THE death of former prime minister Gough Whitlam now leaves one survivor from what has been depicted as the major constitutional crisis of 20th-century Australia. Namely, one-time opposition leader Malcolm Fraser, who became caretaker prime minister on November 11, 1975, after Whitlam was dismissed by governor-general John Kerr.
Kerr died in March 1991. However, Fraser (born 1930) is very much alive in his new persona as a hero of the inner-city, anti-American green-Left.
The myths about the dismissal still prevail almost four decades after the event. Last Monday, on the eve of Whitlam’s death, New York-based Australian writer Peter Carey received a soft interview on the ABC’s 7.30. Presenter Leigh Sales said nothing when Carey declared that, in November 1975, the US government “destabilised and helped overthrow our elected government”.
In another soft interview on ABC radio 702 the following day, Carey told Richard Glover that Kerr brought down Whitlam “illegally”.
Carey’s conspiracy theory about the US, the CIA and the dismissal is precisely that: a conspiracy theory. There is no evidence of any kind that any arm of the US government had any influence on the governor-general in the lead-up to November 11, 1975. Kerr denied it. And even Whitlam dismissed the conspiracy.
What happened in 1975 reflected what had occurred the previous year, albeit with a different outcome.
Whitlam achieved a narrow victory in December 1972 in terms of seats won in the House of Representatives. Moreover, Labor did not achieve a majority in the Senate. In early 1974 the opposition, then led by Billy Snedden, threatened to block supply. Believing that he would defeat Snedden, Whitlam went to governor-general Paul Hasluck and achieved a double-dissolution election.
On May 18, 1974, Whitlam defeated Snedden, but Labor still failed to achieve an absolute majority in the Senate. In August 1974, the Whitlam government brought down a hopeless budget and the Labor administration began to fall apart. Even so, the lightweight Snedden could not make an impact. He was replaced as Liberal Party leader by the able and tough-minded Fraser in March 1975.
After the disaster of what was called the loans affair, where various Labor ministers sought to raise finance overseas by unorthodox means, the opposition blocked supply in the Senate. However, this time Whitlam took a different approach. When there was a threat of blocking supply in early 1974, Whitlam went to an election. But by late 1975 Whitlam knew he could not defeat Fraser. So he refused to call an election for the House of Representatives.
This is the situation that Kerr faced in late 1975. The strong and arrogant Fraser was insistent on blocking supply — and he had the numbers in the Senate to do so. But the strong and arrogant Whitlam was insistent on governing without supply and he had the numbers in the house. Meanwhile, there were not enough funds available to finance the administration of government, including the pay of public servants, beyond the end of the calendar year.
It fell to Kerr to resolve the constitutional deadlock that had been sparked by Fraser and joined by Whitlam. When Whitlam refused to advise an election, Kerr dismissed him and appointed Fraser caretaker prime minister, provided he signed a commitment to advise an election — which he did.
At the double-dissolution election on December 13, 1975, the Coalition won one of the biggest votes in modern Australian history. Fraser achieved another huge victory over Whitlam in December 1977, after which Whitlam stepped down. The electorate had spoken. Twice. There was no “coup” — as Kerr’s left-wing opponents alleged then and later.
There was nothing illegal or unconstitutional about Kerr’s actions. It had always been accepted that an opposition had the power to block supply in the Senate and that in such a situation the incumbent government would have to go to an election.
As David Smith has documented in his book Head of State (Macleay Press, 2005), in June 1970 Whitlam himself said that a government defeated in the Senate on a major financial bill should resign and go to an election. Labor’s legal affairs spokesman Lionel Murphy made similar statements at the time.
Numerous senior legal figures have acknowledged that Kerr’s action in November 1975 was constitutional and in no sense illegal.
This was the position, among others, of Garfield Barwick, Harry Gibbs, Anthony Mason and Murray Gleeson. All four have held the position of High Court chief justice. Mason’s role in advising Kerr in the lead-up to the dismissal has been a matter of some controversy since I revealed it in January 1994. Jenny Hocking provides more details in her book Gough Whitlam: His Time (MUP, 2012).
Yet this does not affect the validity of Mason’s judgment as to the constitutionality of what Kerr did. In a 1993 speech, Whitlam declared that for the first time in his own “lifetime the High Court has in Sir Anthony Mason a chief justice who is adequate in both national and international terms”.
In 1975, Mason believed that the governor-general had the right to resolve a deadlock between the Senate and the House of Representatives when supply was about to run out.
I had numerous conversations with Kerr in the final years of his life. The former governor-general understood Whitlam’s position, even though he disagreed with it. However, Kerr came to resent Fraser. Put simply, Kerr believed that it was Fraser who initiated the constitutional crisis by blocking supply and then attempted to distance himself from the consequences of his own actions.
In time, Fraser was forgiven by the “Shame Fraser, shame” left-wing cheer squad. As pointed out in the error-filled Malcolm Fraser: The Political Memoirs, which the former prime minister co-wrote with Margaret Simons, these days Fraser is “applauded” at “literary festivals” by “the same kinds of people who had once reviled him for his role in the dismissal of Whitlam”. How nice.
What’s more, the dismissal ensured Whitlam’s status as a living legend, destined to become a deceased legend. That’s why Whitlam’s excesses were all but eviscerated this week. The disaster that was the Whitlam government’s economic policy has been documented by former Labor staffer John O’Mahony in the Troy Bramston-edited collection The Whitlam Legacy and by former Coalition staffer John Kunkel in the December 2004 issue of The Sydney Institute Quarterly.
Since Tuesday, however, the message has been: “Don’t talk about Whitlam’s economics.”
This week almost no one mentioned the Whitlam government’s secretive decision in July 1974 to recognise the incorporation of the Baltic states (Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania) by the Soviet Union. This effectively endorsed the notorious Nazi-Soviet pact of 1939. Moreover, there was virtual silence about Whitlam’s hostility to Vietnamese refugees — including his infamous April 1975 statement, as revealed by Labor colleague Clyde Cameron, that he was “not having hundreds of f..king Vietnamese Balts coming to this country”.
Fraser and Whitlam were responsible for the constitutional crisis in November. But Kerr, who did his duty, copped virtually all the blame. Such is life, as the saying goes.