. Whitlam’s subsequent statements to Parliament, like Murphy’s, amounted to a pathetic anticlimax; but Hocking’s account does not as much as hint at this. And Whitlam was not deterred from repeating his party’s propaganda, formulated in opposition and given free rein with Murphy’s raid, in his door-stopper of an apologia (The Whitlam Government, 1985). Compare the following from Whitlam’s apologia to his and Murphy’s muted statements in Parliament:
Murphy found that not only had ASIO failed to keep track of Croatian activities but some elements in ASIO and related departments were attempting to conceal the facts from him. He thought it necessary to take Federal police from Canberra to ASIO headquarters in Melbourne and seal the relevant files. Peter Barbour, who had succeeded Spry as Director-General in 1970, confessed to Murphy that successive Attorneys-General had shown “indifference” to the problem of Croatian terrorism and had not given proper ministerial directives in regard to it.
Hocking thus backgrounded the ASIO raid (with my squared parentheses):
ASIO’s director-general, Peter Barbour, later conceded that the previous conservative governments had shown “indifference” toward Croatian terrorism and had provided no ministerial directives about dealing with it. [This was end noted as that citation from Whitlam’s 1985 apologia just quoted which in turn had quoted Murphy.] Murphy’s belief that ASIO’s inaction had severely compromised Bijedić’s safety was set with the discovery in ASIO’s Canberra offices some days earlier of an internal interdepartmental memo instructing its officers to withhold from the Whitlam government any information regarding Croatian extremism that did not accord with the policy of the previous Coalition government. Murphy consequently described ASIO as “working against the government”. [As authority for this Hocking cited her own biography of Murphy published in 1997.]
This hysterical statement is preposterous. Could Barbour have spoken to Murphy of indifference by previous Coalition governments when his own documented experience belied it? When on April 4 Senator Greenwood vigorously replied to Murphy’s controversial statement on Croatian terrorism of March 27, he referred to Barbour’s alleged statement and declared inter alia:
This, for my part and on the part of my predecessors I entirely repudiate … Are we to believe that a man who has never previously complained, now, in the extraordinary atmosphere which the Attorney-General by his raid on ASIO has created, suddenly discovers an indifference in the former Attorneys-General?
Barbour testified on August 8, 1973, before the Senate Select Committee on the Civil Rights of Migrant Australians—a Select Committee representing all parties and chaired by an Independent, Senator Michael Townley. He refused with the Chairman’s concurrence to answer a question relating to a privileged conversation with Murphy and successfully invoked that same protection in the following (p. 330):
Senator DURACK—The present Attorney-General has stated publicly and to the Senate that ASIO had complained to him of indifference by the previous government to Croatian terrorism. Did you ever make such a statement?
Mr Barbour—Strictly speaking I think I should take the same position about that as I took about the other one and decline to answer.
Was Barbour simply protecting himself? Or, more probably, was he fearful that by replying truthfully he might expose Murphy as a liar who had misled Parliament?
The memo to which Hocking referred was an informal record by Ron Hunt for ASIO’s internal use of an interdepartmental meeting he attended in Canberra on March 5, 1973. Importantly, the passage which aroused Murphy’s suspicion purported to record not Hunt’s or ASIO’s views but the views of other departments on a matter which did not relate specifically to Bijedić’s protection. On April 5, Whitlam quoted it in answering a parliamentary question:
The Department of Foreign Affairs made two points on the proposed statement. The first was that the statement should not be at variance with the interim reply given to Yugoslavia in response to the aide-mémoire presented to Australia following the Bosnian incident in 1972. The second was that unless there were reasons to the contrary, they prefer the statement to be deferred until after the visit to Australia of the Prime Minister of Yugoslavia from 20th–22nd March 1973. The Attorney-General’s Department accepted the first point but argued on the second point that the Attorney-General might find it necessary to table the statement at an earlier date.
Murphy attempted to defend his conduct when debating a motion of censure against him which the Senate carried on April 5. The fourth part of this five-part motion referred to his wantonly raiding and damaging ASIO “without any justifiable explanation”. Speaking specifically to that part Murphy desperately referred to Hunt’s internal memo, read what Whitlam had quoted in the House, and declared:
If that kind of proposition were a true version of what occurred at an interdepartmental meeting of public servants then responsible government would be at an end because it would mean that public servants could determine to pursue policies of their own. They could persist with the notions about the desirability of consistency with previous government statements. They could produce a situation where what is stated by a Minister to Parliament is untrue.
While Whitlam and Murphy in their parliamentary statements both attempted to give sinister connotations to that quotation, the report was innocuous enough even if, as they claimed, it was not wholly accurate. The day before the McMahon government delivered to the Yugoslav government its formal interim reply, which Murphy had branded as “bland” without any supporting evidence, the Commonwealth Police Commissioner—not the Director-General of ASIO in this instance—declared in a submission to the Attorney-General, Senator Greenwood, that allegations that Australian Croatian nationalists had been involved in guerrilla activities in Yugoslavia had “been scrupulously investigated but to date no viable evidence at all has been uncovered to support the contention that Croatian terrorists have been trained in Australia”. I have emphasised the Commissioner’s authorship of this submission because the Whitlam government’s propaganda depicted the Commonwealth Police as the good guys who were co-operative and ASIO as the unco-operative villains. But this aside, why should “the proposed statement … not be at variance with the interim reply” if no evidence had since come to light to justify varying it? And the Foreign Affairs representative was quoted as making that observation with the concurrence of the Attorney-General’s Department representative. Why raid ASIO when all that was required was for those two departmental representatives to elucidate their statements as they did subsequently? But by then the damaging political consequences of the ASIO raid were obvious.
Murphy preceded his raid on ASIO’s Melbourne headquarters on March 16 the previous night by a “visit” in company with a small party to ASIO’s Canberra office at an hour so inconvenient that its Regional Director, Colin Brown, had to be called from his bed to receive them. Senator Peter Durack, a future Liberal Attorney-General, questioned Barbour on August 8 as to the reason for this visit during which Murphy “found this document”, although “he was not looking for that document, at least as you understand it”. Barbour agreed that that was so. Senator Durack then asked, “So what was the nature of his investigation there? Did he ever say; did he disclose it? Or did Mr Brown ever give you a report as to what it was he was looking for?” Barbour, in his periphrastic reply, seemed to overlook that particular question but he did disclose the following:
I should say that the primary responsibility for the protection of VIPs is with the Commonwealth Police; the word “security” gets confused in this sense. The security of the [Prime] Minister [of Yugoslavia], in that sense the protection, is a police responsibility. ASIO supports this with information which helps them to take the necessary measures. This was explained to the Attorney-General at the time.
Murphy could have been fully informed of the measures taken to ensure Bijedić’s safety by consulting the Commonwealth Police alone! For that purpose he did not need to approach ASIO, let alone raid any of its premises.
The following questions related to Hunt’s internal memo:
Senator DURACK—We have had some revelation publicly of its contents. Am I right in understanding that the interpretation that the Attorney-General put on this report was unjustified?
Senator JAMES McCLELLAND—I think Mr Whitlam said that.
Senator DURACK—Well, I am asking.
Mr Barbour—As Senator McClelland said, at a later stage the Prime Minister said that when the document was first seen on the face of it it caused concern, but subsequently, with investigation, the whole matter was resolved, or some words to that effect.
Senator DURACK—It caused concern to the Attorney-General?
Senator DURACK—It had not caused concern to anyone else who had seen it, had it?
Mr Barbour—No. The point there was that, as I see it, the reason why it concerned the Attorney-General was that he was not in possession of all the information necessary to understand the situation. Therefore I think the correct way to look at it is that it did lead to a misunderstanding; it was misunderstood.
Senator DURACK—You had Mr Hunt and another officer there. Do you know whether there was any discussion with them as to what the document meant?
Mr Barbour—I believe not.
Senator DURACK—And, of course, there was no discussion with you?
It is significant that that Select Committee had to rely, as late as August 8, on Barbour’s understanding of what had taken place in ASIO’s Canberra office when he was not present. Until then Murphy had not attempted to justify his visit there to him or to Colin Brown. But what is not in dispute is that the sole reason for ASIO’s Melbourne headquarters being raided was to obtain the original of Hunt’s memo, a copy of which Murphy had adventitiously sighted while in the Canberra office.
Hocking in her biography of Murphy laboured to produce the impression of a considered and rational, even laborious, preparation for those two ASIO “visits”. And this impression is fostered in her shorter narrative in this volume on Whitlam. Accounts I have received make nonsense of this. On the night of March 15, Murphy was aware, notice of motion having been given the previous day by Senator R.C. Wright, that the Senate would almost certainly disallow some Matrimonial Causes regulations which Murphy had proclaimed with great fanfare but which had been comprehensively attacked from all sides. Wright’s bellicose speech in support of this motion on the evening of March 15 was not likely to have steadied Murphy’s nerves. On March 29 the Senate voted for their disallowance 29–25. I learned from reliable reports that Murphy’s condition, with this expected reversal preying on his mind, moved swiftly from being “tired and emotional” to being thoroughly tanked. Indeed I would contend that Murphy’s erratic conduct over the next twenty-four hours can only be explained by his excessively intoxicated condition.
That friend of mine who informed me of ASIO’s briefing of Whitlam on Petrov gave me a droll account of what it was like showing up for work at ASIO’s Melbourne headquarters on the morning of March 16, 1973, only to find that about thirty Commonwealth policemen had taken charge of the place, had sealed all filing cabinets, and were directing ASIO staff, himself included, away from their desks to the auditorium. Barbour began his evidence to the Senate Select Committee first by recalling the events at ASIO’s Canberra office as reported to him and then the events in Melbourne as he himself had witnessed them.
The whole party began a tour of the building. The Attorney-General asked where the members of staff were and was told that they were assembled in the main conference room. I asked if he wished to address them and the whole party proceeded to the auditorium where the Attorney-General addressed the staff making no reference to the presence of police in the building or the reason for sealing the containers.
Murphy addressed the staff only at Barbour’s prompting and seemed rather unsure as to what he should say. A digest of the speech was presented to the Senate Select Committee. Murphy’s speech, which would have been two to three times longer than the digest—which was muddled enough—must have been even more rambling and confused and therefore all the more bewildering to his audience. And, as Barbour testified, he did not explain why so many Commonwealth Police were on the premises and had sealed all the filing cabinets. Nor did he explain why the police had herded ASIO staff into that auditorium. Perhaps he had no explanation!
The Director-General continued:
Then the Attorney-General asked to see the file registry. The police guard removed the seals from the main strong-room door and the combination lock was opened by a member of the registry staff. The Attorney-General produced a copy of a document taken earlier from the records of the Canberra office. He asked to see the original on the headquarters file. The file was eventually located in another safe in the area where the material was being collated for the Attorney-General’s report.
Murphy and Barbour had earlier discussed this projected ASIO report providing material for Murphy’s use; and its agreed deadline was set for 4 p.m. on the very day he raided ASIO! Barbour continued his evidence (with emphasis added):
The instructions were issued that the two safes which were required to be opened were to be opened only under the supervision of the police.
Once the file with the document was produced the Attorney-General gave his approval for the seals to be removed. When the action had been completed the Attorney-General authorized the local police to withdraw. They left the building at 11.30 a.m.
This is conclusive evidence, fully consistent with Whitlam’s and Murphy’s statements to Parliament and with other evidence, that Murphy’s raid on ASIO’s Melbourne headquarters had only one purpose—obtaining the original of Hunt’s internal memo. Explaining the raid’s purpose beyond this is both otiose and misleading.
After the police withdrew, Murphy had an extended meeting with Barbour and his senior officers at which the uncovered original copy of Hunt’s internal memo was discussed as well as material for Murphy’s forthcoming parliamentary statement, government policy, ASIO work in the Croatian field, and security for the Bijedić visit. This discussion revealed Murphy’s obsession that his statement to Parliament on Croatian terrorism should depart significantly from the previous government’s statements. Although in the course of this discussion Hunt’s internal memo seemed to recede in significance, what was said in reference to it must have been very confusing. Barbour acknowledged that Murphy did not show the original copy of the Hunt memo to him. Barbour later realised that, in the ensuing discussion of that interdepartmental committee, he was talking about a different one from the one being discussed. Barbour, assuming that they were discussing a co-ordinating unit he had previously mentioned, gave what he thought was its representation while unaware that the others were discussing that meeting on which Hunt had reported.
Mr Barbour— … So the answers which I gave at the time were not really relevant to the document in question. It sounds strange, but I did not have in front of me the document and nothing was quoted from it.
Senator DURACK—It does not surprise me that you might have been confused. What surprises me is that the document was not shown to you when you were asked to give an explanation of it.
Barbour, questioned further on Hunt’s internal memo, was very revealing:
Senator DURACK—Another thing that is very curious about this quotation, in the light of what the Attorney-General’s reaction was, is that as I read this it was the Department of Foreign Affairs and the Attorney-General’s Department who were suggesting that there should be some tailoring of advice—not the ASIO representative. Is that not what this minute says?
Mr Barbour—Yes, this is simply that ASIO man’s report—
Senator DURACK—Of what Foreign Affairs and the Attorney-General’s said, not what he said.
Senator DURACK—Well why should that lead to a raid on ASIO, because the Foreign Affairs and Attorney-General’s were conspiring together?
Senator JAMES McCLELLAND—Get the original document.
Senator DURACK—But this—is it a typed document?
Senator DURACK—How is the original document going to add anything?
How indeed! Not one of the senators on that Select Committee quibbled over the implications of Senator Durack’s last question, not even the Labor Senator James McClelland who was brazenly representing Murphy’s interests. But should not Murphy have realised this when he was inspecting the typewritten copy of that report while he was at ASIO’s Canberra office? Yet he staged a highly publicised raid on Melbourne’s headquarters for no other reason than to obtain the original, which could have added nothing to his knowledge or understanding! This farcical situation must have dawned on Murphy at ASIO’s Melbourne headquarters while his alcoholic haze was lifting ever so fitfully. It would explain his tetchiness when conferring later that day with Barbour and his senior colleagues. Murphy in his alcoholic slough-of-despond must have concluded that his elaborately staged raid had been from start to finish a fool’s errand in a class of its own.
Hocking’s claim that the raid on ASIO’s Melbourne headquarters was “the assertion of ministerial control over a recalcitrant and politicized security service” cannot be squared with the fact that Murphy did not acquaint the Director-General himself with this justification at any stage during the raid itself. After Murphy and his party finally took their leave of ASIO’s headquarters, Barbour’s senior officers confronted him and demanded an explanation of the extraordinary events they had witnessed in the past few hours. The Director-General was reduced to making the humiliating admission that there was no explanation he could offer them because the Attorney-General himself had until then omitted to favour him with one.
Barbour subsequently made a formal complaint to the Prime Minister. This was recorded in a telex he sent to ASIO’s branch offices which became public knowledge. With the word “Complaint” used as a subheading, this telex recorded:
The Director-General saw the Prime Minister personally, gave him the full details of the actions of the police and told the Prime Minister that he regarded them as unprecedented, extraordinary and gravely damaging to the national security interest.
Whitlam apparently was not at all disturbed by Barbour’s complaint. Hocking has acknowledged that Whitlam in an interview on June 2 conceded that the raid was “unquestionably” the greatest political embarrassment of his government’s first six months in office. But this expression of regret was confined to the purely political fallout from the raid and did not relate to any “gravely damaging” effects it might have had on “the national security interest”. Hocking in her biography of Murphy correctly recorded that Senator Greenwood had been singled out for attack in Murphy’s statement on Croatian terrorism of March 27 but she did not even acknowledge that Greenwood had replied to that statement and in such devastating terms that Opposition senators thereafter felt that they had Murphy on the run. In the book under review Greenwood is not even mentioned in that context.
Hocking takes a critical line on Murphy’s censure by the Senate and on the subsequent appointment of that Senate Select Committee, but she did not record that the Senate on April 12 carried a resolution calling for the appointment of a three-man judicial inquiry into Murphy’s raid and associated matters. The Senate embarked on the appointment of that Select Committee only after the government refused to appoint that judicial inquiry. While she acknowledges Senator Gair’s role on May 10 in first moving for the appointment of that Select Committee and Murphy’s retaliation in securing its defeat by calling off all pairs, her discussion ends at that point. She makes no reference to proceedings on May 17 when the Opposition Leader, Senator Reg Withers, moved a series of ten complicated procedural motions necessary for the original resolution to be considered and then carried. And she has ignored, or been unaware of, what was revealed in those committee hearings. The Select Committee had not produced a report when Whitlam obtained a double dissolution in April 1974, and the Senate numbers in the new Parliament prevented its reconstitution. This outcome must have delighted Whitlam, who had never bothered to conceal his hostility to the committee.
A great deal of material rehearsed before that Select Committee which proved so damaging to the government’s case did not filter through to the Australian public. One question the evidence raised was the extent to which Murphy at first must have misled Whitlam as to the purpose of the raid and as to what it revealed. If he had given Whitlam a truthful account, would he have felt free to make that extraordinary statement in the hearing of Bijedić as quoted by Hocking? In his anticlimactic reply to a parliamentary question on April 5 where he quoted from Ron Hunt’s memo, Whitlam acknowledged that it had been the subject of inquiries by his departmental head, Sir John Bunting, and by the heads of those departments represented at that meeting. What those inquiries revealed made nonsense of Whitlam’s speech when fêting Bijedić.
The fiasco of the Murphy raid on ASIO, however, did attract the attention of a wider public and that hostile criticism which Whitlam found so disturbing. Less obvious to that public was the reaction overseas. As Harvey Barnett, ASIO’s Director-General from 1981 to 1985, observed:
The “Murphy raid” … sent shockwaves round Australia and the western world. For a cabinet minister to intrude in such an undisciplined and peremptory way into the sensitive centre of a nation’s security organization—even though he was the minister responsible—caused grave concern at home and abroad. Many thought the Westminster system was at risk and wondered if they were witnessing the emergence of a new and draconian political order of the left in Australia. (Usually the first reaction radical political régimes take in any sort of coup d’état situation is to make a grab for the records of the security service.) … Australia’s overseas allies were aghast and concerned—not only by the fact of the raid itself, but also because it was not [immediately] condemned by the Prime Minister as an aberration. They wondered who, if anyone, was exercising central control and political discipline in Australia.
[Squared parenthesis added]
And would those “aghast and concerned” allies have been mollified by any subsequent intelligence that the minister in question had raided ASIO as a rampaging drunk with no discernible purpose which he could plausibly justify?
I shall quote one portion of Greenwood’s speech on April 4 because it so effectively demolished the Whitlam government’s (and Hocking’s) propaganda:
Senator Murphy claims that there is overwhelming evidence, incontestable evidence, of his allegation of terrorist organizations in this country. There are laws—in the Commonwealth Crimes Act—under which he can prosecute persons and apply to the courts to declare such organizations to be unlawful. Persons who cause death, injury and terror by exploding bombs are terrorists and liable to the full rigours of our criminal law. It is not only persons who commit the crimes but persons who conspire to commit crimes and who attempt to commit crimes who can be prosecuted. The laws exist, the offences exist, the determination to stamp out terrorism is asserted—and yet there are no applications to the courts. It is inconceivable that if there is evidence of organized terrorism there should be no prosecutions. And naturally what we are concerned about are not prosecutions of individuals following police raids and arrests since the Attorney-General made his statement last week. We are concerned to challenge and deny the Attorney-General’s assertions that last year the evidence was available in abundance to support prosecutions. Why, if the evidence is there, have there been no prosecutions? No reason is given. The fact is—it must be—that there is no evidence which would enable prosecutions. There is no credible evidence to support the allegations. This is what the Commonwealth Police, the Australian Security Intelligence Organization and the Attorney-General’s Department of the Commonwealth confirmed to me and what the documents the Attorney-General concealed and the facts he withheld plainly disclose.
Denis Strangman, in a chapter on the Croatian issue he contributed to a book on the Whitlam government’s record, remarked on the results of the pre-dawn and dawn raids on April 1 on fifty-eight (others have claimed sixty-eight) Croatian homes in Sydney by 260 Commonwealth and New South Wales police:
Very few charges, and even fewer convictions resulted from the April raids and they were not related to organized terrorism. One man was charged with being under the influence at the time the police raided his house.
Those Commonwealth Police present in the Attorney-General’s Senate suite on the night of March 15 could have saved the Whitlam government a great deal of embarrassment if they had sequestered Murphy there on that same pretext.
I now refer to Whitlam’s successful translation of Murphy to a High Court vacancy on February 9, 1975—an appointment so mired in cynicism that it still rankles with me as an irredeemable disgrace. Hocking’s backgrounding of this appointment in her biographies of Murphy and of Whitlam is a concoction so saccharine as to amount to a confection. It departs significantly from Whitlam’s own account in his 1985 apologia which, while economical with the truth, was accurate enough respecting his timing of his offer of that appointment to Murphy:
In the second week of February, the Parliament and the High Court were due to resume their sittings. Just before the resumption, I spoke to Murphy in [Jim] Cairns’ presence and urged him to take the appointment forthwith. He agreed, and the Cabinet, with the recorded opposition of [Tom] Uren, concurred.
This High Court vacancy occurred on November 29, 1974, when Sir Douglas Menzies collapsed and died at a Bar dinner in Phillip Street, Sydney. Hocking claims that Whitlam immediately urged Murphy to fill the vacancy and he continued to press this proposed appointment on an indecisive Murphy while they both successfully maintained close secrecy until the cabinet confirmed it more than two months later. According to Hocking, Murphy finally yielded in good time for Whitlam to inform some of the party’s leading lights of his acceptance at the National Conference which opened in Terrigal on February 3.
All this conflicts not only with Whitlam’s bare account as quoted above but with my own certain knowledge. Far from immediately settling on Murphy as Sir Douglas Menzies’s replacement, Whitlam was reliably reported to me as having advised Justice R.M. Hope of the New South Wales Supreme Court to be prepared for that appointment. Murphy had also advised Mr M.H. (later Sir Maurice) Byers QC, Solicitor-General since 1973, to the same effect. According to one account Murphy did this on the Friday before his own appointment to the vacancy was announced the following Sunday evening. Senator John Button had quietly urged the claims of Richard McGarvie QC of the Victorian Bar—an appointment so confidently expected by many of its leaders that they were already poised to congratulate him. Murphy’s appointment was therefore all the more shocking and unpalatable to them, for his unsavoury reputation alone should have guaranteed his exclusion from judicial office of any kind.
Prominent leaders of the Sydney Bar raised Murphy’s possible appointment to the High Court with Whitlam when he first became Prime Minister. Their outspoken concern, so I was informed, prompted him to assure them that such an appointment was not even contemplated. The Chief Justice, Sir Garfield Barwick, was also similarly assured and felt betrayed when Whitlam alerted him to it prior to its announcement. Barwick’s incontrovertible retort was that Murphy was neither suitable nor qualified for the position. And Sir John Kerr told me of the concern he expressed to Whitlam at being involved in such an appointment as Governor-General—his concern being based on his observations while a leader of the Bar and on the Bench. Whitlam’s disclaiming assurance was very revealing: that that would be one Executive Council Minute he would never be required to sign. This was an oblique reference to that Minute of December 13, 1974, authorising a US$4000 million loan for “temporary purposes”. Sir John did not sign that Minute “without hesitation or objection”, as Hocking claims, but questioned its legality in consulting the Solicitor-General who claimed that Murphy’s kerbside opinion that the loan could be for “temporary purposes” was arguable. Sir John also mentioned to me that Whitlam’s submission to him of Murphy’s High Court appointment was the one occasion he could recall when he seemed totally at a loss for words. On regaining his composure, Whitlam invoked Murphy’s success in getting his Family Law Bill through the Senate as a sufficient justification. At other times Whitlam would throw in Murphy’s success in getting the Senate to pass his restrictive trade practices legislation. Such a justification was utterly spurious.
The truth is that Whitlam and Murphy felt forced to change their respective positions on this vacancy when the media publicised Murphy’s involvement in yet another controversy, and his fitness for public office of any kind was questioned yet again. Senator Greenwood crowed that he had a case full of questions to put to Murphy on this very subject; and the cabinet, knowing that this was no idle boast, moved to place Murphy beyond any such probing by rushing his High Court appointment through just before Parliament resumed. I was informed by a member of that cabinet that he and his colleagues were petrified at the very prospect of Murphy facing the Senate the following week. Consequently when Whitlam strode into the cabinet room and proposed, in effect, that a High Court vacancy be exploited as a convenient bolt-hole for a very gravely compromised and even corrupted colleague, almost all ministers assented without hesitation. So relieved were they at this turn of events that they were raised from the very depths of depression to soar on clouds of Johnsonian euphoria.
Only one minister reportedly questioned Murphy’s ability and fitness for the position, but sadly this well-founded concern left his colleagues unmoved. Whitlam, in glossing over his own approach to the appointment in his apologia, artlessly acknowledged that Tom Uren alone urged that his opposition be recorded in the cabinet minutes, but then omitted to give Uren’s reasons. Uren explained to the cabinet that Murphy’s Senate vacancy would require the contesting of six, not five, New South Wales seats at the next half-Senate election with three seats going to the ALP and three to the Coalition parties. The government would then be restored to its even more beleaguered position before the 1974 double dissolution. Uren’s cabinet colleagues, and especially Whitlam, in ignoring his unchallenged analysis underscored their determination to be rid of Murphy at all costs.
I cannot elaborate on why the shadow cabinet pulled in their horns on this issue despite Greenwood’s keenness to make the most of it. W.C. (Bill) Wentworth, Liberal MP for Mackellar, was under no such constraint. His very detailed contributions in speaking in the House of Representatives on this matter are worth consulting. He also raised the very matter which had exercised Tom Uren. When Wentworth claimed that “Murphy has beaten the rap” he came into conflict with the Speaker, and Fred Daly as Leader of the House successfully “gagged” him. But in a later speech he was able to claim, “I think Mr Murphy resigned in order to beat the rap. I believe that he resigned because he hopes to have in the High Court a refuge from investigation into his prior misdeeds.” I daresay Murphy’s erstwhile colleagues in the cabinet hoped against hope that once on the High Court Murphy would abandon the habits of a lifetime and comport himself on and off the Bench in a manner befitting a judge. Some hope! Less than ten years later he became embroiled in another scandal but by then he was the Hawke government’s problem.
This sorry saga recalls Kim Beazley the Elder’s taunt at Whitlam, “Gough, I have no fear of anything except your masterstrokes: they never work.”
Part II of this article will be published next month. John Paul derived a great deal of benefit in completing this review article from research he has conducted for a work-in-progress on the 1975 crisis and much else.