You have to admire the sassy and media savvy Louise Adler, the managing director of Melbourne University Press. Since Saturday the print and electronic media have given a huge amount of publicity to Jenny Hocking”s Gough Whitlam: His Time, which is published under MUP”s The Miegunyah Press imprint.
The big story in the second volume of Hocking”s Whitlam biography turns on the revelation that Sir Anthony Mason was “the third man” involved in the dismissal of the Whitlam Labor government on November 11, 1975. The other two were the governor-general, Sir John Kerr, and Sir Garfield Barwick, the chief justice of the High Court, who provided advice to Kerr. At the time, Mason was a member of the High Court.
In his autobiography Matters for Judgment (1978), Kerr referred to “one person” other than Barwick with whom he had discussed dismissing Whitlam before the event. Kerr did not name the individual.
Mason”s role as the third man in the dismissal was revealed nearly two decades ago. Interviewed by Bruce Donald on ABC TV in early January 1994, Barwick declared that Mason had spoken to Kerr about the dismissal before it took place. This freed me to reveal that Kerr had told me this in the late 1980s and that Barwick had confirmed this in an interview which I conducted with him in May 1990.
My revelation that Mason was the third man in the dismissal was published in the Herald on January 8, 1994 and received wide coverage. Before submitting the piece, I wrote to Mason advising what I proposed to do. His office acknowledged receipt of my letter and expressed thanks for giving advanced warning. Later I corresponded with Whitlam about this.
Kerr told me that he had kept extensive notes of the events leading up to November 11, 1975, which would be released some time after his death. He also showed me copies of briefing material which he had sent to the Queen, in her capacity as Australia”s head of state. Kerr did not expect that this material would be released.
In his memoirs Kerr wrote that his conversations with the unnamed person “did not include advice” as to how he should act. But they did sustain Kerr in his thinking – particularly since the person concerned “was not and has never been engaged in politics”. Kerr was conscious that Barwick had been a senior member of the Coalition government in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
In yesterday”s Herald, Mason provided his first account of the events of almost four decades ago. It is remarkably consistent with Kerr”s account in his memoirs and in his private papers, to which Hocking obtained access in the National Library of Australia. With one exception.
Mason recalls that he told Kerr he should warn Whitlam of his intentions. Kerr never said this to me and Hocking has found no such recollection in Kerr”s papers. Since Kerr died in 1991, his attitude on this matter will never be heard.
What is important in Mason”s account turns on the fact that he supports the view that Kerr had the constitutional authority to dismiss Whitlam. In a speech at Melbourne University in July 2001, Whitlam declared: “For the first time in my lifetime the High Court has in Anthony Mason a chief justice who is adequate both in national and international terms.” In the same address, Whitlam accused Kerr and Barwick of participating in a “coup d”etat”.
Hocking is the Left”s bespoke biographer who has published adoring accounts of such left-wing identities as author Frank Hardy, politician and judge Lionel Murphy and Whitlam. In a number of soft ABC interviews yesterday, Hocking described Kerr as a “weak man” with “an animated concern for his own position”. The latter reference was a comment on Kerr”s expressed concern that, if he gave warning that he intended to dismiss Whitlam for attempting to govern without supply (i.e. money), Whitlam would have advised the Queen to sack him first.
This was not a question of self-preservation. In his conversations with me, Kerr made it very clear that he was desperate not to involve Buckingham Palace in an Australian political dispute. There is little doubt that Whitlam would have moved against Kerr if he had been consulted by Kerr along the lines Mason suggests. In the climate of 1975, this would have caused a constitutional crisis and possible political disorder.
Hocking”s attacks on Kerr should not detract from one central matter. The dismissal resulted from the fact that the opposition leader, Malcolm Fraser, blocked supply and Whitlam attempted to govern without supply. Yet today Whitlam and Fraser are left-wing heroes while Kerr is criticised for doing his duty and resolving the impasse by dismissing Whitlam and ordering Fraser to conduct an immediate double dissolution election.
Gerard Henderson is executive director of The Sydney Institute.