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The unfair dismissal

29 September 2012 1,857 views 2 Comments

Much guff has appeared in some parts of the media about how, in this second volume of her biography of Gough Whitlam, Jenny Hocking has discovered that Sir Anthony Mason (then a High Court judge) was the shadowy third man who counselled then governor-general Sir John Kerr to sack Australia’s 21st prime minister.

In fact, the director of the Sydney Institute, Dr Gerard Henderson, revealed this decades ago – first in his column in The Sydney Morning Herald on January 8, 1994, and then later that year in his magisterial history of the Liberal Party of Australia, ‘Menzies’ Child’. To be fair to Hocking, she does make reference to Henderson’s work, but only in the end notes.

It is certainly true that, in this well-researched book, Hocking has unearthed some other fascinating information, especially about Kerr’s recollections about matters leading up to his dismissal of Whitlam on November 11, 1975. This especially applies to the actual extent, and the details, of the governor-general’s ”secret” discussions with Mason. These and other ”revelations” are almost entirely derived from her analysis of Kerr’s ”private and confidential papers relating to the constitutional crisis of 1975”, which had not previously been available.

To this reviewer, there are three other matters of particular interest. First is the fact that, as Kerr wrote in his personal papers, he was extremely fearful that the prime minister would sack him, should Whitlam find out what he was planning.

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The second is Hocking’s claim that, well before the dismissal, Kerr – whom until Remembrance Day, 1975, Whitlam naively regarded as his ”best appointment” – informed the young Prince Charles in Port Moresby in some detail about what he was intending to do.

And third is that on his return to England, the Prince of Wales took the matter up with the Queen’s private secretary, Sir Martin Charteris. Unknown to Whitlam, Charteris wrote to the governor-general that should what he euphemistically referred to as ”the contingency to which you refer” arise, the Queen would ”try to delay things”. However, it was Charteris’s opinion that, in the end, the Queen would be obliged to take the advice of the prime minister.

In one of the book’s key chapters, ”The Third Man”, Hocking states: ”Neither Kerr nor the palace ever revealed that, weeks before any action in the Senate had been taken, the governor-general had already conferred with the palace on the possibility of the future dismissal of the prime minister, securing in advance the response of the palace to it.”

One problem with these remarkable claims is that they seem to be based solely on Kerr’s private and confidential papers. Some other independent collaboration would have been more than helpful.

Perhaps more importantly, Hocking doesn’t satisfactorily address two key issues: that Whitlam, who knew he was likely to be defeated in another federal election, persistently tried to govern without supply, and that like all informed observers, Whitlam and Kerr both knew the reserve powers had previously been used when NSW governor Sir Philip Game dismissed maverick Labor premier Jack Lang in 1932.

The reality is that Hocking’s book is very much Whitlam’s view of Whitlam. This means that Kerr, Mason, Sir Garfield Barwick, Malcolm Fraser and a host of other political figures who thwarted Whitlam are all portrayed in a negative light.

This consistently pro-Whitlam perspective also applies to most of the events and policy decisions that occurred during his brief but tumultuous time in office. This applies to Hocking’s treatment of Whitlam’s seeming acquiescence in Indonesia’s planned invasion of East Timor.

While many commentators think Whitlam, Fraser and subsequent prime ministers, in effect, sold the people of East Timor down the river, Hocking is anxious to portray Whitlam in an especially benign and positive light.

One of the strengths of ‘Gough Whitlam: His Time’ is an array of illuminating black-and-white photographs that aptly illustrate Whitlam’s time in, and after, high office. My favourite is a photograph of Whitlam, left ear cocked, listening to the Echo Wall in the Temple of Heaven in Beijing in October 1973. Australia’s first ambassador to China, the highly influential and capable Dr Stephen FitzGerald, is seen closely observing the PM.

The book also boasts an extremely useful index and bibliography. It is pleasing to report that Hocking does acknowledge the invaluable work of her two research assistants, Dr Natasha Campo and Dr Sarah Tayton.

However, in the same paragraph of the acknowledgments, Tayton’s name is misspelt as Taton.


Jenny Hocking

Miegunyah Press,

596pp, $49.99

The Sydney Morning Herald, September 29 -30, 2012, SPECTRUM p 33.


  • Tim McDonald said:

    Dear Professor Fitzgerald

    I read with interest your review of Jenny Hocking’s new book “Gough Whitlam – His Time”, in particular the revelation in the book (which I have not yet read) that the question of the dismissal was canvassed in the Palace as a result of Kerr’s mention of his intentions to Prince Charles in Port Moresby.

    You say that “One problem with these claims is that they seem to be solely based on Kerr’s private and confidential papers. Some other independent collaboration would have been more helpful.”

    I can provide some sort of collaboration from a conversation I had with Sir Martin Charteris not long after the event. I was Official Secretary at the Australian High Commission in London and had got to know Martin well over 3 years in dealing with the Place on a wide range of matters.

    Charteris is quoted by Hocking as saying that should “the contingency to which you refer arise” the Queen would try to delay things. This is very much in line with what Martin said to me when I asked him, over lunch shortly before I left London, what his advice to the Queen would have been should a comparable situation arise in the UK Parliament.

    His reply was: If faced with a constitutional crisis which appeared likely to involve the Head of State, his advice would have been that she should intervene only when a “clear sense of inevitability” had developed in the public that she must act.

    I mentioned this to John Menadue over lunch one day in 1995. John’s record of our conversation which he faxed to me noted:

    21 November 1995

    Today I spoke to Tim McDonald who recalls that as Official Secretary at Australia House in London at the end of 1975 or early 1976 he had a discussion with Martin Charteris who was personal secretary to the Queen at the time.

    McDonald said that he had asked Charteris what would have been the response by the Palace if a similar situation had arisen in the British Parliament.

    Charteris said that the key to any Palace intervention would be to wait until the outcome was clear and inevitable. Once that was established the Palace would then be in a position to intervene to confirm what would be regarded as an inevitable outcome.

    In this way the Palace would avoid being partisan and intervening prematurely in a political struggle.”

    After reading Paul Kelly’s account of the event in his book 1975, in June 1997 I faxed him an expanded account which I suggested he might pursue with Charteris if contemplating a second edition.

    As I said to Kelly at the end of my message: My record of the discussion is from memory but it made such an impression on me at the time that I am confident that my recollection is accurate. Of course I posed my question as a hypothetical situation and Martin, who was as the job required the soul of discretion, answered it as such, with no reference to what Hocking now reveals as a deeper involvement of the Palace in the run up to the dismissal.

  • Media WatchDog said:

    Re Vol 2 of Jenny Hocking’s biog of Gough Whitlam

    Student to Gerard Henderson – 21 June 2013

    Dear Mr Henderson

    I note and agree with your comments that Jenny Hocking’s recording that Sir Anthony Mason was “the third man” was not a revelation at all, as yourself and others previously reported it as early as 1994. However from my reading it appears that it was the media, not Hocking herself, that made a “breaking news” issue out of this. In fact she actually acknowledged your previous disclosure by reference in the book.

    I am also interested in your comments that Hocking is “the left’s bespoke biographer”. I note that you have criticised Hocking for her choice of left wing subjects in her biographies and her overly positive portrayal of them. I understand the inference you have made, but I am struggling to find specific criticisms of Hocking’s biography of Gough Whitlam in your comments. Other reviewers such as Ross Fitzgerald have offered more specific examples of how Hocking has treated Whitlam in an overly positive way. In light of this, I was hoping if you could outline for me what are your main substantive criticisms of Hocking’s biography? This will assist me to collate the information to form a balanced view of my central thesis question. Thank you in advance.

    Media WatchDog, June 28, 2013

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