Jenny Hocking. The Dismissal Forty Years Later: When Everything Old is New Again

Jan 5, 2016

Repost from 10/12/2015

The 40th anniversary last month of the dismissal of the Whitlam government by the Governor General Sir John Kerr met with the predictable flurry of breathlessly delivered revelations and history-making hyperbole. Among the excitable claims of dramatic new ‘never before released’ material we were offered the charred remains of a burnt Liberal party memo showing – surprise! – dissension in the ranks [–20151110-gkvd2c ]; a found, lost, and found again hand-written note by Malcolm Fraser written during his conversation with the Governor-General on the morning of 11 November 1975 – first revealed in 1986 and reproduced in 2005 and 2010 before its latest rediscovery; and even a statutory declaration from Fraser swearing that, this time, he really was telling the truth about their contested conversation.

The dismissal exhibits that rare capacity in political history – to continue to fascinate, animate and agitate us, even decades later. To a large extent this is because, at heart, we have always known that there was more to be told than the potted schematic narrative that had long passed as the history of the dismissal of the Whitlam government. That narrative and that history had changed irrevocably in 2012 with the revelations from Kerr’s archival records of his secret and long denied meetings and communications, all documented in his papers in the National Archives, in Gough Whitlam: His Time. Kerr’s own records had laid bare the extent of his significant secret interactions with the Palace, with the High Court justice Sir Anthony Mason, even with the law school of the ANU, and with the leader of the Opposition Malcolm Fraser. The extraordinary cultivation by the Governor-General of this network of unauthorised advice and support stands in dramatic and total contrast to his calculated deception of the Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam, his decision to ‘remain silent’ to him over this critical period.

And so, as the dust settles on the numerous ‘exclusives’ and the shamelessly recycled old news as new that have marked the 40-year anniversary of the dismissal, have we actually learnt anything new? Two things in particular have emerged from the recent contributions: firstly, that Kerr was in secret contact with the leader of the Opposition Malcolm Fraser not just on the morning of 11 November 1975 but as early as the week before, despite their repeated public denials of this much rumoured contact and despite their mutual assurances to Whitlam that they would meet only with the Prime Minister’s knowledge and approval. This secret communication had been consistently and insistently denied by both Kerr and Fraser and its revelation has been seen as the ‘smoking gun’ of collusion and prior planning in the dismissal that had been suspected for decades. For the Governor General and the leader of the Opposition – between whom there is no constitutional or political relationship – to act in secret and in defiance of the Prime Minister in this way was a complete subversion of Kerr’s fundamental duty to act on the advice of his ministers. That both Fraser and Kerr then kept this contact secret until the end attests to the enormity of their actions and that neither would have been able to remain in office had this become known at the time.

Secondly, we now also know from Kerr’s former Official Secretary David Smith, that he had contacted the Palace on Kerr’s behalf shortly before the dismissal to discuss the Governor General’s overwhelming concern for his own position – his concern that Whitlam might recall him if he became aware that Kerr was secretly considering, together with members of the High Court, the leader of the Opposition and the Palace itself, dismissing him from office. Which would have been an entirely reasonable action on Whitlam’s part given the level of his deception by the Governor General. At the same time, this acknowledgment that Kerr had been in secret contact with the Palace to discuss his own tenure – the prerogative of the Australian Prime Minister to determine – without Whitlam’s knowledge, also confirms Kerr’s description of his communications with the Palace regarding dismissal.

It is simply counter-factual to claim as some commentators do, that the Palace was not aware that Kerr was contemplating dismissing Whitlam, and to claim even that the Queen disagreed with Kerr’s actions. This claim is unsupportable and simply defies the facts as they have now been revealed. From the moment Kerr first mentioned to Prince Charles in September 1975 that he was ‘considering having to dismiss the government’, from where it passed to the Queen’s Private Secretary Sir Martin Charteris and then to the Queen, the Palace was already involved in Kerr’s deliberations. By failing to immediately share this dramatic communication from the Governor General with Whitlam, the Palace was itself playing an active role. Their failure to act told Kerr that there would be no adverse response from the Palace should he act to dismiss Whitlam and it also told Kerr that the Palace would not themselves warn Whitlam of the Governor General’s deception. As I wrote in The Dismissal Dossier, the failure on the part of the Palace either to remind Kerr that he must consult his Prime Minister, or to warn Whitlam themselves of Kerr’s deception, could only be taken as a ‘royal green light’ by Sir John Kerr. And it was.

It is simply astonishing to read the repeated efforts to recast this now clear element in the history as its opposite – to claim that the Palace was somehow embarrassed by Kerr’s actions and even disagreed with it. All the evidence shows us otherwise. Within days of the dismissal Kerr received a personal letter of support for his ‘courageous and correct’ actions from the Queen’s cousin, Lord Louis Mountbatten, who then paid Kerr a private visit at Admiralty House early the following year while staying with the new Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser at Kirribilli House. In March 1977 the Queen bestowed on Kerr the highest order of her personal honour, personally investing him as Knight Grand Cross of the Royal Victorian order during her visit to Australia. The Royal Victorian order recognises ‘personal service to the monarchy’ and is ‘entirely within the Sovereign’s personal gift’. Hardly a sign of royal dismay at the Governor-General’s unprecedented action in dismissing the twice elected Prime Minister Gough Whitlam without warning.

Certainly by 1977 the Queen was finding Kerr’s behaviour highly embarrassing – but then, by 1977 everyone was finding Kerr’s behaviour highly embarrassing. That was the year after Kerr’s alcohol fuelled trajectory first landed him face-down in the mud at the Tamworth Show, only to be matched  at the Melbourne Cup where Kerr, in an ill-fitting top hat and tails, gave a repeat performance, this time remaining largely upright as he struggled to award the cup to the owners of the winning horse. Gough Whitlam was moved to consider, ‘how much better a pro-consul the horse would have made’. It is not surprising then that the Queen soon joined the long list of those who then wished the Governor General to make a hasty early retirement, which can hardly be taken as reflecting on the attitude of the Palace to the dismissal two years earlier.

It is now also clear despite the long historical obscuring of these critical facts, that Whitlam had reached a political solution to the blocking of Supply in the Senate, with his decision to call a half-Senate election. Whitlam had told Kerr of this decision to call the half-Senate election 5 days earlier, the key documents had been exchanged, the election date set and the final wording of the call for the election agreed to – when Kerr dismissed Whitlam without warning. Malcolm Fraser, the Governor General’s appointed Prime Minister, was then defeated in a motion of no confidence in the House of Representatives which also called on the Governor-General to re-commission the Whitlam government. We have known since 2012 that at this point Kerr contacted his old friend and secret advisor Sir Anthony Mason who, in complete breach of the separation of powers and the fundamental tenet of parliamentary democracy, told Kerr to ignore the House of Representatives motion of no confidence as ‘irrelevant’. There is no doubt however that Whitlam should have been restored to office on the afternoon of 11 November 1975, as Governor Sir Dallas Brooks had done in Victoria in 1952 following a Supply crisis in the Upper House – dismissing the government, passing Supply and then re-commissioning the government with the confidence of the lower House. This was the precedent that should have been followed in 1975, as Whitlam fully anticipated and as Sir Richard Eggleston and others have also argued. As it was, Kerr allowed Malcolm Fraser to remain in office with no electoral or parliamentary authority, dependent only on the Governor-General’s personal determination of a government of his own choice.

Finally, we have the entirely unexpected historical revisionism of the current Liberal Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull. In a complete volte face for long established Liberal representations of the dismissal as a moment of national salvation, Turnbull marked the 40th anniversary by proclaiming that Sir John Kerr was wrong to dismiss Whitlam without warning, and that Malcolm Fraser was wrong to have blocked Supply in order to achieve it. Turnbull’s frank and significant concession shows just how far the judgment of history of the dismissal has come in the intervening 40 years.

Nevertheless, some notable gaps remain: firstly, the ‘Palace letters’ between Kerr and the Queen, Prince Charles and Sir Martin Charteris are historically significant documents relating to the dismissal, their continuing embargo at the personal decision of the Queen is a denial of our access to our own history and they ought now to be released. The National Archives of Australia has categorised these letters rather perversely as ‘personal’ rather than official, thereby removing them from the usual 30 year (now 20 year) release requirements under the Archives Act and enabling either party – the Palace or Kerr – to set their own terms for release. This claim of their ‘personal’ status is absurd and not sustainable. The letters were written in Kerr’s capacity as Governor-General, they were sent from Government House at Yarralumla and Admiralty House, and they covered the immediate contemporary political events as related to the Palace by Kerr as Governor-General. We also know that Kerr’s letters did not in fact canvas personal matters but set out his view of the on-going political situation because he left extracts of his letters to the Queen among his papers, which I identified in 2012 as extracts from Kerr’s letters to the Queen, defying their apparent embargo.

If these are indeed ‘personal’ letters as the National Archives has advised, then they should also be released since Kerr had made it clear that he wanted and had actively sought the release of all these letters – to the Queen, Prince Charles and Sir Martin Charteris, and of Charteris’ letters to him. As I described in Gough Whitlam: His Time, Kerr contacted the Palace in early 1980 seeking the release of these letters, believing they would support his decision to dismiss Whitlam. The Queen’s then private secretary Sir Philip Moore was reportedly horrified at the suggestion and insistent on its rejection. The question is – why? Given that Kerr was not only happy but determined to release his own letters, whose privacy then is being protected here? Certainly not Kerr’s, yet it is in his name that his own apparently ‘personal’ letters to the Palace have been and remain embargoed.

Secondly there is one final detail of Sir Anthony Mason’s role, the extent of which had been hidden until 2012, that is yet to be revealed. Mason conceded three years ago that he had drafted a letter of dismissal for Kerr, and this letter should now also be released. Like the secret Palace letters, Mason’s letter is also a critical document in the still evolving history of the dismissal of the Whitlam government and, like the Palace letters, it too is part of our history we all have a right to know.

Professor Jenny Hocking is Research Professor and Australian Research Council DORA fellow, National Centre for Australian Studies, Monash University. Her most recent book ‘The Dismissal Dossier’ was published by Melbourne University Press.

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