Could it be that the rage that subsumed so many Australians following governor-general John Kerr’s sacking of Gough Whitlam’s Labor government on November 11, 1975, is finally abating? Perhaps so, if Bill Shorten’s attitude is indicative.
During an interview with Fran Kelly on the ABC’s RN Breakfast on Wednesday, the Opposition Leader was asked whether, 40 years on, he still was maintaining the rage about the dismissal. Shorten replied: “Well, I was only eight at the time so I can’t say I was the most outraged punter in 1975; I was in grade three.”
Fair enough. Only those 55 or older are likely to have a personal recall of the occasion.
Moreover, as I argued in this column last week, the normal political cycle resumed soon after November 1975 and Labor was back in office by March 1983. Labor leaders Bob Hawke and Paul Keating have acknowledged that, after the dismissal, the ALP was determined not to repeat the rampant incompetence of Whitlam and many of his senior ministers.
On Wednesday, Malcolm Turnbull launched The Dismissal: In the Queen’s Name by Paul Kelly and Troy Bramston. The previous week had seen the publication of Jenny Hocking’s The Dismissal Dossier. Kelly was a critic of Kerr’s action in October-November 1975 and remains so today. Hocking is the author of a friendly two-volume biography of Whitlam.
During the past decade, some new material covering the events of November 1975 has been released. Despite the new information, the books by Hocking and Kelly and Bramston are remarkably dissimilar. Clearly different conclusions on this topic can be reached from the same evidence.
Hocking, a professor at Monash University, demonstrably still belongs to the “maintain the rage” club. She asserts that Kerr was “obviously drunk” on November 11, 1975. The evidence for so serious an allegation? Not much at all. Hocking merely cites the recall of someone who was at lunch at Government House on the day of the dismissal and who alleges that Kerr “rapidly consumed a large amount of alcohol”.
This is a memory of an event that occurred four decades previously. Hocking, a university professor who holds an award from the Australian Research Council, should be able to do better than this. No one else has ever claimed that Kerr was “obviously drunk” on Remembrance Day 1975. The fact Whitlam’s dismissal was carried out with such efficiency suggests Kerr was well in command of his faculties throughout the afternoon on that day.
Hocking has two specific criticisms of Kerr’s actions. She believes that, when still prime minister, Whitlam should have been granted his wish to have an election for half the Senate on December 13, 1975.
According to Hocking, this could have resolved the conflict between the Senate (which had blocked supply) and the House of Representatives, since the outcome of the poll could have given Labor a Senate majority. There are several problems with this theory. As even Hocking concludes, there was only a “slight possibility” of Labor obtaining a Senate majority under these circumstances. What’s more, supply was due to run out by the end of November 1975 and government payments would have dried up.
Kelly and Bramston refer to Whitlam’s “absurd journey” to Government House on November 11, 1975, “to seek a half-Senate election, without guarantee of supply for the election period, a request no responsible governor-general would grant”.
Quite so. A half-Senate election could not have resolved the dispute between Malcolm Fraser and Whitlam.
Hocking also maintains that, when the Labor-controlled House of Representatives passed a vote of no confidence in Fraser, who was by then caretaker prime minister, Kerr should have dismissed Fraser and reinstated Whitlam as prime minister. This overlooks the fact Kerr had commissioned a minority government led by Fraser at about 1pm on the day of the dismissal and Fraser had obtained supply shortly after 2pm that day, pending an election. As Kelly and Bramston write, it is “nonsense” to suggest Kerr could have “recommissioned” Whitlam after he had been dismissed.
The essential criticism by Kelly and Bramston of Kerr is that he did not warn Whitlam in advance. This view is shared by the Prime Minister, who on Wednesday said the governor-general “should have given (Whitlam) notice of his intentions”.
This is a reasonable criticism but not a well-founded one. Kerr told me on numerous occasions in the late 1980s that he was worried that if Whitlam found out that his dismissal was a possibility, then Whitlam could have had him removed by the Queen. Kerr was adamant that he did not want Buckingham Palace involved in the controversy since this was not in the interests of the Queen or Australia.
New evidence confirms the accuracy of Kerr’s judgment. Kelly and Bramston have discovered a letter written by Whitlam on New Year’s Eve 1975 to British Labour prime minister Harold Wilson. Whitlam told Wilson that, if he had been aware of Kerr’s intentions, he “would have been in touch with the Queen”. As Kelly and Bramston acknowledge, Whitlam’s “rage … would have been immense” if “he had discovered Kerr’s plans”. In 1975, Whitlam was not the kind of person who would accept unwanted advice from the governor-general. Whitlam did phone the palace after his dismissal and Labor Speaker Gordon Scholes did attempt to get the Queen to reverse Kerr’s decision.
There are now probably only two matters concerning the dismissal that require clarification. It would be useful if Kerr’s correspondence to the palace was released. This is unlikely to embarrass the Queen, Australia or Kerr’s memory. And Fraser’s note of his conversation with Kerr on the morning of November 11, 1975, which supports the theory that he was allegedly tipped off about the dismissal by Kerr, should be examined.
Kerr always maintained that this note recorded his discussions with Fraser at Government House after the dismissal. Fraser, some years after the event, alleged that the note related to a brief phone conversation that took place before the dismissal. Forensic testing should reveal whether the date and timing of the conversation was added after the event.
If it is found that Kerr’s account is correct, this should further diminish the rage.