John Menadue. The ‘third man’ in the sacking of Gough Whitlam

Nov 9, 2015

In a series of books and articles, Professor Jenny Hocking has provided conclusive evidence that Sir Anthony Mason was even more important than Sir Garfield Barwick in assisting John Kerr in the sacking of Gough Whitlam. It is scandalous and almost beyond belief that two senior members of our High Court were secretly collaborating with the Governor General to sack a Prime Minister who had a clear majority in the House of Representative

With a  ‘born to rule’ superiority, some people lecture us about the importance of conventions and traditions, the separation of powers, the independence of the judiciary, the integrity of judges and honesty in public and private life. But two senior High Court judges, Sir Garfield Barwick and Sir Anthony Mason trashed all that.

In addition to her outstanding books on Gough Whitlam and the dismissal, Jenny Hocking gave a lecture at the National Archives on 16 February 2014. The subject was ‘Hidden History of the Whitlam Government’s dismissal: Unmasking the Third Man’. The full text of that lecture can be found at

In that lecture, Jenny Hocking speaks particularly of the role of Sir Anthony Mason.

‘This detailed record from Kerr’s private papers has been described as a “discovery of historical importance” and it is without doubt the most important material to emerge about the dismissal in 37 years. Firstly, it confirmed from Kerr and then Mason himself what had been widely speculated for decades, that Sir Anthony Mason was the “third man” – along with Sir John Kerr and the Chief Justice of the High Court, Sir Garfield Barwick – in the back room manoeuvering that led to the dismissal of the Whitlam government; second, this new material revealed the full extent of Mason’s role – which had previously been seen as minor – in Sir John Kerr’s thinking and planning in the dismissal itself; and finally, the publication of this new material precipitated the release of a public statement from Sir Anthony Mason acknowledging his role for the first time, which in turn brought further revelations of its own.’ 

In this lecture Jenny Hocking comments on how emotionally damaged Sir John Kerr had become.

‘It is also abundantly clear to me that Sir John Kerr was a deeply damaged and devastated man. It is hardly new to remark upon Kerr’s personal frailties, his weaknesses and his need for validation. But what is surely tragic, is the extent to which John Kerr’s own actions, his best known actions in dismissing the Whitlam government, also destroyed it. It makes salutary reading to see that years after the events of 1975, in his private journal in his own sloping hand, Kerr was still obsessively revisiting every day of that critical month, reinterpreting every conversation, recalling every exchange, desperately seeking some resolution – ultimately for himself.

‘Gough Whitlam put it more prosaically; “Kerr rooted himself as well as us”. 

But Sir Anthony Mason was not only intimately involved in Gough Whitlam’s dismissal, he also gave advice to Sir John Kerr that he should not meet the Speaker of the House of Representatives who wished to convey a message that the House of Representatives had no confidence in the new Prime Minister, Malcolm Fraser, and that Gough Whitlam should be called to become Prime Minister again. In our long constitutional history an English king lost his head for ignoring the parliament, but Sir Anthony Mason disregarded all that history and tradition about the role of the Speaker and that the Governor General should see him. Jenny Hocking records what happened.

‘The Speaker was headed for Yarralumla to convey the motion of no confidence in Fraser to the Governor General. None of them had anticipated what then took place. Kerr simply refused to see the Speaker, or to receive the motion of no confidence in Malcolm Fraser. Instead Kerr kept the Speaker waiting for more than an hour until after he had dissolved both houses of parliament and closed down the parliament, with Malcolm Fraser still in office. … Mason recalls that after the dramatic post dismissal afternoon parliamentary session, Kerr made one final and crucial telephone call to him [Sir Anthony Mason] – and it is interesting to note that Kerr makes no mention of this final conversation with Mason in his own accounts of these events. … Sir Anthony Mason’s response to Kerr’s quandary posed by the House of Representatives motion of no confidence in Fraser was simple – he told the Governor General that “the resolution (of the House of Representatives) was irrelevant as he had commissioned Mr Fraser to form a caretaker government”. Mason’s advice was a breathtaking repudiation of the very essence of the Westminster system and its core convention of responsible government – that governments are made and unmade in the House of Representatives. … The assault on responsible government through the continuation of Fraser in office, despite the want of confidence motion against him, was absolute. So a Justice of the High Court, Sir Anthony Mason, told the Governor General that the single most important resolution the House of Representatives can ever make – the resolution by which governments are made and unmade, a vote of confidence or lack of it – was irrelevant.’ 

But there is more. Sir Anthony Mason kept all these secrets to himself and was appointed Chief Justice of the High Court of Australia by the Hawke Government in 1987 – twelve years after his collaboration to bring down a Labor Prime Minister. Jenny Hocking comments –

‘Mason’s continued silence has been seen as self-serving, as ensuring the continued public ignorance of his role in the dismissal of the Whitlam government. And there is no doubt that this silence had worked to his own benefit, for it is simply inconceivable that the Hawke Labor government would have appointed Mason Chief Justice of the High Court in 1987 had it known the full story of his involvement with Kerr in dismissing the Whitlam government.’ 

The fortieth anniversary of the dismissal of the Whitlam Government and the disclosure of more and more information by Jenny Hocking points very clearly to the shameful behaviour of a Governor General and two High Court judges. Gough Whitlam is more and more vindicated as his political assassins and detractors sink further into the mire.

Professor Jenny Hocking’s latest book ‘The Dismissal Dossier – everything you were never meant to know about November 1975’ has just been published by Melbourne University Press.

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