Interpreti­ng the Dis­missal

Paul Kelly's in­flu­ence


For many, per­haps most, Aus­tralians, the dis­tant po­lit­i­cal cri­sis of 1975 has faded into the back­ground of a barely rel­e­vant his­tory. Nev­er­the­less, there are good rea­sons to trace the present malaise of our pol­i­tics, which al­most ev­ery­one de­tests, to the un­re­solved is­sues of 1975.

If the present po­lit­i­cal malaise can be char­ac­terised by se­ri­ously di­min­ished ac­count­abil­ity, a propen­sity of the ex­ec­u­tive to stack the sys­tem or use me­di­at­ing in­sti­tu­tions as weapons against po­lit­i­cal op­po­nents, or more gen­er­ally em­bod­ied by ‘do­ing what­ever it takes' to win, or some mix­ture of th­ese el­e­ments, then there is a com­pelling case that can be made that this con­di­tion has a par­al­lel in the dis­missal of the Whit­lam gov­ern­ment.

Yet it seems our task is dou­bly

de­mand­ing, for, as this piece is be­ing pre­pared, a dis­tin­guished pub­lic in­tel­lec­tual is even will­ing to write that no dan­ger­ous prece­dent was set by the sack­ing of a demo­crat­i­cally elected gov­ern­ment.

1 This ad­mis­sion un­der­lines the mixed record, since 1975, of Aus­tralia's elites in fail­ing to name the ac­tions of John Kerr and his col­lab­o­ra­tors as an­tidemo­cratic, and con­firm the im­port of those ac­tions.

Far from sub­scrib­ing to a view that ‘a small li­brary [has been] writ­ten on ev­ery as­pect of Novem­ber 11 [1975]' our ar­gu­ment here is that too many elites have been too quick to dis­miss the on-go­ing rel­e­vance of the dis­missal.

To the term ‘elites' we as­cribe the neu­tral mean­ing: elites are those whose so­cial or po­lit­i­cal po­si­tion sug­gests greater ca­pac­ity to in­flu­ence the course of events. In this non-pe­jo­ra­tive use of the term, then, elites are to be crit­i­cised ac­cord­ing to the qual­ity of their con­tri­bu­tion to a de­bate, not sim­ply be­cause they are an elite.

In the some­times-use­ful/ some­times­per­ni­cious pop­ulism of the present, it seems nec­es­sary to say, more nor­ma­tively, that elites have a par­tic­u­lar re­spon­si­bil­ity to cor­rect mis­con­cep­tions that, if al­lowed to go un­cor­rected, would di­min­ish the body politic. It is pre­cisely this re­spon­si­bil­ity, in terms of the po­lit­i­cal cri­sis of 1975, that many elites seem to have aban­doned, or never as­sumed in the first place.

One pos­si­ble re­sponse to our claim that a deep malaise now af­flicts the body politic, is that an im­pov­er­ished pol­i­tics has al­ways been thus. But this stance robs it­self of ex­plain­ing much of the cur­rent phe­nom­e­non of po­lit­i­cal dis­en­chant­ment, or at the very least its mag­ni­tude.

Whether we are pondering the dis­sem­bling de­fence of politi­cians' mis­use of per­sonal ex­pen­di­ture or,

If the present po­lit­i­cal malaise can be char­ac­terised by se­ri­ously di­min­ished ac­count­abil­ity... then there is a com­pelling case that can be made that this con­di­tion has a par­al­lel in the dis­missal of the Whit­lam gov­ern­ment.

The po­lit­i­cal cri­sis of 1975 is noth­ing if not a

cri­sis of democ­racy.

as in the re­cent Tim Wil­son scan­dal, the weapon­is­ing of a par­lia­men­tary com­mit­tee to at­tack a pol­icy stance of the Op­po­si­tion, or the sys­tem­atic in­tim­i­da­tion of a pub­lic broad­caster, or the stack­ing of statu­tory tri­bunals, or the use of royal com­mis­sions to pur­sue po­lit­i­cal ri­vals, such breaches, while per­haps ap­pear­ing to lose in­di­vid­ual im­pact as scan­dals, nev­er­the­less add to a deep malaise — a malaise which we trace to the rup­ture of 1975.

The po­lit­i­cal cri­sis of 1975 is noth­ing if not a cri­sis of democ­racy. The re­cent care­ful re­searches of Jenny Hock­ing have over­thrown the re­ceived view of the cri­sis with the shock­ing news that the gov­er­nor-gen­eral of the time, John Kerr, bla­tantly lied to the Aus­tralian peo­ple, that, in ad­di­tion to Garfield Bar­wick, yet an­other mem­ber of the High Court, An­thony Ma­son, was in­volved in a con­spir­acy against the prime min­is­ter, Gough Whit­lam, and that Buck­ing­ham Palace was im­pli­cated in the af­fair.

2 What might be called the ‘con­ven­tional view' of the dis­missal was largely fash­ioned by the work of the News Cor­po­ra­tion jour­nal­ist Paul Kelly.

Paul Kelly made some­thing of a ca­reer out of doc­u­ment­ing and analysing the dis­missal of the Whit­lam gov­ern­ment. In 1976 he pub­lished his po­lit­i­cal thriller, The Un­mak­ing of Gough,

some­what in the style of Alan Reid, giv­ing ‘a blow-by-blow ac­count' of the events of Novem­ber 1975.

In 1983, this story was re­pro­duced un­der the name The Dis­missal: Aus­tralia’s most sen­sa­tional power strug­gle: the down­fall of Gough Whit­lam. In 1995 Kelly re­leased Novem­ber 1975: the in­side story of Aus­tralia’s great­est po­lit­i­cal cri­sis.

And in 2018 he col­lab­o­rated with Troy Bram­ston to pro­duce The Dis­missal. In the Queen’s Name. Along with all this were news­pa­per ar­ti­cles and TV in­ter­views.

Be­fore we con­sider his un­par­al­leled in­flu­ence on in­ter­pre­ta­tions of the ‘sen­sa­tional' events, we may re­flect on the stand Kelly, who has ranged over many po­lit­i­cal events and is­sues in Aus­tralian his­tory, has taken on the moral di­men­sion of pol­i­tics.

In a pithy ad­dress, he ex­plored the re­la­tion­ship be­tween re­li­gion and pol­i­tics in Aus­tralia, largely in con­trast to the po­si­tion in the United States.

3 Al­though Aus­tralia is con­sti­tu­tion­ally and ir­re­vo­ca­bly a sec­u­lar state, ‘sec­u­lar­ists' are nev­er­the­less wrong to think that there is no place for in­ter­ac­tion be­tween the re­li­gious and the po­lit­i­cal.

Kelly cites Fukuyama in as­so­ci­at­ing the ‘morally neu­tral' state with the break­down of the ‘moral con­sen­suses in the com­mu­nity'. He ac­claims John

4 Howard, him­self a player in Malcolm Fraser's coup d’état in 1975, as a ‘values politi­cian' — a ‘cul­tural tra­di­tion­al­ist' — in the prime min­is­te­rial of­fice.

Kelly af­firms that while it is

recog­nised “that the idea of the state as value neu­tral was a phoney propo­si­tion”, “the moral im­per­a­tive is re­turn­ing to pub­lic pol­icy de­bate with force”.

5 One must surely con­clude that the dis­cus­sion of the Whit­lam po­lit­i­cal cri­sis turns the con­tention over the sta­tus of the con­sti­tu­tion into a highly moral ques­tion.

Born to Rule

There is a cer­tain am­biva­lence in Kelly's com­men­taries. Late into Howard's term as prime min­is­ter, the Fair­fax jour­nal­ist Peter Hartcher re­ported the re­sults of a sur­vey that most Aus­tralians be­lieved the prime min­is­ter was ly­ing to them. Kelly

6 seemed to be un­per­turbed at the sit­u­a­tion. Two years be­fore­hand he had an­nounced that all prime min­is­ters lied, and that this was to be ex­pected of them.

Con­cern­ing Howard, he de­clared that “pol­i­tics is not a moral­ity con­test”, and he un­leashed his op­pro­brium on pub­lic ‘moral­ists' David Marr, Ju­lian Burn­side and Rai­mond Gaita, who de­nounced Howard's du­plic­ity — since their “sel­f­righ­teous­ness and pom­pos­ity” knew no lim­its.

8 It may be noted that th­ese com­ments ap­peared af­ter his Cen­tre of In­de­pen­dent Stud­ies lec­ture on re­li­gion, moral­ity and pol­i­tics. In the light of that lec­ture, which af­firms po­lit­i­cal ac­tion as a mat­ter of high moral­ity, ac­counts of 1975 as a racy po­lit­i­cal ad­ven­ture seem a lit­tle out of place.

Kelly's fif­teen-year re­flec­tion on 1975 had lost all per­spec­tive on how the con­sti­tu­tion op­er­ated in Aus­tralia. As the Queen's rep­re­sen­ta­tive in Aus­tralia,

9 the gov­er­nor-gen­eral stands as a fig­ure­head sym­bol­is­ing the unity of the na­tion. In this role, he or she is con­sti­tu­tion­ally, cer­e­mo­ni­ally and sym­bol­i­cally im­por­tant, but their place is in no sense po­lit­i­cal.

The maxim that the Queen can do no wrong fully per­tains to her vice-re­gal rep­re­sen­ta­tives. ‘Do­ing wrong' im­plies em­broil­ment in po­lit­i­cal con­tro­versy. No po­lit­i­cal con­tro­versy could have been big­ger than the one Kerr flung him­self into.

On 11 Novem­ber 1975, Gough Whit­lam faced the re­cal­ci­trance of a Se­nate that, against all con­sti­tu­tional prece­dent, de­layed the vote of Sup­ply, thus threat­en­ing the ex­is­tence of the elected gov­ern­ment in the mid­dle of its sec­ond term. On that cru­cial day the prime min­ster ad­vised the gov­er­nor­gen­eral to call a half-se­nate elec­tion.

It was his pre­rog­a­tive to do so and the gov­er­nor-gen­eral's duty to act upon the ad­vice.

The stands gov­er­nor-gen­eral as a fig­ure­head sym­bol­is­ing the unity of the na­tion…

their place is in no

sense po­lit­i­cal.

The gov­er­nor-gen­eral in­deed had a role to be con­sulted, to ad­vise and to warn the prime min­is­ter, but he did none of th­ese things, least of all to warn the prime min­is­ter of his in­ten­tion to dis­miss the gov­ern­ment.

The coup it­self, and Kelly’s it­er­ated ac­counts of it, re­in­force a born-to-rule syn­drome that has only waxed re­splen­dent over the years since 1975.

The gov­er­nor-gen­eral prob­a­bly con­cluded ac­cu­rately that this spe­cific ac­tion, which would take time to im­ple­ment, would not solve the im­me­di­ate cri­sis. Yet his opin­ion should have been of no con­se­quence. Whit­lam also knew that his ad­vice in it­self would not solve the cri­sis, but he knew that sev­eral of the Lib­eral sen­a­tors were aware of the un­con­sti­tu­tion­al­ity of their po­si­tion, and were ready to give way and pass the bud­get.

Whit­lam's ad­vice would surely have re­solved the con­flict in this way. Paul Kelly knew this, too. But he went much fur­ther by say­ing that if Kerr had acted on Whit­lam's (per­fectly con­sti­tu­tional) ad­vice, Whit­lam “would have en­listed the Gov­er­nor-gen­eral in his cause.

In this sit­u­a­tion Fraser would face ex­treme pres­sure to buckle and pass the Ap­pro­pri­a­tion [Sup­ply] bills”. 10

This bal­anc­ing of Whit­lam's and Fraser's ‘causes' is an em­bar­rass­ing mis­un­der­stand­ing of the con­sti­tu­tional po­si­tion. Re­gard­less of any poli­cies that Whit­lam was pur­su­ing, his so-called ‘ cause' was the cause of the gov­ern­ment of Aus­tralia; more­over, it is ab­surd to sug­gest that the gov­er­nor-gen­eral was there for ‘en­list­ing'. His role, though quite mu­ti­lated by the in­cum­bent, was clear, and it was to set the seal on the elected

gov­ern­ment of the coun­try.

Kelly quite un­der­stood the po­si­tion of those who car­ried out the po­lit­i­cal coup:

Fraser acted from self-con­fi­dence bred into his po­lit­i­cal blood. It was the fu­sion of self-in­ter­est and na­tional in­ter­est — the glue that holds any suc­cess­ful party to­gether. Af­ter twenty-three years of power, the non-la­bor side de­tested op­po­si­tion. It was con­vinced that the true or­der of pol­i­tics would be re-es­tab­lished. This was based on a faith in the bond be­tween the mid­dle class and the Lib­eral Party. 11

For a brief glimpse of time, a La­bor gov­ern­ment led by E.G. Whit­lam pur­sued a vi­sion of a more equal so­ci­ety and of a great na­tion, and that there are many to be up­lifted by such a vi­sion, un­der­pinned by prac­ti­cal sup­port pro­vided by an en­light­ened gov­ern­ment. Kelly seems blind to that vi­sion, yet the coup it­self, and Kelly's it­er­ated ac­counts of it, re­in­force a bornto-rule syn­drome that has only waxed re­splen­dent over the years since 1975.

Con­sti­tu­tional Dam­age

Kelly's per­sis­tent con­struc­tion of the cri­sis as a con­test of in­domitable wills is cu­ri­ous. In his 2018 col­lab­o­ra­tion with Troy Bram­ston, it is de­clared that “the Crown ex­ists not as a con­sti­tu­tional um­pire but as a con­sti­tu­tional guardian”. Yet this sim­ple and di­rect

12 truth never seems to in­form Kelly's ac­count of events. How was John Kerr ex­empt from this pre­cept? While moral con­sid­er­a­tions ap­pear in desul­tory fash­ion in this book, the enor­mous eth­i­cal mat­ter of the main­te­nance of the con­sti­tu­tion and a sta­ble sys­tem of gov­ern­ment fades from view.

In an un­pub­lished statement, Kerr him­self claims the dis­missal as a prece­dent, which aligns well with his self

13 por­trait as a sig­nif­i­cant fig­ure in his­tory. The re­spon­si­bil­ity for the con­sti­tu­tional dam­age, which Kelly freely ad­mits, lies

14 with those who ini­ti­ated the coup. Let us say, Fraser, Howard, El­li­cott, Withers, An­thony, Sin­clair — all part of the bornto-rule Coali­tion.

That mem­bers of the High Court, Bar­wick (a former lead­ing mem­ber of the Coali­tion) and Ma­son (who had cam­paigned for Bar­wick's elec­tion for the Lib­eral Party15) should aid and abet Kerr in his folly, was an ex­tra­or­di­nary par­ti­san in­ter­ven­tion, and be­trayed a nox­ious ha­tred of La­bor.

16 There is a hint of class-based con­tempt in Bar­wick's let­ter to Kerr in re­tire­ment: “I am in­clined to think the or­di­nary man has come to re­alise what a bur­den he [ Whit­lam] has been.” For

17 all Kerr's com­plic­ity in con­sti­tu­tional de­struc­tion — even trea­son? — it

18 would not have hap­pened, as he him­self said, if the Se­nate had not de­layed the Sup­ply bills. 19

I am in­clined to think the or­di­nary man has come to re­alise what a bur­den he [Whit­lam] has been. Garfield Bar­wick

Yet Kelly and Bram­ston per­sist in a cu­ri­ous spread­ing of the blame among “the three ex­tra­or­di­nary per­son­al­i­ties at its heart, Whit­lam, Fraser and Kerr.” 20 The three vil­lains of the drama are lined up un­der heavy rubric. At least the tone against Kerr has now be­come quite harsh. We saw them say that the Crown was not a con­sti­tu­tional um­pire, al­though the full im­pli­ca­tions of this judge­ment are not fol­lowed through. Nev­er­the­less, Kerr “seemed not to grasp that a gov­er­nor-gen­eral is sup­posed to have the wis­dom to man­age a par­lia­men­tary cri­sis. That is the job de­scrip­tion.” In 21 any case, Kerr's be­hav­iour through­out the cri­sis was “that of a cow­ard”. 22 Malcolm Fraser, seen as a pri­mary per­pe­tra­tor, also in­curs the au­thors' dis­dain. Kelly and Bram­ston con­clude:

For Fraser, how­ever, there is no es­cape from the his­tor­i­cal judg­ment. He en­gaged in the se­rial smash­ing of con­ven­tions that had long un­der­pinned sta­ble gov­ern­ment in Aus­tralia. He ex­ploited the abuse of the Se­nate's ca­sual va­cancy pro­ce­dure. He re­lied upon a tainted Se­nate. He broke con­ven­tion by us­ing the Se­nate's power to block the bud­get and force an elec­tion. And he re­sorted to a mix­ture of per­sua­sion and in­tim­i­da­tion in the quest to have Kerr dis­miss Whit­lam. It is no sur­prise Fraser pre­ferred not to dis­cuss the sub­ject for the rest of his life.


Fraser's par­tic­i­pa­tion in the events was “a dis­play of un­par­al­leled po­lit­i­cal vi­o­lence”. Here we have it in a nut­shell. 24 The coup d’état was Fraser's work. Yet over­all all the au­thors seem un­aware of the im­pli­ca­tions of their con­tra­dic­tion. Here they ac­cept that con­sti­tu­tional con­ven­tions “had long un­der­pinned sta­ble gov­ern­ment”. In view of th­ese more sub­tle ob­ser­va­tions, Kelly's early 1976 judge­ment of the con­sti­tu­tion, as the ‘im­mov­able ob­ject' that Whit­lam's ‘ir­re­sistible force' ran against, sits rather oddly. 25 Yet Kelly and Bram­ston ap­por­tion a share of the blame for the in­sta­bil­ity that Fraser had caused to Whit­lam him­self, an ex­tra­or­di­nary view. The time-hon­oured un­der­stand­ing of con­ven­tions is that they be­come part of the con­sti­tu­tion, un­writ­ten rules that make the con­sti­tu­tion work. Yet 26 the ‘smash­ing' of con­ven­tion is brushed aside by all who take the ac­tions of the 1975 Op­po­si­tion as ‘prece­dent'.

It was the supreme irony when re­cently, in the de­bate over the 'med­i­cal evac­u­a­tion' amend­ment, ap­ply­ing to sick per­sons in off­shore de­ten­tion, Lib­eral min­is­ter Christo­pher Pyne (of short mem­ory), ac­cused La­bor of un­der­min­ing the con­sti­tu­tion when they by­passed a ruse to im­pute to the Se­nate ver­sion of the amend­ment a fi­nan­cial ap­pro­pri­a­tion.

Next we see that the coup was Whit­lam's fault: “Whit­lam's in­ep­ti­tude in his con­duct of the cri­sis is al­most be­yond be­lief. He bears a se­ri­ous re­spon­si­bil­ity for the dis­missal.” He failed to ‘man­age Kerr' or as­sess him psy­cho­log­i­cally. He felt com­pelled to in­tim­i­date

Kerr in pub­lic, and let Kerr think that the gov­er­nor-gen­eral's po­si­tion was at risk. Thus he “fright­ened and alien­ated him”. He had made no con­tin­gency plans for deal­ing with the cri­sis.

27 What is be­yond be­lief is this as­sess­ment. Ev­ery­thing about it is

28 wrong. Apart from hav­ing taken no ac­count of Hock­ing's dis­cov­ery of Kerr's in­qui­si­tional foray, in early 1975, into what de­struc­tive role he could play,

29 Kelly and Bram­ston fun­da­men­tally fail to un­der­stand the con­sti­tu­tional po­si­tion un­der rep­re­sen­ta­tive

Fraser’s par­tic­i­pa­tion in the events was “a dis­play of un­par­al­leled po­lit­i­cal vi­o­lence”.

IM­AGE: © David Jack­man­son -Flickr

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