Whitlam’s overthrow: Queen’s Gambit to checkmate. Part 5

Nov 12, 2023
Former PM Gough Whitlam addresses reporters outside parliament in Canberra after his dismissal by the governor general on 11 November 1975. Photograph: Keystone/Getty Images

“Well, how about a call from the CIA to MI6 saying we have a security problem in Australia? More than one call. Dozens of calls. We have a security problem with the Prime Minister. He’s endangering national security for the United States and the Alliance. The evidence is he is making noises about our bases, he’s making threats; those bases are absolutely essential to the survival of the Alliance. Now what caused the Brits to act? They made a recommendation for the demise, yes. And in a way, it allowed a duly elected Prime Minister to be tossed out of office. It’s all scary really, when you think about it.”

TV Interview with Joseph Trento, author of The Secret History of the CIA

Following his dismissal as Prime Minister on November 11, 1975, Gough Whitlam delivered an angry valedictory to a sympathetic crowd in Canberra. At least one member of the audience, however, was experiencing a rather different emotion – Schadenfreude. As Bill Robertson, former Director-General of ASIS, wrote later, “I would hardly be human if I did not feel some satisfaction when the Whitlam government was itself dismissed by the Governor- General and I was able to witness Whitlam’s emotional performance on the steps of Parliament House”.

In the nearly three weeks before he had to vacate his office, Robertson would have had full access to the secure networks required to communicate with other members of Five Eyes, particularly MI6 and the CIA. Maurice Oldfield, Chief of MI6, would have had the greatest concern about Robertson’s sacking, both in personal terms and because of Whitlam’s threat to abolish ASIS. Oldfield had helped establish ASIS and the two services worked together almost interchangeably in Asia. ASIS officers were trained by MI6 and even referred to MI6 headquarters in London as ‘Head Office’.

Maurice Oldfield was the doyen of intelligence chiefs, highly regarded around the world. Despite his avuncular appearance – in the TV series, Alec Guinness modelled his George Smiley on Oldfield – he was a Cold War warrior through and through and entirely ruthless when he had to be. Britain was on the front line in the Cold War and more vulnerable to a nuclear attack than the US. In 1961, for example, Khrushchev asked the British Ambassador in Moscow how many nuclear bombs would be required to dispose of Britain. Six, hazarded the Ambassador. Khrushchev pronounced him a pessimist; he had earmarked scores of bombs for use against Britain.

If Pine Gap was vital to America’s security, it was possibly of existential importance to the UK.

Within Five Eyes, the relationship between the CIA and MI6 was by far the closest and most significant. Although Oldfield frequently disagreed with CIA personalities like Angleton, the agencies were united in their focus on the threat posed by the Soviet Union.

As soon as the US National Security Council (NSC) decided to take action against the Whitlam government in Australia, as explored as likely in early contributions to this series, there is no question that Maurice Oldfield would have been fully informed and, indeed, consulted. There is no way that the Americans would have undertaken covert action in a significant Commonwealth country, particularly a member of Five Eyes, without involving the British.

Oldfield would not have wanted to break protocols by running a MI6 operation in Australia or involving ASIS against its own government. It could also cause problems with his own political masters from the British Labour party. With limited resources and mild distaste, he would be more likely to leave the ‘spooky fiddling’ to the CIA, while cautioning them not to get caught. That said, he may well have drawn on Robertson personally for information to improve his situational awareness.

Was this why top secret signals traffic between MI6 and ASIS increased by 74 per cent in 1975?

In approaching his task, Oldfield always preferred the cerebral approach of gentle persuasion to the cruder tactic of the thumb screw. In a speech at his old school, he said: “Intelligence is all about people and the study of people”. Understanding what might motivate Sir John Kerr to take the risk of dismissing the Australian prime minister could open a rich vein of study.

Oldfield was also famous for his network, which ranged from humble chauffeurs in Singapore to the Shah of Iran. In 1975, Oldfield’s network included Justice Robert Hope, to whom he had been introduced by Robertson. According to Oldfield’s biographer (and nephew), Martin Pearce, Oldfield communicated frequently with Hope and even had his home telephone number. Eventually this persistence paid off when Hope advised Oldfield that the Australian Prime Minister was encouraging the Royal Commission to recommend a significant reduction, if not cessation, of the ties between the Australian security agencies and their American and British counterparts. This would have been in line with Whitlam’s instruction to ASIO head, Peter Barbour, in July 1974 to cease cooperation with the CIA.

This was a red flag and Oldfield saw it as a threat to Pine Gap and the other facilities. He informed Bill Colby immediately. Noting the closeness of this relationship between the agencies, Pearce states “what united MI6 and the CIA in particular was their concern that Whitlam might close down the joint satellite tracking station at Pine Gap near Alice Springs”. He would also have seen it as a challenge to Five Eyes, possibly leading to the withdrawal of Australia from the group. As Pearce says, “as it was Whitlam who’d been driving the matter, in the view of the intelligence agencies something needed to be done.

The British Royal family has a long history of a close connection to the covert world. As Prince of Wales, King Charles had been Royal Patron of the Intelligence Services. In 2019, Prince William, undertook work experience by spending one week each at MI6, MI5 and GCHQ. Although members of the civil service, MI6 officers were officially classified as Crown servants, and they took the distinction seriously.

As Professors Richard Aldrich and Rory Cormac state in Spying and the Crown – The Secret Relationship Between British Intelligence and the Royals (2021):

“Monarchs require intelligence to perform their duties. They enjoy the constitutional right to offer comments, encouragement and, most importantly, warning. … [The monarch] can express opinions on policy to the prime minister in an entirely confidential manner. Prime Minister David Cameron recalled that the Queen asked ‘incredibly perceptive’ questions, a view shared by senior intelligence officials. She could only do that if she was well briefed and had a full picture of what was going on, including classified material.”

For over 70 years, Queen Elizabeth took a keen interest in intelligence matters. Even before she became Queen, with the support of her new assistant private secretary, Colonel Martin Charteris, she began receiving classified material. Charteris’ previous job had been in British military intelligence in Jerusalem, where he had worked closely with an owlish, clever young Major called Maurice Oldfield.

After Elizabeth became Queen, the red boxes, containing Cabinet papers and top-secret reports from the intelligence agencies, arrived every evening, with a weekly summary of highly sensitive material from the Joint Intelligence Committee. There were only four keys to the red boxes, one of which was in the possession of Charteris. According to Aldrich and Cormac:

“[The Queen] soon found herself mired in superpower intrigue, worried about potential Soviet blackmail, discussing assassinating foreign leaders, and as a confidante to a prime minister unburdening himself of secrets he could not tell anyone else. Elizabeth was now firmly part of the secret world; she never looked back.

In 2021, the year before her death, Aldrich and Cormack wrote that “one thing is certain. Acquired over decades of reading classified intelligence, Queen Elizabeth II knows more state secrets than anyone alive. She probably knows more state secrets than anyone in history. … How she used that information … raises important questions about the role of the Crown in British politics.” Indeed, it does. It’s not only in British politics that the role of the Crown is open to question, but also in those 14 other nations, including Australia, where the British monarch is head of state.

One of the secrets that the Queen would have known all about was the circumstances that led to the demise of Gough Whitlam, her challenging Australian prime minister, whom her husband referred to as a ‘socialist arsehole’. Following Whitlam’s statement in Parliament in April 1974, the Queen’s red boxes would have contained an analysis of his intention not to renew the leases on the US facilities and the implications for the strategic balance. It is likely that the matter would have been discussed between the declared MI6 officer stationed in the British High Commission in Canberra and the CIA head of station, John Walker. It is also likely that the Queen would have been fully briefed by Oldfield or GCHQ about the symbiotic relationship between Pine Gap and its sister station Menwith Hill in Yorkshire and their vital importance to Britain’s national security.

While Oldfield and Charteris would have discussed the possibility of Whitlam’s dismissal, it would not have been the preferred option unless absolutely necessary. The British would have agreed with the US NSC that if Whitlam didn’t threaten the facilities and would agree to renew the lease on Pine Gap, it would be best, on balance, for him to remain in office. If he were to be forced out due to covert action and then won an election on an anti-foreign bases ticket, it would be a disaster. If he found out the Crown was involved as well, it would be the worst of all worlds.

In this context we should remember the discussion between the US Defence Secretary Schlesinger and Marshall Green in February 1975. Provided Cairns didn’t become prime minister and there was no exposure of CIA activity in Australia, they agreed that with Whitlam in place the bases seemed secure. But Green omitted another possibility. If Whitlam should discover the truth about Pine Gap, all bets were off. In the first week of November that is exactly what happened, and the Prime Minister was on a rampage. Now he had to go.

Needless to say, none of these security issues were mentioned in the Palace letters. Sherlock Holmes’ dog failed to bark yet again. The Queen understood enough about tradecraft to steer clear of contact with Kerr on these sensitive matters, including through her private secretary. Of course, secure telephone calls were a possibility, but Oldfield would want to minimise direct contacts. It was absolutely essential that no connection between the Palace and the dismissal was traceable, then or in the future.

In any case, Oldfield would have appreciated that Charteris was already playing Kerr like a trout by flattering him, indulging his sycophancy and never explicitly mentioning dismissing Whitlam in the letters. Charteris had told Kerr (incorrectly) that the blocking of supply always necessitated a general election. He had advised him the Reserve powers were at his disposal provided he dug up some constitutional excuse for using them. More boldly, he suggested that if Kerr did what he had to do (nudge, nudge, wink, wink), he would even do the Crown good in Australia. There was no need to go further. The Queen’s consiglieri was a master of his craft.

Nevertheless, it would be reassuring to have some contact with Kerr to ensure he understood the underlying gravity of the situation. One possibility is that Prince Charles briefed Kerr on the complex intelligence material when they met in Papua New Guinea at the nation’s independence ceremony in September 1975. This might explain why Kerr told Charles he was thinking of dismissing Whitlam but was concerned that he himself would get the sack. Calling on the inexperienced Prince, then aged 26, would have been an uncertain tactic, however, and in any case, was perhaps a little too close to home.

Much more likely is that Sir Michael Palliser, Permanent Secretary of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, was charged with the task. MI6 was within Palliser’s portfolio and Maurice Oldfield reported through him to the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, Jim Callaghan. There were some peculiar features of Palliser’s overnight visit to Australia in mid-October 1975. He flew on to Jakarta afterwards to talk to the Indonesian foreign minister about Timor Leste, an issue where the British collaborated with Australia to some degree. It is curious that Palliser met neither the foreign minister, Don Willesee, nor the Secretary of Foreign Affairs, Alan Renouf, for a discussion while in Australia, while his meeting with Kerr was officially gazetted.

Apart from the UK High Commissioner, Palliser met only the Governor-General and the NSW Governor, ostensibly to discuss avoiding the Queen becoming involved in a half-Senate election. That could have been addressed in a phone call from Whitehall. It would have provided excellent cover, however, for a much more important mission. Indeed, if Palliser did carry the Black Spot for Whitlam in his diplomatic pouch, Oldfield would have appreciated the irony. In overtly seeking to avoid involving the Queen of England in Australian politics, was Palliser’s covert mission to involve the Crown in the most profound way possible?

An authoritative but, curiously, anonymous review of Pearce’s biography of Oldfield in Britain’s Daily Express, which, under its legendary reporter, Chapman Pincher, dominated reporting of the espionage industry in the late twentieth century, had no doubts about Oldfield’s involvement in the dismissal.

“Sometimes there was a darker side to Oldfield’s manoeuvrings. His hand was clearly behind the decision of the Queen’s representative in Australia, Governor-General Sir John Kerr, to sack the democratically elected Prime Minister Gough Whitlam in 1975. One of the main concerns was that Whitlam might close the vital CIA-run satellite-tracking base near Alice Springs from which surveillance of Russia, China and the Middle East was controlled.”

In any case, the Governor-General had all the information he needed to make the decision. He knew better than to advise the Queen of what he was about to do. Kerr knew he had to sack the Prime Minister before he could request a half Senate election and before he could answer Doug Anthony’s question on notice in the Senate on the afternoon of 11 November. Most importantly, this series argues that Kerr knew he had to make Malcolm Fraser prime minister, so he could renew the lease on Pine Gap.

Gough Whitlam never believed that the Palace had any involvement in his dismissal.

Read the other articles in this series:

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

Stress testing the US alliance: Whitlam and the secrets of Pine Gap

Cold War imperatives: Whitlam and the US National Security Council

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