The ABC 2020 podcast, “The Eleventh” re-examines the events around the dismissal of the Whitlam Government 45 years ago, on 11 November 1975. The podcast is very penetrating but also very long and detailed. Some revelations from the podcast deserve being reduced to print.
John Menadue was Secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet at the time. On the podcast, Menadue recalled having gone to Canberra Airport late on the evening of 10 November 1975 to give papers to Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam. Whitlam was returning on the VIP jet from Melbourne, where he had attended the Lord Mayor’s Dinner that night. Whitlam had given a lift to and from Melbourne for the dinner to the Leader of the Opposition, Malcolm Fraser.
In episode 6 of the podcast, Menadue records that, at the airport, he heard Liberal front bencher, Philip Lynch ask Fraser: “Do you think he knows?”
I didn’t see the TV footage of that occasion until just after the Dismissal, but when I did, it immediately seemed to me that both Lynch and Fraser looked like cats that had got the cream. They knew what was in store the following day, and they were very smug about it.
“The Eleventh” podcast records that, if Fraser did not know what Governor-General, Sir John Kerr planned beforehand, he was (improperly) tipped off by a phone call from Kerr early on the morning of 11 November.
Richard Butler is also interviewed on the podcast. He was Whitlam’s Chief of Staff from soon after the Dismissal. He described a meeting at the Qantas VIP lounge in Sydney in 1977 between Whitlam and Butler, on the Australian side, and US Deputy Secretary of State, Warren Christopher and the US Ambassador to Australia. Butler was Whitlam’s Chief of Staff.
The meeting was instigated by the US. Christopher opened proceedings saying: “I have asked for this meeting on instructions from President Carter. Christopher said that Carter and Whitlam “came from the same side of politics”. Christopher used the expression “fraternal parties”. Christopher went on to say that the US respected the rights of its allies. He added the assurance from Carter that, while Carter was President, he would “always respect the decision of the Australian people. … He wishes to assure you that there will never again be interference in the Australian political process”, said Christopher. (Gerald Ford had been President in November 1975).
“The Eleventh” podcast records that in 2015, on being asked about US interference in Australian politics, Carter said he didn’t know about Australia specifically. And the podcast quotes Ray Martin as having been told by Whitlam that Whitlam didn’t believe that “they were guilty of removing me”, apparently in reference to the US.
Ray Martin speaks on the podcast. He proclaimed himself not to be a conspiracy theorist. Martin was a Sixty Minutes correspondent in the US in November 1975. He recalled interviewing convicted US spy, Christopher Boyce (of “The Falcon and the Snowman” fame or infamy) about Pine Gap. Boyce said that he heard a CIA staff member refer to the Governor-General as “our man Kerr”.
In 2014, The Guardian and The Independent published an article by John Pilger “Gough Whitlam and the CIA’s forgotten coup”. It recorded the deep animosity and suspicion which various senior CIA officials held towards the Whitlam Government.
Pilger noted that when Whitlam was re-elected for a second term, in 1974, the White House sent Marshall Green to Canberra as ambassador. He wrote: “Green was an imperious, sinister figure who worked in the shadows of America’s ‘deep state’. Known as ‘the coupmaster’, he had played a central role in the 1965 coup against President Sukarno in Indonesia – which cost up to a million lives. One of his first speeches in Australia, to the Australian Institute of Directors, was described by an alarmed member of the audience as ‘an incitement to the country’s business leaders to rise against the government’.” Green was also the senior American diplomat in South Korea at the time of the 1960 April Revolution in a military coup.
Pilger noted Whitlam’s demand to know if and why the CIA was running a spy base at Pine Gap near Alice Springs. The article described Pine Gap as “a giant vacuum cleaner which, as Edward Snowden revealed recently, allows the U.S. to spy on everyone.” Guy Rundle in a recent Jacobin article “In the 1970s, a Soft Coup Removed Australia’s Left-Wing Prime Minister” describes Pine Gap as having “pioneered mass surveillance of civilian communications.” According to Rundle, Whitlam’s staff had discovered that Pine Gap’s first director was a CIA man named Richard Stallings, who was still residing in Australia; and further that Stallings’s name had been left off the list of in-country CIA operatives that the United States provided, although it was on a second secret list supplied to Australia’s spy agencies and to the Secretary of the Defence Department.
It was apparently a matter of enormous sensitivity – that the CIA rather than the US National Security Agency (NSA) ran Pine Gap. “The Eleventh” podcast records that the US lease of Pine Gap was due to expire on 9 December 1975, and so was up for renewal – or termination. In his article, Pilger records that Victor Marchetti, a CIA officer who had helped set up Pine Gap informed him, “This threat to close Pine Gap caused apoplexy in the White House … a kind of Chile [coup] was set in motion.” (Fraser duly renewed the Pine Gap lease).
Rundle writes that Whitlam decided to reveal the secret CIA list when Parliament resumed on November 11; and that, in the preceding weeks, both the head of ASIO and the head of ASIS lost their jobs. As Rundle writes, a day or two before 11 November senior and shadowy CIA figure Theodore Shackley (Chile, Cuba, Vietnam, Laos, Iran-Contra) sent a cable to ASIO saying that if Whitlam were to reveal the “two-list system”, intelligence sharing between the United States and Australia would be in jeopardy.
Shackley’s cable got to both Whitlam and Kerr – the latter apparently when he visited the headquarters of the Defence Signals Division (now the Australian Signals Directorate), “where he was briefed on the ‘security crisis’.”
Rundle also notes that “Kerr received a briefing from the government’s chief scientist, the details of which are unknown, but which seems to have been a full explanation of Pine Gap’s role and importance in the United States’ global surveillance system.”
My boss at that time, Justice Robert Hope was the Royal Commissioner on Intelligence and Security, and a good friend of Kerr’s (up until 11 November). In the weeks leading up to the Dismissal, Hope was in the Royal Commission’s office. He had a very long phone conversation with Kerr. The conversation began with Kerr in Sydney and resumed with Kerr’s arrival by air in Melbourne.
Kerr was very unhappy that he was not fully briefed (informed) about Pine Gap. Hope told me that Kerr was insistent that, as the Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces under the Constitution, he surely was entitled to a full briefing. I had not known until reading Rundle’s article that Kerr apparently got his way.
Rundle and Pilger both noted correctly that Kerr had longstanding ties to Anglo-American intelligence. According to Pilger, Kerr was an enthusiastic member of the Australian Association for Cultural Freedom. Pilger says that Jonathan Kwitny of the Wall Street Journal in his book, The Crimes of Patriots described that body as “an elite, invitation-only group … exposed in Congress as being founded, funded and generally run by the CIA”. The CIA “paid for Kerr’s travel, built his prestige … Kerr continued to go to the CIA for money”.
According to Paul Daley in The Guardian five years ago (“Asio chief defied Gough Whitlam’s order to cut ties with the CIA in 1974”) the latest volume of ASIO’s official history “acknowledges a circumstantial case of CIA involvement in Whitlam’s dismissal” but no smoking gun. The history, by John Blaxland, said: “US embassy officials confided to Asio that the ‘maintenance of the ALP Government in power is essential to Soviet planning for this area and their activities in Australia would be tempered by this consideration’.”
Pilger quoted “a deputy director of the CIA” who said: “Kerr did what he was told to do.” It is not clear whether or not that was true. But these were certainly febrile times.
Rundle suggests that it was “most likely by defense-force leaks of surveillance audio” that Rex Connor’s misleading of Parliament and of Whitlam was revealed. I am not sure what “defense-force leaks of surveillance audio” means. I have always considered that the elaborate leaks which filled the Murdoch newspapers and were provided to Philip Lynch via a member of his staff were most likely provided by the NSA.
On 22 July, I recounted how the right-wing military group, the Old Guard including Victor Windeyer (later a Justice of the High Court) had drilled, ready to intervene on 13 May 1932, when NSW Governor, Sir Philip Game had dismissed NSW Labor Premier, the firebrand Jack Lang.
Windeyer was also a Major in the Sydney University Regiment, which may best be described as an officer-training regiment of the Australian Army Reserve. The objects of the Old Guard were to assist in ‘the maintenance of law and order’ and to uphold ‘the Constitution under which we work and live’. The Old Guard was dissolved after Game dismissed Lang.
Was there a Plan B in November 1975 in case Whitlam pulled rank? Or did Kerr and whoever else was in on the joke (correctly) put all their bets on Whitlam being such a conservative in terms of his belief in the institutions of Australia’s Parliamentary democracy that he would simply accept his fate?
It is clear that Kerr was duplicitous with Whitlam over an extended period, and that he consulted people, including High Court Justice, Sir Anthony Mason, and the Chief Justice of the High Court, Sir Garfield Barwick against the advice of the Prime Minister.
”The Eleventh” podcast notes Sir Anthony Mason’s admission in 2012 that he was informed by Kerr in advance of his plans to dismiss Whitlam. That notification happened apparently on 9 November.
Kerr took such extraordinary steps as locking the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Gordon Scholes outside the gates of Government House for an hour late in the afternoon of the eleventh while Kerr and Fraser put the finishing touches on the paperwork for Fraser to go to an election on 13 December as caretaker Prime Minister.
Scholes was carrying the resolution of the House of Representatives that Fraser did not have the confidence of the House; that Whitlam did; that Supply had been secured; and that Whitlam should be reinstated as Prime Minister.
It is clear that Kerr chose to preserve to secure his own position as Governor-General over his constitutional obligations, including to be candid (over an extended period) with the Prime Minister, and extraordinarily to refuse to meet the Speaker of the House while Kerr shored up his own position.
Kerr shattered the hearts of many people on that 11 November, including that of my late, dear father who had served Australia diligently in peace and bravely in war for a working lifetime.