HISTORY: by Kenneth GeeNews Weekly
Revisiting the Dismissal
, December 14, 2002
The 30th anniversary of the election of the Whitlam Government prompts consideration of its dismissal, three years later. Kenneth Gee re-examines these events.On 11 November 1975, Sir John Kerr, Governor-General of Australia, dismissed from office Gough Whitlam and his Labor Government, bringing to an end a financial and political crisis that went close to bringing this country to its knees. Thereafter an opaque cloud has lain over the events of that day, made up of ignorance, distortion and calculated falsehood. From time to time the true facts of '75 should be rescued from political obfuscation and rewritten history.
The present writer has some expertise. John Kerr and I were lifelong friends, We met at Fort Street High School at the age of eleven, myself
middle class, John a Balmain boy and a proletarian. I watched John's soaring career; a tertiary scholarship, augmented by 'The Doc', H.V.Evatt, top pass in the Leaving Certificate, the University Medal in Law, then the Bar, finally carrying a silk gown to the Himalayan heights of the law - the Chief Justice of New South Wales.
There, with his great bonhomie, he brought proper harmony to a discordant bench. Then, at Gough Whitlam's urging, - and to our surprise, since the position seemed purely ceremonial - agreeing to be the Queen's viceroy, the Governor General of Australia. (How Gough must regret now his persuasive powers, assuming as he did that John, engrossed in the rituals and baubles of office, would faithfully do his bidding).
John and Gough continued to be friends, but not close friends. Before long, in the Loans Affair of December 1974, John's trust became stretched to breaking point. A huge loan was to be manipulated by a plausible denizen of the Middle East financial bazaars named Khemlani. Deliberately, John was not told of the Executive Council meeting that authorised it. At the end, it was all a fiasco. Khemlani was not able get his hands on a brass razoo.
This crisis passed, but another loomed, of awesome proportions. Malcolm Fraser and the Liberals, hungering for the office they believed was their God-given right and using their majority in the Senate, blocked the passing of the Bill of Supply, without which the coffers of the Treasury could not be replenished, and the country must grind to a moneyless halt.
Whitlam and Fraser
became locked in an unshakeable impasse, while Kerr looked on with growing dismay. Whitlam refused to resign, as he himself had, not long before, proclaimed that he must. The Liberals under Fraser's iron control refused to budge an inch.
So the country moved toward an unprecedented crisis. Without Supply, that is, without money, the Government would sink into a coma, with the pensioners, - the halt and the blind and the aged - and the armed
services and the federal police, all unpaid, the States starved, the unemployed streaming out from public works brought to a standstill. The catalogue of disruption seemed to have no end.
In the field of battle Whitlam and Fraser were implacable. Fraser had time on his side. He knew that if he could hold his party together long enough he must force Kerr to exercise the reserve powers and dismiss Whitlam. For his part Whitlam, devotee of Crash Through Or Crash, devised harebrained schemes for the
banks to fund the public service. Immoveable in his self-esteem, he was determined that once and for all he would break the power of the Senate to Control the money supply.
Between the warring giants was John Kerr, trained as a Judge to ignore his
liking for Whitlam and his distaste for Fraser, unworried by the threat of dismissal, but determined that the Queen should not be sucked into the eddies of a sordid Party conflict. He knew full well the storm that would descend on his head whatever he did.
Hayden, Gough's treasurer, told Kerr that money would begin to run out in early November, and by the end of that month the Treasury would be as bare as Old Mother Hubbard's cupboard. Kerr consulted Chief Justice Barwick - a precedent well established. Barwick was emphatic - legally, Kerr must act, and act now.
On the morning of 11 November, Kerr summoned both champions to his office.
He had made his decision. First Gough Whitlam. Acting not under the reserve powers, but under Section 64 of the Constitution, he handed Whitlam the letter of dismissal. Then Fraser, able to get Supply, and therefore to become Prime Minister, but pledged to call a general election before Christmas. He did so, and won by a massive majority. The Constitution and the democratic system worked in unity. The people spoke, and Australia's greatest political crisis evaporated.
The consequences for Kerr came quickly. He and his courageous wife Anne had to endure not only the bellowing of the lunatic left - the gramophone gangsters, in Orwell's apt phrase - and the paint thrown over his car, but the upmarket billingsgate of a self-proclaimed Great Hater, the brilliant but splenetic Jim McClelland.
Basically, the issues presented by November 1975 were simple enough. Fraser blocked Supply. No government can survive without money. Whitlam refused to resign or to call an election. Kerr alone had the power and the duty to resolve this terminal crisis, and he did so.
But thereafter, November 1975 has served to demonstrate the power of political mythology. lt is time, in fairness to Sir John Kerr, that this debris was removed.