The silliest public comment on the recent 30th anniversary of the Dismissal of the Whitlam government came from former prime minister Paul Keating, who, launching a re-issue of the book on the affair by Michael Sexton (The Great Crash, Scribe), announced that what he would have done then, and would have done when Prime Minister if a similar situation had arisen, was to place the Governor General under house arrest to prevent him dismissing the PM so that there would have been an election with the PM going to the people as the incumbent. The first extraordinary aspect of this proposition is that it displays the former PM’s total contempt for constitutional forms – he in effect was saying that he would have perpetrated a coup d’etat. How this would have enhanced Labor’s prospects in a subsequent general election is unclear – there is little doubt that there would be a strong public revulsion against such an action.
Moreover it was and is still the case that constitutionally the armed forces are under the command of the Governor General. While it is normally assumed that, the Governor General being subject to the advice of his ministers, the practical top command of the armed forces is in the hands of the Minister of Defence of the day, the ADF nevertheless would have been astonished, and deeply riven, on receiving an order to place its nominal commander-in-chief under house arrest at a time when he was fulfilling his normal duties routinely and competently. What would the aide-de-camps have done? And if instead the house arrest was to have been effected by the Commonwealth Police (as it then was) how would the conflict of the roles of the two groups have been resolved? At what point would the Governor General have been released from house arrest? What would the Queen have been saying (privately, of course) about all this? Presumably Keating thinks that a Labor victory at the election would lead to the GG’s release immediately after, no doubt to resume his normal constitutional functions as if nothing had happened. Or on the new government’s request to the Queen his commission would have been quietly withdrawn and a successor appointed, if one could be found prepared to step in in these unusual circumstances. The consequences of the coup d’etat would not simply disappear without trace.
A Labor defeat, presuming that it was quietly accepted by a party already operating illegally, would lead to the release of the Governor General so that he might commission the victorious leader (Malcolm Fraser) as Prime Minister. In that case his first appropriate act would have to be to place the Labor leader, Gough Whitlam, under arrest and charge him with the appropriate offence – perhaps treason. All this is, thank goodness, simply fantasy – but it indicates the kind of chaos which would ensue from the Keating course of action. Fortunately Whitlam was with all his faults deeply steeped in democratic practice and fully aware of the importance of legality, so there was not the slightest suggestion that anything like this could have happened.
The second feature of the proposition is the assumption that Whitlam would have wanted to have a general election. But the whole point of Sir John Kerr’s action was that Whitlam was refusing to accept the need for a general election, despite the fact that he could not obtain Supply. The latest description of exactly what was going on at the time is in the account by Sir David Smith, Official Secretary at the time to Sir John Kerr (and to four other Governors General, Paul Hasluck, Zelman Cowen), Ninian Stephen and Bill Hayden), Head of State (Macleay Press, 2005). It is clear that Whitlam when he went to Government House in the morning of the fateful day had already conveyed a letter in which he was requesting a half-Senate election which, if granted, would not have resolved the crisis unless for some as yet unrevealed reason Fraser had decided to back down. In the circumstances Kerr felt that he had no choice but to step in and resolve the crisis. The absurdity of Keating’s notion is Kerr was quite willing to allow Whitlam to go to the country in a general election as prime minister – it was Whitlam who was resisting this. In the event, it was Whitlam’s fault that this was not what happened.
So what we are really dealing with is a typical piece of half-baked bluster from the last Labor prime minister. No wonder his saner colleagues do not want him back on the stage. But of course Keating was understandingly embittered at being deprived of his first taste of ministerial office after only three weeks.
There were many other embittered Laborites after the Dismissal and the subsequent electoral rout of the Labor Party. None less than Gough Whitlam himself. But how justified is Whitlam in his bitterness? Of course it is in his interest to continue to misrepresent exactly what happened, and to pretend, for example, that Kerr deliberately misled him. In this he is encouraged by the mythology which has grown up around the events, and by the errors, or outright lies, which were told by a number of the journalists who wrote about the events at the time and whose versions continue to be retailed by those who do not really want to reassess what actually happened. There is an audience for this wilful misreading of history. Amongst the spate of books issuing from or reissued by publishers in connection with the 30th anniversary there is for example a reissue of Whitlam’s polemical account, The Truth of the Matter. But no one has chosen to reissue Kerr’s own account of the events.
The only corrective is Smith’s book which has received little or no notice. Notable is his penultimate chapter in which he lists some of the lies or inventions of contemporary reporters. Whitlam and his acolytes have largely succeeded in perpetuating the myth that Kerr was smelling of whisky when he met Whitlam on the fateful morning; Smith, the only other person in a position to know, flatly denies this. This is part of the character assassination which has pursued Kerr ever since, even after his death. Whitlam in particular has extended this even to Kerr’s wife, whom he delicately refers to as “Fancy Nancy”. It is worth remembering that prior to all this both Whitlam and “Diamond Jim” McLelland, during his lifetime another of those who systematically blackened Kerr’s character, were both close friends and collaborators of Kerr’s up to this point. It speaks little for their own judgement and characters that this was so if everything they subsequently said about him was truthful. But it is true that Kerr did not greatly assist his own cause by some of his subsequent behaviour, in particular his public drunkenness at the next Melbourne Cup.
The main mystery which still surrounds the Dismissal concerns Whitlam’s behaviour immediately after he was presented with the formal notification of it at the morning meeting. What did he do? He went straight back to the Lodge for a substantial lunch – without notifying any of his close colleagues in Cabinet. By the time the Leader of the Senate was even told about the turn in events it was too late – the Budget had been passed by the unsuspecting Labor senators as a result of an apparent volte face by the Opposition. Supply was thus guaranteed to Fraser for at least the duration of the election campaign. The best explanation Whitlam has ever produced for his strange behaviour was the facetious comment that he could not act on an empty stomach – as if his office could not have supplied him with sandwiches at Parliament House. It is undoubtedly better that things should have happened this way, since there would have been chaos otherwise in the leadup to the election campaign. Overall, in fact, Whitlam went extremely quietly despite his grandiloquent words that afternoon on the steps of the Parliament.
There is only one comparison to be made with these events in previous 20th century political history. That is the dismissal from office of Jack Lang, the Labor Premier of NSW, by the then Governor of the State, Sir Philip Game on 13 May, 1932. Although efforts were made to erect a mythology around this event similar to that surrounding Whitlam’s dismissal, the central mystery of the event was rather similar. Lang went quietly and virtually without protest after the Governor had made strenuous efforts to avoid having to dismiss him. It seems clear in retrospect that Lang had found the situation simply beyond him and welcomed his dismissal with relief – much as Whitlam received his; no effort was made to avoid it and to fight back immediately. Whitlam, with the historical precedent undoubtedly in mind – he had certainly read H.V.Evatt’s book The King and His Dominion Governors (1936), which established conclusively both the reality of the reserve powers of the Crown and the complete constitutionality of Game’s actions – then set about creating his own myth, with a great deal of success. In the process Kerr was unfairly pilloried, and the obloquy even extended to David Smith who throughout the affair was simply acting according to his duty and that of any proper public servant. It took Smith the best part of the next thirty years to begin publicly expressing his anger at this and at the misrepresentation of his own role. But it seems clear that both Lang and Whitlam, rather than accept the implications of their own actions, preferred to devolve the decision as to their futures and to place the blame for their own mistakes and failures on the shoulders of the nominal head of the executive and anyone else who could be blamed. Smith’s book really represents the final and authoritative version of what actually happened in the case of the Whitlam dismissal.
At least in all this only a few academics and others with only a tenuous grasp on political reality still peddle the nonsense about the supposed role of the CIA in the whole matter. No doubt the CIA was an interested observer, and probably quite pleased at the outcome – but there is not a skerrick of evidence as to any actual involvement, direct or indirect. It only survives even amongst journalists in the writings of such unreliable fantasists as John Pilger, none of whose views on Australia are worth considering. Nevertheless it is disturbing that many people went through school or university being taught that this was the key to the whole affair. To Whitlam’s credit it has to be said that he has never encouraged this particular myth.
For the rest it has to be said that for most sane human beings, however they are committed politically, the passions of the Dismissal are all spent. The Labor leadership and even prominent figures on the Left, like Melbourne MP Lindsay Tanner, while paying lipservice to the mythology, realise that it is of no contemporary relevance. Only the silly republicans still are influenced by it. Serious republicans have long since set aside the Dismissal as irrelevant to any current political issues. All that remains is the fairly jejune debate as to whether the Governor General is the de jure, as well as the de facto, Australian head of state – the stupid republicans are still hiding their real intentions by talk about the need for an Australian head of state. Whether the head of state is to be called governor general or president has nothing to do with whether we maintain or sever all connection with the British crown. There is in fact absolutely no reason in principle why we should not simply rename the governor general the president, and forget about the rest. We already have what has been felicitously termed a “crowned republic”. Like many of the more lasting but absurd debates in the Labor Party, like anti-conscription, it is merely a hangover of ancient Irish Catholic hatreds of Britain. It was this, not his so-called “ratting”, which forced Labor’s best early prime minister, Billy Hughes, out of the Labor Party. Certainly Hughes, like his predecessor Andrew Fisher, who unhesitatingly committed Australia to Britain’s cause in the First World War “to the last man and the last shilling”, was acting in what he saw as Australia’s national interest; as he did in the postwar negotiations when he put Australia unmistakably on the map as an independent regional power. This the Irish republicans could have never done.
Thus the Dismissal is no longer of any significance in contemporary politics. It was a conclusion to one of the darkest chapters in the history of the Australian Labor Party, the shambles of the last year of the Whitlam government. Bob Hawke understood this lesson (although in an attempt to retain his place in the pantheon of Labor, created by the intellectual mediocrities of the Left, he sometimes pretends otherwise) and made sure that he repeated none of Whitlam’s mistakes while in office. But Paul Keating, one of the Bourbons of the Labor Party, learned nothing from them.
All that remains to come is the orgy of emotion which will take place at Whitlam’s State funeral, and we will be able to bury the whole debate and leave all the books and supposedly learned articles generated by it to the “gnawing criticism of the mice”.
Padraic P. McGuinness, a former Quadrant editor, was a leading commentator and columnist with the Sydney Morning Herald. He passed away in 2008.