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 ' 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
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.
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