The Overthrow of Edward Gough Whitlam: A stain on Australia’s democracy – finale

Nov 24, 2023
Australian paper, 11 November 1975, stating that Whitlam was dismissed by the Governor-General, Sir John Kerr.

“Gough Whitlam was an Australian democrat. He passionately believed in our institutions; the supremacy of parliament, the independence and integrity of the judiciary and the separation of powers to curb possible abuses by the executive government. In the dismissal these institutions failed us. Those with responsibility deceived us. Tradition and conventions built over centuries were trashed. The damage to  our public life goes far beyond the injustice done to Gough Whitlam.” – John Menadue, ‘Postscript’, Pearls and Irritations

In November 1975, there was no constitutional case for the Prime Minister’s dismissal or for Parliament to be prorogued. Australia’s system of representative democracy faced a profound test and failed it comprehensively.

The analysis presented in the first five parts of this series suggests there were two reasons for the dismissal.

The proximate cause of the Whitlam government’s dismissal was the blocking of the supply bills by the opposition in the Senate. This provided the necessary constitutional cover, however thin, for the Governor-General to determine the Prime Minister’s commission. The British Crown was complicit but not instrumental in Sir John Kerr’s action. The main instigator was the Opposition leader, Malcolm Fraser.

This series argues that the underlying and most important reason for the dismissal was a threat by the US Administration to terminate the ANZUS alliance and withdraw intelligence sharing with Australia under the UKUSA agreement, now known as Five Eyes. This message was delivered by the CIA, with the support of MI6, at the direction of US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, acting on the authority of President Ford. The Secretary of the Australian Defence Department, Sir Arthur Tange, then conveyed this threat to the Governor-General prior to the dismissal.

When one side of politics remains in government for nearly a quarter of a century, complacency and a sense of entitlement can all too readily set in. Christopher Anderson and others propose that in order for the legitimacy of a new government to be accepted, “loser’s consent is critical for democratic systems to function”. At least two powerful groups could be considered losers from the election of the Whitlam government and clearly withheld their consent to its legitimacy. The first was the federal opposition in Australia and the second was the United States administration.

After 23 years in government, the Liberal and Country parties were the most obvious losers. They withheld their consent to almost everything the government proposed. Two months after the December 1972 election, the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate, Reg Withers, questioned the legitimacy of the Whitlam government. He dismissed Labor’s victory as the result of “temporary electoral insanity” on the part of the Australian community and said that “the Senate may well be called upon to protect the national interest by exercising its undoubted constitutional rights and powers”.

Australia’s democratic system relies not just on observing the black letter law of the constitution, but also the conventions and Parliamentary practices that have developed since Federation to correct imperfections that were overlooked by the founding states and have become evident since. Three practical long-standing conventions and agreements were that the Senate would not block or reject money bills; that Senators who quit the upper house permanently between elections would be replaced by a nominee from the same party; and that when the Governor-General called on State governors to issue writs for a Senate election, they would comply with his request.

The systematic trashing of these critical conventions and practices was the most obvious manifestation of an absence of losers’ consent to the Whitlam government. In April 1974, the opposition threatened to block the government’s supply bills in the Senate. Even after the Whitlam government won a renewed mandate at the May 1974 elections, the opposition continued to break conventions in an attempt to bring it down. In October 1975, at the first opportunity, they moved to block supply.

If there was a common factor influencing the withholding of consent by the conservative opposition in Australia and the Nixon Administration in the US, it lay in their similar attitude to the Cold War. Both groups regarded the Soviet Union as an aggressive, expansionist power with an evil ideology that represented an existential threat to democratic freedoms. The Liberal-Country Party coalition had sent 60,000 Australian troops to the Vietnam war and allowed the US to establish significant defence and espionage installations on Australian soil. After 23 years of conservative rule, the Americans took Australia for granted.

Then, without much warning, Gough Whitlam appeared, calling everybody ‘Comrade’, withdrawing the last Australian service personnel from Vietnam and advocating an independent foreign policy not focussed on the Cold War. Worst of all, his party was committed to eliminating all foreign bases and installations from Australian soil.

The relationship got off to a very bad start and went downhill from there. Nixon contended that Whitlam was “one of the peaceniks … he is certainly putting the Australians on a very, very dangerous course”. Things improved for a while when Marshall Green took over as US Ambassador, although he also regarded the preservation of the US facilities in Australia as his top priority. The importance of Pine Gap, the most important espionage installation, to the US-Australian relationship can hardly be overstated. Not only could the facility play a critical role in enabling the US to prevail in a nuclear exchange with the Soviet Union, but in company with its sister station in the UK it could intercept almost all the world’s electronic communications in real time.

In April 1974, however, with no warning, Whitlam announced in Parliament that leases on existing bases would not be renewed. With the lease on Pine Gap due to expire in December 1975, this caused deep concern in Washington. Then, after the May 1974 election, the government moved further to the left. In July, Whitlam signalled he wanted the Australian security agencies to distance themselves from the CIA.

Whitlam’s threat to the US facilities, centred on Pine Gap, and concerns about the Five Eyes intelligence sharing arrangements came to a head in a series of meetings in Washington. In this context, it is important to understand that when Kissinger, who was now also Secretary of State, was originally appointed as National Security Adviser, “he and Nixon agreed early on that they would make policy in the White House, often sidestepping the foreign affairs bureaucracy. … [This] would also allow Kissinger the chance to play a more hands-on role than previous Secretaries of State.”

As we have seen in part 2 of this series, the State Department meeting in mid-June 1974, chaired in Kissinger’s absence overseas by Joseph Sisco, a foreign service professional, decided on a non-interventionist approach to the Whitlam challenge. On his return in July, however, Kissinger clearly disagreed with this and resumed carriage of the issue from his seat at the White House. He commissioned National Security Study Memorandum 204 to be prepared, with a clear focus on securing the bases. At meetings on 15 August and a more significant one on 24 August, various policy options were considered.

Due to substantial redactions that are unmatched in any other of the Nixon administration’s 205 NSSMs, we cannot tell for sure what policy approach was finally agreed. The extent of the redactions still maintained half a century later, however, suggest that even now they could have an impact on Australia’s relationship with the United States.

We do know the position of the various parties going into the 24 August meeting, with two of them being significant. The State Department agreed with Ambassador Green’s proposal to negotiate the retention of Pine Gap until 1978 and then shift the facility out of Australia. The CIA, on the other hand, wanted to retain Pine Gap in Australia at least into the 1980s. It also wanted to maintain the intelligence sharing relationship (ie, Five Eyes) with Australia. Based on the outcome, it appears that Kissinger decided in favour of the CIA’s view. In terms of achieving this, again based on outcome, it seems likely the NSC’s proposal was adopted, namely of not taking any immediate action while maintaining the option of putting much heavier ‘pressure on Whitlam’ if required.

In less than a month leading up to 11 November 1975, the crisis bearing down on the Whitlam government came to a head. On 15 October, Malcolm Fraser announced that, as a consequence of ‘extraordinary and reprehensible circumstances’ in regard to the loans affair, the opposition would take action in the Senate to deny supply to the Whitlam government.

The next day, Sir Michael Palliser, Permanent Secretary of the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office, arrived in Australia on a brief visit to meet the Governor-General. His ostensible mission was to ensure the Queen did not become involved in Australian politics in relation to the issue of writs for a half-Senate election. Since this could have been discussed in a telephone call, it seems likely he had a more important message to deliver. Indeed, as Hocking relates from a study of FCO records, “by October 1975, [the FCO] was actively considering ‘possible intervention’ in Australian politics”.

Palliser could very well have been acting on behalf of MI6, which operated within the Foreign Office portfolio. Having been introduced by ASIS head, Bill Robertson, to Justice Robert Hope, the head of the Royal Commission into the security services, Maurice Oldfield, Chief of MI6 and a brilliant intelligence officer, had developed a close working relationship with Hope. Hope had told Oldfield that Whitlam was pressing him to recommend cutting ties between the Australian security agencies and the CIA and MI6. Oldfield immediately saw this as a threat to both the Five Eyes and Pine Gap and set the alarm bells ringing with the CIA. At the least, Palliser would have been able to advise Kerr that MI6, as a leading member of Five Eyes, was deeply concerned about the future relationship between the security agencies.

On 21 October, with very little justification, Whitlam summarily dismissed Bill Robertson and threatened to abolish ASIS. This would have been seen by Oldfield and Colby as a direct attack on Five Eyes. It clearly concerned Justice Hope, who treated ASIS favourably in his 1976 report. He took Robertson to the ASIS Christmas party as his guest and employed him subsequently as an expert adviser to the Commission.

When Whitlam advised Fraser of Robertson’s dismissal, he received significant pushback. Indeed, when Fraser was justifying to senior executives in the media his unprecedented actions in deferring supply, the main reprehensible circumstance he cited was not the loans affair but rather the dismissal of Robertson.

Robertson’s treatment also concerned the Governor-General, who requested advice from the Solicitor-General before he would sign the notice of dismissal. Robertson had regularly briefed Kerr on intelligence issues “over his 11am whisky”. This also gives the lie to the assumptions in many discussions of the dismissal that the Governor-General was kept in the dark about intelligence issues. Kerr was the Commander-in-Chief with a Top Secret AUSTEO security clearance and had the right to be informed on any issue in which he took an interest. For example, Justice Hope, whom Kerr had consulted before accepting the position of Governor-General, was one of his closest friends from the Sydney bench. If Hope would divulge state secrets to the head of a foreign intelligence agency, what information would he withhold from Kerr? It is possible that Kerr, a Cold War warrior from the 1950s, had access to more sensitive information than the prime minister.

By early November, Whitlam had discovered that Pine Gap was not an installation controlled by the Pentagon as he had been told, but an espionage facility run by the CIA. According to John Menadue, he was furious at having been deceived. On 2 November, Whitlam accused his opponents of being subsidised by the CIA. He was also scheduled to respond to a question in Parliament on 11 November, when he might expose Pine Gap as a CIA operation in Parliament and possibly even cancel its lease.

These developments, I argue, prompted Kissinger to take action and ‘put pressure in Whitlam’. He reacted on two levels.

First, as Secretary of State, he sent a cable to the US Embassy in Canberra on 4 November authorising an approach to the Australian government “at the highest level” stating that Whitlam’s allegation that the CIA paid money to National Country Party leader Doug Anthony “could have damaging fallout on other aspects of US-Australian relations”.

Secondly, on 8 November, the CIA’s Ted Shackley sent a demarche to ASIO. It said the US could not see how the issues raised by Whitlam could do other than “blow the lid off those installations in Australia where the persons concerned have been working and which are vital to both of our services and countries, particularly the installation at Alice Springs”. Unless the problems could be resolved, the Americans “could not see how our mutually beneficial relationships are going to continue.”

This demarche – perhaps “the most serious note passed to Australian authorities in the history of bilateral relations between Australia and the United States” –would have been authorised at the highest level of the US government. It likely also reflected a wider concern than the immediate problem of Whitlam’s forthcoming statement in Parliament. Robertson’s sacking and the threat to abolish ASIS would have been a major concern. Most importantly, Colby and Oldfield knew that Whitlam was seeking to cut ties between the Australian security agencies and the CIA and MI6. They saw this as a threat to Pine Gap and had agreed that “something needed to be done”. Oldfield would have known that the Governor-General was considering dismissing Whitlam and that the Palace had given him the green light to do so. Such information would have been vital to the Americans.

Although disguised as an agency-to-agency cable, the demarche was essentially sent via various intermediaries from the White House to Yarralumla. The CIA’s Ted Shackley was the US intermediary. Sir Arthur Tange, self-appointed chief spook and undeclared agent-of -influence for the CIA, received it in Canberra. He interpreted it as an ultimatum with the alliance at risk, and said it represented the greatest ever threat to Australia’s national security. After making one last vain attempt to get Whitlam to back down, Tange ensured the message was conveyed to the Governor-General by yet another intermediary, John Farrands.

The strategy behind the Shackley cable, its wording and the use of intermediaries were extremely clever. In the event of discovery, everything about the exercise facilitated plausible deniability – that no ultimatum was intended, that the alliance was never under threat, that the note was nothing more than a confidential agency to agency cable discussing the possible attenuation of information sharing. Yet Tange, it seems, understood what was intended and acted accordingly.

Malcolm Fraser’s action in blocking supply allowed the dismissal to take place. It was a necessary condition in that it provided constitutional cover, however thin it might be, for the Governor-General to take the unprecedented action that he did. It is unclear how much information Oldfield provided to the Palace on the security issues, but probably the minimum possible on a need-to-know basis. Oldfield’s priority would have been for Charteris to ensure Kerr knew that the Queen would have his back, while being able to maintain plausible deniability of any Royal involvement in the dismissal. MI6 supported the CIA though Five Eyes. They did not undertake independent operations that could have compromised the Crown or the British Labour government.

The timing of the dismissal, if not the event itself, came as something of a surprise to the Palace. Charteris had sent Kerr a letter agreeing with his view that the situation with supply had yet to become a constitutional crisis. Kerr was obviously working to a new schedule driven by other factors.  I argue these other factors were the intelligence agencies. When Whitlam arrived at Yarralumla on 11 November, the Governor-General dismissed him before he could recommend a half Senate election. This had the effect of preventing Whitlam from speaking in Parliament and possibly cancelling the lease on Pine Gap. To achieve this outcome, Kerr had to commission Fraser as prime minister, prorogue Parliament and call a general election. As Oldfield’s biographer concludes, “the Dismissal, as it became known, is still recalled with astonishment in Australia. But from the British and American intelligence agencies’ point of view, the outcome was exactly what they wanted … and Pine Gap remains a key asset of Western intelligence.”

Australia’s democracy was crucified on the altar of Pine Gap, regarded as an essential asset in the ideological conflict between Soviet domination and democratic freedom. For the Cold War warriors, to rephrase a famous dispatch from the Vietnam war, “it became necessary to destroy Australia’s democracy in order to save it”.

Yet ultimately Australians had only themselves to blame. The smoking gun was supplied by the Chief Justice, loaded by the Leader of the Opposition and discharged by the Governor-General. Exactly as he did with the coup d’état in Chile, Kissinger could well have told his president: “We didn’t do it. I mean, we helped them. … [Redacted] created the conditions as great as possible”.

In July 1977, the Americans came as close to an apology for Kissinger’s actions as could reasonably be expected. Warren Christopher, Deputy Secretary of State under the new Democrat president, Jimmy Carter, flew into Sydney exclusively for a brief meeting at the airport with the leader of the Opposition, Gough Whitlam. As Whitlam records in his memoirs, Christopher told him that President Carter had instructed him to say that:

“The Democratic Party and the ALP were fraternal parties. He respected deeply the democratic rights of the allies of the United States. The US Administration would never again interfere in the domestic political processes of Australia. He would work with whatever government the people of Australia elected.”


Read the previous articles in this series on the United States’ role in the Overthrow of Edward Gough Whitlam:

“Shame Fraser, shame”: The overthrow of Edward Gough Whitlam. Part 1

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