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Updating the dismissal

28 November 2015 164 views No Comment

The Dismissal: In the Queen’s Name
By Paul Kelly and Troy Bramston
Viking, 432pp, $39.99 (HB)

The information — much of it new — contained in this up-to-date analysis of the dismissal of Gough Whitlam as prime minister is utterly fascinating. Paul Kelly and Troy Bramston, political journalists on this newspaper, have uncovered fresh documents and interviewed scores of participants in the events leading up to, during and after the momentous day of November 11, 1975. In the main, they have made good use of what they found and learned.

Subtitled “In the Queen’s Name”, this edition of ‘The Dismissal’ was timed to coincide with the 40th anniversary of governor-general John Kerr removing Whitlam and replacing him with Malcolm Fraser as caretaker prime minister, pending a double-dissolution election called for December 13, 1975.

As Kelly and Bramston reveal, all three key players in what is arguably the most dramatic event in Australian political history were ruthless, stubborn, proud, narcissistic — and in many ways deeply flawed.

Perhaps because it is a co-authored work, the book is rather repetitive. But ‘The Dismissal’ is extremely illuminating. This especially applies to the complex interactions between Whitlam, Fraser and Kerr. Some of Kerr’s papers, including handwritten notes, were made available from the National Archives.

As Kelly and Bramston argue, one of the lessons from the crisis is that Whitlam’s obsession in denying Kerr access to the attorney-general and solicitor-general only drove the governor-general to look elsewhere for legal advice, especially about exercising the reserve powers.

That was a major, but not only, reason Kerr sought out his mentor, Garfield Barwick, who, as a highly political chief justice, was keen to participate in Whitlam’s demise and quite sure he could justify his intervention.

As the book reveals, Kerr especially had no hesitation consulting regularly with his old colleague from the Sydney Bar, High Court judge Anthony Mason, who eventually became chief justice in February 1987. Yet apparently Kerr made no attempt to consult his predecessors as governor-general (William McKell, Richard Casey and Paul Hasluck).

There is much I still find puzzling and problematic about the dismissal. For example, had Whitlam viscerally understood that it was a Liberal premier, Robert Askin, who in 1972 made Kerr chief justice of NSW, he might not have appointed him governor-general in July 1974, seemingly sure of his “Labor sympathies. It also needs to be remembered that Kerr, who had not sought the position, took a long time to decide and then only after he had extracted a series of concessions about salary, pension and a 10-year tenure, double the conventional term.

Moreover had Whitlam known that, well before accepting his offer, Kerr strongly believed in the right of the governor-general to exercise the reserve powers, he almost certainly would not have appointed him. Indeed, it is difficult to disagree with the authors’ statement that it has fallen to more recent chief justices “to try to construct new and better ‘rules’ to ensure the separation-of-powers doctrine.

The essential criticism Kelly and Bramston level at Kerr is that he did not advise Whitlam he might be dismissed. However, as the book repeatedly demonstrates, Whitlam never engaged Kerr and, remarkably, as prime minister, he provided no advice to the governor-general. Perhaps even more important, Kerr came to the opinion — possibly justified — that he could not influence Whitlam.

To my mind, one matter that’s new and important about this edition of ‘The Dismissal’is the discovery of a letter written by Whitlam to British Labour prime minister Harold Wilson on December 31, 1975. In this letter, a mere two weeks after Labor’s overwhelming defeat at the federal election, Whitlam in effect says that had he been aware of his pending dismissal, he would have advised the Queen to remove the governor-general.

Kerr always maintained his intention was to keep the palace out of the controversy. He said he did this to protect the palace. In contrast, Kerr’s critics argue he did this to preserve his job. Whatever the case, the outcome most likely would have been much the same.

The stark reality is that Kerr deeply feared that, had Whitlam known of his plans, he might have been dismissed as governor-general. This fear was only fuelled by the fact Whitlam, sometimes, in front of overseas dignitaries, made thinly veiled jokes to other people about sacking him. Moreover the portrait Kelly and Bramston paint of Whitlam in November 1975 is of a prime minister consumed with rage.

What is most fresh about this book is that the authors are devastating in their criticism of the incompetence with which Whitlam handled the crisis. They rightly point out that his proposal for a half-Senate election, with supply expiring before such an election could be held, was absolutely unworkable.

Moreover, Kelly and Bramston are justifiably highly critical of the performance of the Whitlam ministry — in particular of attorney-general Kep Enderby, who they demonstrate was incompetent. Tellingly, they quote John Mant, Whitlam’s principal private secretary at the time, saying that the federal Labor ministers were dysfunctional and regarded by Whitlam himself as a “largely useless group of “pissants.

Yet the reality is that, using the same extremely valuable information Kelly and Bramston have supplied in this usefully illustrated book, one can draw somewhat different conclusions. In my view Kerr, for all his faults, emerges as someone who was consistent, especially in relation to the reserve powers. He, like Barwick, left extensive contemporaneous notes. In contrast, Fraser and Whitlam kept few memos and notes that were contemporaneous. In his memoirs, and again before his death in March, Fraser admitted to a “notoriously fallible memory.

As with Kerr, during early to mid-November 1975 Fraser emerges from this book as determined and consistent. There is nothing here that suggests Fraser was ever intending to back down from his determination to block supply and force an election. In my view this gives weight to Kerr’s position that it was only he who could resolve the deadlock.

The book also indicates Whitlam was absolutely determined to prevail since he thought the crisis was about the authority of the House of Representatives. Fraser thought the dispute was about supply. Kerr formed a similar view.

The repercussions of Whitlam’s dismissal lingered into 1977. When Kerr’s predecessor as governor-general, Hasluck, visited London that August, the Queen’s private secretary, Martin Charteris, took the opportunity for a long, confidential interview with him. In particular he sought an update on opinion in Australia, as well as Hasluck’s thoughts about Kerr’s dismissal of Whitlam and his replacement by Fraser as caretaker prime minister ahead of a general election.

Kelly and Bramston quote from a document written by Hasluck about this important conversation with Charteris, who hinted Her Majesty might well have been displeased and disillusioned with Kerr. Although Hasluck certainly didn’t approve of Kerr’s tactics, he clearly stated that he believed Kerr “had the power to act as he did and the success of his action was final proof of the fact.

Kelly and Bramston conclude that the “final responsibility for the dismissal must rest with Kerr. But after reading their intriguing and thoroughly researched book, I’m of the view that Fraser and Whitlam may have been as much to blame as Kerr for all that occurred.

But whatever stands as the current balance of opinion, it surely is time for all palace papers concerning the dismissal to be opened to the public. Under current policy these papers cannot be released until 2027, 50 years after Kerr’s retirement. So it is pleasing to be informed that Malcolm Turnbull has asked Buckingham Palace to release these historically important documents as soon as possible.

Ross Fitzgerald is emeritus professor of history and politics at Griffith University.

The Weekend Australian, November 28-29, 2015, review, Books p 19.

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