When it comes to promoting conspiracy theories in Australia, the left intelligentsia is tops.
Remember the claim that the anti-communist Robert Menzies’ Coalition government organised the 1954 defection of diplomats Vladimir and Evdokia Petrov from the Soviet Union’s embassy in Canberra to discredit Labor leader Bert Evatt in the lead-up to the election that year?
Well, this conspiracy theory fell apart when, in September 1984, the Hawke Labor government released all the relevant documents held by National Archives of Australia. They demonstrated that the Petrovs were significant defectors who provided important intelligence to the West, along with evidence that there was a Soviet Union spy ring in Australia that had infiltrated the department of external affairs and even Evatt’s private office.
Two decades later a new conspiracy was detected by the left. This followed governor-general Sir John Kerr’s decision to dismiss the Gough Whitlam-led Labor government on November 11, 1975.
First up, leftist journalist John Pilger claimed the CIA had prevailed on Kerr to dismiss Whitlam to protect US facilities in Australia. This theory is still extant but has lost its force due primarily to the failure of anyone to produce evidence to this effect.
Step forward Jenny Hocking of Monash University, who is perhaps best described as the left’s house historian, with flattering biographies of Labor heroes Whitlam and Lionel Murphy.
In The Dismissal Dossier (MUP), originally was published in 2015, Hocking promoted a new conspiracy: namely that the Queen and her Buckingham Palace advisers were involved in the Dismissal. One chapter was even headed A Very British Coup.
What is lacking from The Dismissal Dossier is any explanation of what interest the Queen would have in Whitlam’s sacking, especially since she has never interfered in the Australian political debate and had no known animus towards Whitlam.
Hocking was not the only academic who sought access to the palace letters. Constitutional law professor Anne Twomey had done so as early as 2012. But Hocking, with the support of some legal backers, took the case to the High Court that Kerr’s correspondence with the palace should be released from the archives. Six out of seven judges held that they were public, not private, documents and should be released before the scheduled date in 2027.
In the 2017 edition of The Dismissal Dossier, Hocking wrote that on October 16, 1975, visiting British diplomat Sir Michael Palliser had met with Kerr. A close reading of her book revealed there was no evidence that the two had actually met; there was only a draft itinerary drawn up by British officials. Moreover, there was no record of any such discussion. In short, there was not even hearsay evidence.
But this did not deter Hocking. She told the (then) Fairfax Media that British diplomats in London and Canberra were in discussion about the possibility of interfering in Australian politics in the lead-up to November 1975. This encouraged her to work harder for the release of the palace letters, declaring: “What is in those files is, to my mind, volcanic.”
It turned out that when the palace letters were released the effect was more like a penny bunger firework than a volcano. They revealed that, in a letter to Sir Martin Charteris, the Queen’s private secretary, dated November 11, 1975, Kerr confirmed that he made his decision “without informing the palace”.
The correspondence also reveals that Charteris wrote to Kerr on November 4, 1975, stating that the reserve powers, which made it possible for him to dismiss Whitlam, involved a “heavy responsibility”. Charteris added that “it is only at the end when there is demonstrably no other course that they should be used”. This was hardly an encouragement.
Not surprisingly, Hocking quickly went into denial. She claimed that the revelations in the palace letters were a “bombshell”, somewhat down the explosive scale from a volcano but real nevertheless. Not so. All they indicate is that Kerr thought it was his duty to keep Australia’s head of state, the Queen, informed about his thinking in response to the political deadlock at home.
In 1975, the palace understood what Hocking does not even understand today. This was an Australian problem that had to be resolved in Australia under the Australian Constitution.
An arrogant and stubborn opposition leader (Malcolm Fraser) was intent on blocking supply and an arrogant and stubborn prime minister (Whitlam) was intent on governing without supply. Meaning money to finance government was running out and November 11, 1975, was the last possible date to arrange for an election that could be completed before the end of the year. So Kerr dismissed Whitlam and installed Fraser as a caretaker prime minister pending an election in mid-December 1975 — which Whitlam could have won but didn’t.
In short, Kerr exercised the reserve powers to break a deadlock between the House of Representatives and the Senate. It was not the first time the reserve powers had been used. In 1932 NSW governor Sir Philip Game dismissed NSW premier Jack Lang for flouting the laws of the commonwealth.
Kerr’s critics fail to answer one point, namely: how else was the deadlock to be resolved? Hocking favoured an election of half the Senate in mid-December 1975. But there is no evidence that this would have led to a Labor majority in the Senate. In any event, the complicated count would not have been completed until some time in January the following year. Kerr took a decision in accordance with the Australian Constitution. It was never challenged in the courts.
As Twomey has pointed out, the only Australian who sought the Queen’s intervention in Australian politics at the time was Whitlam. Charteris wrote to Kerr on November 17, 1975, and mentioned that Whitlam had phoned him at 4.15am (London time) on November 11, 1975, and said he should be recommissioned by the Queen as prime minister, after she had sacked Fraser. But, once again, the palace did not act — and no conspiracy took place.