November is always about Melbourne Cup, Remembrance Day and of course the anniversary of The Dismissal. Many comrades may have not yet read The Dismissal Dossier by Jenny Hocking. It really is a remarkable piece of work, exposing, inter alia, Prince Charles’ complicity and Malcolm Fraser’s duplicity in The Dismissal. It’s a very short book, absolutely worth the read.
Here’s my summary, with a very brief review at the end.
The Dismissal Dossier: Everything you were never meant to know about November 1975
Melbourne University Press, 2015.
This book discusses both the issues of the Dismissal and the events of the day and the weeks prior.
It argues that the history of the Dismissal has been distorted in a kind of conspiracy against history. So Kerr, Barwick, Fraser and Anthony Mason all conspired to carry out the coup itself, and subsequently conspired to cover up the reasons for it.
There are some quite astonishing revelations.
Fraser knew beforehand of Kerr’s plan, and then lied afterwards and said he didn’t. Reg ‘Toecutter’ Withers was in the room when Fraser got the call prior to the Dismissal from Kerr outlining the conditions under which he would make Fraser PM.
The Queen, the Palace and particularly Prince Charles knew of Kerr’s plans, and gave tacit agreement.
Sir Garfield Barwick, who happily accepted much of the opprobrium for advising Kerr that the Dismissal was legally ok, wasn’t as instrumental as he and others have claimed. In contrast, Sir Anthony Mason’s role was much larger, and is only now coming to light. Mason advised Kerr for a long time before the Dismissal and even wrote a draft letter dismissing Whitlam for Kerr (Kerr used a different form of words in the end.)
Whitlam’s poll numbers were improving and Fraser’s were diving in the lead up to 11/11/75. 60% disagreed with Fraser’s tactics.
Whitlam had announced to Caucus on 11/11 his intention to go to Kerr and call a half-Senate election. Caucus reacted to the news with some confidence and ALP HO began preparing for an election. Whitlam had actually informed Kerr of this decision in the week prior, but went to Yarralumla to formally present his letter requesting a half-Senate election, before announcing it in Parliament that day. He never got the chance.
As Whitlam was presenting his letter advising of this election, Kerr interrupted him and gave him the letter sacking him. Kerr said “We will all have to live with this.” Gough replied ‘You certainly will!”.
Kerr later stated that Gough tried to call the Palace immediately after Kerr presented his sacking letter. Gough has always denied this, and witnesses at Yarralumla on the day support Whitlam rather than Kerr. Whitlam didn’t contact the Palace until that evening and simply said he was no longer PM.
Kerr had had some G&T’s before seeing Whitlam, as he was interviewing/socialising with three candidates to become his Aide de Camp. He had drinks with the three candidates, went away and sacked Whitlam, then came back for lunch with the three and Lady Kerr. He proceeded to get pissed. David Smith, Kerr’s official secretary interrupted them to ask whether anyone had informed the Palace. Kerr, visibly drunk by this stage, said they hadn’t. Lady Kerr then told Smith to do so. (p.18)
Kerr’s conditions for giving Fraser the caretaker role included that no inquiry be held into the Loans Affair, into which Fraser had been calling for a Royal Commission. Kerr had been made aware of legal advice (sought by Billy McMahon, who was fixated on the Loans Affair) that any inquiry into the Loans Affair may result in Kerr being called before an inquiry, as it was the Executive Council that authorised the seeking of unconventional loans by the Labor Govt. Fraser also threatened Kerr in the lead up to the Dismissal that if an election was not called, and Whitlam was not sacked (in the context of the Loans Affair) he would be forced to tell the Australian people that Kerr had failed in his duty to the Australian people and the Constitution.
Kerr was obsessively afraid of Whitlam calling the Palace to sack Kerr if he told Whitlam that he was thinking of sacking him. So he didn’t tell him!
It appears as well, that Kerr was afraid that Fraser would sack him if he became PM for his part in the Executive Council decisions in the Loans Affair.
Hocking finds Whitlam’s faith in Parliamentary, vice-regal and regal propriety was as naïve as it was unshakeable. If instead of waiting to see Kerr to announce the half-Senate election, Whitlam had simply announced it to the media or to Parliament beforehand, the Coalition would have passed the Budget. They were terrified of a half-Senate election.
A half-Senate election would have threatened the Nationals/Country Party’s gerrymander in the bush, as Whitlam would have pursued ‘one vote, one value’ laws. Labor was a good chance of gaining control of the Senate for at least a six month period after a half-Senate election.
Whitlam had met Fraser on the morning of 11/11 and told him there would be a half-Senate election, after Fraser refused to negotiate over Supply and Whitlam’s offer to delay the half-Senate election for 6 months. But Fraser didn’t tell his party room that this was happening. Fraser’s stony silence on all these matters shows that he was well aware of the coup that was about to happen and kept shtum while letting Kerr’s coup unfold.
Fraser told colleagues that he would resign as leader if Whitlam succeeded in getting a half-Senate election, but by 11/11 he knew he’d never have to do this, as Kerr was going to sack Whitlam.
Hocking believes that the half-Senate election was the crucial element in the whole Dismissal saga, and yet the ‘official’ history forgets it. Kerr should have done what his predecessor Sir Paul Hasluck had done in 1974 when Snedden tried similar tactics to Fraser, and allowed a half-Senate election to break the deadlock.
The whole issue of Supply was a charade, as Fraser couldn’t guarantee supply either, and Kerr would have kept him as PM even if he couldn’t get his budget bills through the Senate. In the end, Labor passed supply on the afternoon of 11/11 anyway.
The SMH and Age made similar points the day after the Dismissal.
The whole ‘Whitlam forgot to tell the Senate that he’d been sacked and that Labor should have itself blocked Supply that afternoon’ line is an ahistorical reconstruction. Whitlam had no idea that Fraser had been appointed PM. When he left Yarralumla, he returned to the Lodge and (after his famous steak) drafted a motion for the House that affirmed the House’s confidence in him and his Government and its lack of confidence in any Government formed by Fraser. Whitlam thought he’d be PM again by that afternoon, as per the constitutional convention that the Government is formed in the House of Representatives.
Hocking argues that the proceedings in the HoR on the afternoon of 11/11 were the most dramatic in our history and have been sorrowfully overlooked in analysing the Dismissal. When Fraser announced he’d been commissioned by the G-G, Whitlam proposed a motion that Labor won by 10 votes, which expressed a want of confidence in Fraser and called on the Speaker to inform the G-G to commission Whitlam as PM. At this stage Kerr’s entire strategy had been derailed. The Senate had passed the Supply bills and the House had expressed confidence in him and not Fraser. If Kerr was acting constitutionally, that should have been it. Fraser, once having lost a motion of no confidence should have immediately resigned. And on this Whitlam was the most excoriating of Fraser, saying that ‘this is the course that honour and precedent and history have sanctioned.’ Hocking says ‘Fraser failed to protect the HoR and the processes of democratic government’, ignoring ‘the single most important resolution the HoR can ever make, the resolution by which governments are made and unmade…the defining feature of the Westminster system and the sine qua non of democratic government. ..The repudiation of the foundational role of the House of Representatives in the formation of Government was nothing less than the repudiation of representative democracy itself.’
Once Kerr heard that Fraser had lost five motions in a row in the HoR, including a no confidence motion, he called Sir Anthony Mason to ask for advice. Mason told him it was ‘irrelevant’, which was astounding for a sitting High Court justice. Kerr then refused to see the Speaker of the House and delivered his ‘second sacking’, the double dissolution. Mungo MacCallum described it as ‘a reassertion of the divine right of kings’.
‘At every stage it required deception- in its inception, in its implementation, and, after the dismissal, in its telling. The dismissal was never a matter of law, not even a matter of politics alone, but of personal and political choices, of ethics and morals’.
To cast my historiography eye over that final statement- that comment is of great interest to the cultural historians, who factor in things like ‘performativity’, ‘cultures of dominance and hierarchy’ and the importance of language. After a slow process of absorption of cultural history ideas over the past 30 years most of the departments of history in Australian universities are dominated by cultural historians, even if the liberal and political historians like Jenny Hocking, James Curran and David Day still dominate modern political history.
Saying that the Dismissal came down to morals and ethics – effectively the cultures of the Australian ruling class – including Kerr, Fraser, Mason, Barwick and indeed Whitlam himself, really is saying something new, at least historiographically. Contrast that with more old-fashioned Marxist and anti-colonial type history typified by Pilger et al, that would say that Whitlam was sacked because of Pine Gap and ASIO and because Rex Connor wanted to nationalise the mines.
Personally, I’ve shifted slightly toward the cultural history view from the Marxian one over time, but in the end the material conditions do affect the cultural conditions. The ruling class cultural response was motivated or at least justified by the Loans Affair in particular, and by Whitlam’s move away from the US sphere of influence. The Marxist/post-colonial analysis isn’t wrong, it’s just incomplete. But I think the liberal/political history view which views the Dismissal through the forms of the Parliament and the constitutional role of the G-G is more incomplete without the Marxian view, in its failure of recognition of the counter-revolutionary nature of the coup. And same with a cultural history analysis, it’s incomplete without acknowledging that Australian capitalism was challenged by Whitlam, which set in motion the moves to remove him. Although cultural historians would probably argue that their point of departure is the Marxian, structuralist view, and they’re just putting the cherry on top, as it were, by describing how those objective material economic conditions were played out in the context of the culture of the Australian ruling class. Someone should probably put all that together, as modern political history in Australia doesn’t generally get the cultural history treatment, as the cultural historians are only really up to the first half of the 20th century. I tried doing that, with a modicum of success, in my thesis on the end of the white Australia policy in the ALP, but it’s a bit novel to do cultural historical analysis on what is seen as ‘political history’. Hocking’s opened the door on that a little.