Anniversaries are invariably accompanied by a degree of overstatement, sometimes hyperbole. As so it has come to pass in the lead-up to the 40th anniversary next Wednesday of the dismissal of the Labor government by governor-general John Kerr.
On November 11, 1975, Kerr sacked Gough Whitlam as prime minister and appointed opposition leader Malcolm Fraser as caretaker prime minister pending a double-dissolution election set down for December 13, 1975.
The anniversary has led to the publication of two new books. The first, by left-wing historian and Whitlam biographer Jenny Hocking, is titled The Dismissal Dossier: Everything You Were Never Meant to Know about November 1975 (MUP). At less than 100 pages, this is more like a pamphlet and projects the anger frequently found in this printing genre.
Next week The Dismissal: In the Queen’s Name (Penguin) by The Australian’s Paul Kelly and Troy Bramston will be launched. This is a well-written, detailed and considered history that contains 60 pages of documents — primarily from the papers of Kerr, Whitlam and Fraser. Hocking’s book has a foreword by writer Anna Funder who describes the events of November 1975 as a “constitutional horror story”. She names the Queen, Garfield Barwick (then chief justice of the High Court), Anthony Mason (then a High Court judge) and Fraser as acting in concert “to oust a democratically elected government”.
In fact, the Queen was not involved. The book ends in exaggeration with Hocking supporting the view of left-wing journalist Mungo MacCallum that Kerr’s action was “a reassertion of the divine right of kings”.
The book by Kelly and Bramston is much more nuanced. Yet it contains a degree of overstatement. The authors assert that “the dismissal sits on our historical landscape like a gigantic yet unexplained volcano; it is too big to forget but too lethal for a settlement”.
I have never held to the assessment, delivered with differing degrees of intensity recently by the likes of Funder, Hocking, MacCallum, Kelly and Bramston.
When the dismissal took place, I was an academic in the politics department at La Trobe University in Melbourne. My friend and colleague Hugo Wolfsohn and I were among the few on campus who were not members of the “Shame, Fraser, Shame” set or the Gough Whitlam fan club.
Shortly before the election, Wolfsohn wrote a letter to The Age that he co-signed with his friend Rufus Davis, professor of politics at Monash University. This is quoted at length in my essay in Sybil Nolan’s 2005 edited collection The Dismissal: Where Were You on November 11, 1975? (MUP), which has been republished as an e-book.
Wolfsohn and Davis were Jewish Australians of European background. Not surprisingly, they took exception to the comparisons that then were being made by academics to Nazi Germany and the 1975 coup against Chile’s leader Salvador Allende.
The Wolfsohn-Davis position was that “Australian democracy is neither in crisis nor has it come to an end”. They added that “coups d’etat are not usually followed by elections”.
The Coalition, led by Fraser, won the 1975 election in a landslide and repeated the result two years later. However, it lost seats in the 1980 election and was comprehensively defeated by Labor, under Bob Hawke’s leadership, in March 1983. In other words, the normal Australian electoral cycle returned. As Kelly-Bramston acknowledge, “predictions that the crisis would permanently undermine our democracy have proven unfounded”.
Despite the title, there is not much new in Hocking’s book. In The Dismissal Dossierand her earlier book Gough Whitlam: His Time (MUP, 2012), Hocking claims to have broken the story that Mason advised Kerr concerning the dismissal. However, as Kelly and Bramston document, Barwick told this to ABC interviewer Bruce Donald in early January 1994. After this, I felt free to reveal what Kerr had told me about Mason’s role — which I did in a newspaper column in late January 1994.
In other words, Mason’s involvement has been known for over two decades. Certainly, Hocking, Kelly and Bramston have added important details about Mason’s activities. But this is no scoop.
Both new books do reveal details of interviews that Fraser and Reg Withers (leader of the opposition in the Senate before the Dismissal) told one-time Labor politician Clyde Cameron in 1987 and 1997-98 respectively.
Fraser also authored a statutory declaration in 2006. This material suggests that Kerr gave Fraser three hours’ warning of his intention to dismiss Whitlam. Kerr’s position was always that Fraser confused a morning phone conversation with a 1.15pm meeting.
To accept the conclusions of Hocking, Kelly and Bramston you have to take for granted the accuracy of memories recalled by Fraser and Withers well after the event, which neither man was willing to discuss during their lifetimes. Moreover, as acknowledged in his memoirs, Fraser had a “notoriously fallible” memory and he is known to have consciously lied on occasions.
The “big story” of the recent books on November 1975 can be found in The Dismissal: In the Queen’s Name. Authors Kelly and Bramston have obtained a copy of the document written by Paul Hasluck, Kerr’s predecessor, about his 1977 conversation with Martin Charteris, then the Queen’s private secretary.
Hasluck’s note reveals that, according to Charteris, Buckingham Palace was not happy with the way Kerr acted on November 11, 1975. This, no doubt, is true. But, then, the Queen was in her palace in London. Meanwhile Kerr had to resolve a conflict between the arrogant and stubborn Fraser (who was blocking the supply of funds to government) and the arrogant and stubborn Whitlam (who wanted to govern without supply or agreeing to an early election).
I have a copy of the Hasluck document. It also reveals that the former governor-general believed Kerr “had the power to act as he did and the success of his action was final proof of the fact”.
This is consistent with the considered position of Wolfsohn and Davis who, at the time, described the events of November 1975 as “a temporary technical difficulty in the working of our parliamentary system”. No more, no less. Despite the continuing excitement.