“Shame Fraser, shame”: The overthrow of Edward Gough Whitlam. Part 1Nov 8, 2023
When offered the position of Governor-General by Prime Minister Whitlam in 1974, Sir John Kerr consulted friends and colleagues as to whether he should accept the appointment. One of them, Justice Robert Hope, queried why he would take such “a dead-end job, a hopeless job.” Kerr’s response was: “Oh, no, it’s a very powerful position. It has much more power than you realise.” – Jenny Hocking, Gough Whitlam, Vol. II.
The dismissal of Australian Prime Minister Gough Whitlam by Queen Elizabeth’s Vice-Regal representative, Sir John Kerr, was an extraordinary event. For almost fifty years a debate has raged about why the Governor-General took the unprecedented action he did on 11 November 1975.
This five-part series focusses more on the external events leading up to the dismissal than on the domestic circumstances, which have generally been well rehearsed. The release of the Palace letters, achieved only after an extraordinary campaign by Professor Jenny Hocking, has added significantly to the knowledge bank. Yet, the letters were clearly written for the record, on the understanding that at some point they might become public. In one sense they are somewhat akin to Sherlock Holmes’ ‘curious incident of the dog in the night’. Like the dog, which ‘did nothing in the night’, the curious feature of the Palace letters is that they contain no reference at all to some of the most significant issues surrounding the dismissal.
Such omissions are valuable in themselves, however, because they prompt further investigation. Is it not strange, for example, that the Queen’s private secretary, Sir Martin Charteris gives Sir John Kerr the green light to dismiss the Prime Minister without ever exploring the reasons why Kerr is contemplating taking such an extreme step? All Charteris says, almost in a throwaway line, is that Kerr must be careful to justify the dismissal on constitutional grounds, before handing him a dodgy Canadian precedent to assist him in doing so.
This first piece in the series briefly covers the domestic events leading up to the denouement on 11 November 1975. In the subsequent four articles, the Whitlam government’s fraught relationships with the US Administration and the Five Eyes intelligence agencies are explored in terms of their possible significance in Whitlam’s downfall. In the final piece we also endeavour to piece the whole jigsaw together and identify the different forces that led to Sir John Kerr taking that unprecedented action on a glorious Spring day in Canberra all those years ago.
In early 1975, despite the growing global economic problems, the Whitlam government was not in a bad position politically. In March, however, Malcolm Fraser successfully challenged Billy Snedden for leadership of the Liberal Party and Whitlam was now confronted with a far more dangerous adversary. Although Fraser suggested at the outset that he didn’t intend to follow his predecessor in threatening to defy constitutional conventions and deny the government supply in the Senate, he later qualified this undertaking. Now the government’s supply bills would only be blocked were any “extraordinary and reprehensible” circumstances to arise.
Although the government won sufficient seats in the Senate in May 1974 to pass its Supply bills, this situation changed in 1975. When Lionel Murphy, a Senator from NSW, was appointed to the High Court in February 1975 and a Queensland Senator died in August, they were not replaced by members of the Labor Party. By virtue of breaching a multi-party agreement honoured since 1949, the coalition now had the ability to deny supply.
By mid-year, pressure on Fraser to deny supply was steadily growing on the opposition benches but he was content to await the opportunity, as he put it, to “catch Mr Whitlam with his pants down”. In retrospect, this was an ironic ambition for a man who, eleven years later, appeared, sans culottes, in the foyer of a seedy Memphis hotel.
In October, the opportunity arose when the loans affair claimed its final victim. Rex Connor, Minister for Minerals and Energy, resigned for having misled Parliament. It was a relatively trivial offence, probably more of an oversight than anything else, but by the standards of the day Connor had to go. As one newspaper put it, Fraser now had discovered the “footsteps of a giant reprehensible circumstance” and on 15 October he stated that the Coalition would block supply in the Senate. Most of the media opposed him. An opinion poll at the end of the month showed that by a large margin the public disapproved of Fraser’s actions.
It is important to note that apart from the very poor process followed by the government, the loans affair was largely a storm in a teacup. No contract had been signed, no money had been borrowed and no commission had been paid. Nevertheless, although it was not a credible reason for denying supply, it provided cover for the broader concerns, ventilated particularly by the Murdoch press, regarding the government’s competence in managing the economy.
This was also largely a furphy. While admittedly both unemployment and inflation were increasing, this was a consequence of the first oil shock that was by no means limited to Australia. Bill Hayden had taken over from Jim Cairns as Treasurer in mid-year and his first budget had received widespread approval. Perhaps of greater significance is the fact that under the Whitlam government – in October 1974 and repeated in June 1975 — Australia received a triple A credit rating from the international agencies for the first time.
Even before Fraser made his move in mid-October, the Governor-General had clearly given a great deal of thought to his options should another crisis over supply emerge. In November 1974, at Rupert Murdoch’s residence in country NSW, over drinks and with journalists present, Kerr became somewhat indiscreet. He canvassed the available options, including dismissal, a discussion that would no doubt have been relayed to senior players in the opposition.
In September 1975, Kerr began to share his thoughts with Martin Charteris, the Queen’s private secretary. While it would be preferable for the opposition not to block supply, he suggested, ultimately it may be that only an election could resolve the issue. Then “if Mr Whitlam will not advise one, I might have to find someone who will”. That month, in discussion with Prince Charles in New Guinea, the Governor-General again raised the possibility of dismissing the Prime Minister.
On 30 September, Kerr advised Charteris that if supply were denied, the Prime Minister was considering an election for half the Senate. Even if he didn’t win additional seats, this could have the effect of temporarily giving Whitlam the numbers to secure supply. Charteris responded positively: “The Prime Minister’s new tactic seems to me to be much more reasonable and therefore more likely to be used. I imagine you would have no constitutional difficulty in agreeing to a Half Election of the Senate.”
This was the obvious way forward. Charteris clearly agreed with it. It remained an option in Whitlam’s back pocket until 11 November, when he was trumped by Kerr before he could exercise it. Later, in a statement that has never been taken very seriously but perhaps should have been, Kerr’s Official Secretary, David Smith, said that had Whitlam not gone to Yarralumla to recommend a half-Senate election, “the events of 11 November simply would not have occurred”.
To be sure, possible problems with the half Senate election soon emerged but these should not have been deal-breakers. It was not a popular option for the opposition, and it quickly became apparent that conservative premiers in some States might trample on another convention and instruct their governors not to issue writs for the election. Although, under s11 of the Constitution the election could still go ahead, with States participating or not as they chose, as Charteris was quick to point out, recalcitrant action on the part of some States could potentially cause problems for the Crown.
Under an anachronistic colonial legacy, in 1975 State governors represented the Queen of the United Kingdom, not the Queen of Australia, and were appointed on the advice of British Ministers. Were a State governor to resign rather than accept their Premier’s instruction not to issue writs, for example, as the NSW governor Sir Roden Cutler said he would, the Queen would have to appoint a replacement. The Premier would propose someone who would follow his instruction, but the Queen would not be bound to accept their advice. Either way, it seems inevitable that the Queen would have become involved in Australian politics.
On the same day as Fraser announced he would block supply, Sir Michael Palliser, Permanent Secretary of the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office, arrived in Australia. His objective was to safeguard the Queen from any involvement in Australia’s unfolding political crisis. Palliser held meetings with Kerr and Cutler. No record of the meeting with Kerr has been published. Nevertheless, we know that Palliser left Australia confident that the Governor-General would protect the Queen from any controversial involvement in Australian politics.
Given the detail that Kerr was conveying to Charteris at this time, it is remarkable that Sherlock’s dog fails to bark again – there is no mention of Palliser’s visit to Australia in the letters. Yet, if the Governor-General had indeed undertaken to protect the Queen from any involvement, it is difficult to see how he could do so. It was not within his jurisdiction to advise State governors or, indeed, the Queen on these matters. It is interesting, however, that no further mention of a half Senate election appears in the letters.
Up to the end of October, Kerr adopted a neutral tone in his correspondence with the Palace. It seemed clear his preference at this time was still for the Opposition to withdraw. He also proposed that with supply only deferred, the crisis remained a political one, not requiring action on his part. It would become a constitutional crisis either when the Opposition rejected the budget in the Senate or government funding was on the point of running out. Then he might have to take action, but not before.
But suddenly, in the first week of November, everything changed. It seemed Kerr had made up his mind that Whitlam must go.
Four days before the dismissal, Rupert Murdoch had lunch with John Menadue, his erstwhile General Manager at News Ltd and now Secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet. Murdoch told him that there would be an election for the House of Representatives before Christmas. He had obviously been talking to Fraser because he said that in the event the Whitlam government was defeated, Menadue would be appointed as Ambassador to Japan. (In fact, Fraser kept Menadue on for over a year as head of PM&C, after which he was indeed appointed as Australian Ambassador to Japan).
Kerr also made sure he had his ducks in a row before dismissing Whitlam. He showed High Court Justice Anthony Mason the advice from the senior law officers that the Reserve powers had fallen into desuetude and were no longer relevant. Mason disagreed, but added a rider that Whitlam should be warned before being dismissed. This would allow him the option of recommending an election and then contesting it as prime minister. Kerr ignored the rider. Against Whitlam’s advice, Kerr also consulted Sir Garfield Barwick CJ, a former political adversary of Whitlam who had found against the Labor government in every case that had come before the High Court. The Chief Justice had provided the Governor-General with a written advisory opinion that the Reserve powers existed, and Whitlam could be dismissed. Finally, Charteris gave Kerr the green light from the Palace to exercise the Reserve powers. He also reassured Kerr that rather than causing reputational damage to the Crown in Australia, dismissing Whitlam would likely do it good.
When the Prime Minister arrived at Government House on 11 November, Kerr knew his intention was to recommend a half-Senate election. If Whitlam gave Kerr this written advice, he would be bound to accept it. Instead, Kerr gave Whitlam a letter of dismissal before he could provide that advice. He later claimed he could not accept any such advice under circumstances where the government had not first obtained supply. This defies credibility. As Hocking has pointed out, “Fraser had already publicly stated on 22 October 1975 that he would respect whatever decision the Governor-General made, later conceding that if the half-Senate election had been called he would have resigned the Liberal leadership and the budget bills would have been passed.”
Without giving the Prime Minister any inkling of what he had decided, Kerr had conspired, probably for at least a week, with the Leader of the Opposition, who had arrived at Yarralumla before Whitlam and knew he was to be commissioned as caretaker prime minister. The only condition attached to his appointment was that he should recommend an election; Fraser admitted later he was not even required to secure supply. This on its own makes a nonsense of Kerr’s justification for refusing to consider a half-Senate election.
With Parliament not yet having been prorogued, the House of Representatives passed a motion of no confidence in the new prime minister, immediately followed by a vote of confidence in the Member for Werriwa (Gough Whitlam). The Speaker went to Government House bearing this advice for the Governor-General, who could quite properly have re-instated Whitlam as Prime Minister. Kerr refused to see him. At the swearing-in ceremony for new Ministers, Kerr attempted to justify this. He said he could not have re-instated Whitlam because he had already determined on a certain course of action and had to carry it through.
There was no justification in 1975, on constitutional or any other grounds, for the Governor-General to dismiss a government which retained the confidence of the House of Representatives. There was no rational reason – including the possibility of involving the Palace – for refusing to accept the Prime Minister’s recommendation for a half Senate election. There was no justification at all for such indecent haste. with neither of Kerr’s self-imposed conditions for Vice-Regal intervention having been met. Supply had not been rejected and funds were available until after Christmas.
Why was the Governor-General so determined that Whitlam had to be replaced in such a hurry?
Something else must have been going on.
Read the other articles in this series: