In my post on 27 October 2015- ‘The Dismissal – Forty years on. A smoking gun’ I pointed out that Jenny Hocking in her recent book confirmed what I had always assumed that John Kerr had given Malcolm Fraser a clear indication of support.
In her book ‘The Dismissal Dossiers; Everything You Were Never Meant to Know About November 1975’ MUP. Jenny Hocking points out quite clearly from material she has discovered that John Kerr was in regular and secret telephone contact with Malcolm Fraser in the week before the dismissal. That really is a smoking gun.
In my post, I said that John Kerr’s intervention had saved Malcolm Fraser. I am convinced that that was the case. We didn’t fully understand at the time but in retrospect it is clear that John Kerr intervened prematurely in a political dispute which saved Malcolm Fraser.
Let me set out what I think are important factors leading me to the conclusion that John Kerr acted prematurely and saved Malcolm Fraser. Most of these facts are included in my book ‘Things you learn along the way’ which was published in 1999.
First, Gough Whitlam was dominating the parliamentary forum on the Opposition’s refusal to pass the finance bills. In his speeches, Gough Whitlam was able to draw on the historic struggle between the Crown and the parliament in Britain. The outcome of that struggle was the supremacy of the House of Commons in financial matters. That was what was at stake in the Australian parliament in October and November 1975. Malcolm Fraser was no match for Gough Whitlam in the debate over these important constitutional and political issues.
Second, public opinion had swung very clearly in support of the Whitlam Government that the finance bills should be passed. Opinion polls showed that well over 60% favoured passing the budget. I would not conclude from that that the Whitlam government would have survived a general election, but on the issue of passing the budget bills, the attitude of the Australian public became very clear. The momentum was with Gough Whitlam on this issue.
Thirdly, as the parliamentary struggle continued, there were increasing doubts whether all coalition senators would continue to oppose the budget bills. It is now beyond doubt that some coalition senators would have broken and either abstained or passed the budget bills. In my book I quoted what Senator Reg Withers, the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate in 1975 told the The Australian newspaper on 6 November 1985. He said
‘For all I know, my blokes might have collapsed on the 12th. I don’t know. You just hope day after day you would get through until the adjournment. … There were two senators who told me that they were prepared to go. … I reckon we had another week. If I had got through that week, then you would look at the following week. I would have lost them some time about 20 November onwards. I know I would have lost them in the run-up to 30 November, but it wouldn’t have been two then, it would have been ten.’
Fourthly, it was very clear that the coalition generally was very concerned about the course that it had embarked on. In my book I said
‘I recall speaking to Margo Anthony, Doug Anthony’s wife, in February 1976. She said that the Country Party had become so discouraged and disillusioned in the days before 11 November, that she had arranged a social get-together for the night of 11 November to try and boost morale and keep spirits up. As it turned out, it was a celebration rather than a wake.’
These four factors convinced me that Malcolm Fraser would have lost the political contest and the budget bills would have been passed, but that he was saved by the premature intervention of John Kerr.
(As a postscript to the above there is a recent comment by Tony Eggleton.the former Liberal Party Director in 1975. He said in The Australian on November 5,2015 ‘the view of senior Liberals that morning (of November 11 1975) was that unless Fraser prevailed that day then’it is all over…there had been quite a few people hanging in there who wouldn’t continue to support him’)
In my book I drew attention to the view of Buckingham Palace that John Kerr had acted prematurely. This view was clearly conveyed in a conversation between Tim McDonald, the Official Secretary at Australia House London and its most senior Foreign Affairs officer and Sir Martin Charteris who was personal secretary and political adviser to the Queen at the time of the dismissal. Tim McDonald sent me a note of his discussions with Charteris. The note said
‘The Palace shared the view that Kerr acted prematurely. If faced with a constitutional crisis which appeared likely to involve the Head of State, my advice would have been that [the Queen] should only intervene when a clear sense of inevitability had developed in the public that she must act. This had been Kerr’s mistake.’
Malcolm Fraser’s political life was saved by the premature intervention of John Kerr. In the process he destroyed Gough Whitlam. The reputation of Gough Whitlam is continually enhanced as more and more revelations keep piling up but a great injustice has been done to him.