The Dismissal Of Gough Whitlam Essay

On the afternoon of 11 November 1975, the steps of Canberra’s old Parliament House became the stage for the most immortal of so very many Gough Whitlam-isms.

“Well may we say ‘God save the Queen’ – because nothing will save the governor general.”

So declared the newly sacked 21st prime minister of Australia just after governor general John Kerr’s official secretary David Smith had read the proclamation to prorogue parliament for an election in the wake of the lunchtime dismissal of Whitlam’s government. A crowd of thousands, filled with anger and rebellion, gathered as news of the sacking spread like a Mallee scrub fire across the capital and the nation.

At the news of Whitlam’s death on 21 October 2014, people gravitated again, as if by instinct, to the old Parliament House – a home these days to the Museum of Australian Democracy. Some came with posies of flowers hastily picked from their own, or others’, front gardens and public beds. Some found time to buy a condolence card on the way.

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Others, however, made do with what they could – a torn piece of brown paper bag, a yellow sticky note or the back of an envelope – to scribble their sentiments about Whitlam and his governments.

In ensuing days the notes and the bouquets formed a pile on the steps. They are all, now, a part of the museum’s collection – there for historians and writers to ponder on the 100th anniversary of Whitlam’s death or the Dismissal.

“THANKS GOUGH RIP,” reads one. “FOR GOUGH – Without him I wouldn’t have gone to uni,” another note says.

“My parents were true believers all the way – my mother literally until she died last week. RIP to a true inspiration whose message is always timely,” says a message on a postcard from the Yeo family.

Whitlam urged the believers to maintain their rage. And I wonder how, 40 years later, they will mark the anniversary of Whitlam’s sacking. I expect many will return to the same place, to one of the scenes of what they consider the crime, to reflect on Whitlam’s 35 months of government and, perhaps, consider why the smouldering rage that afternoon never quite ignited into revolution.

The Queen’s emissary sacking a democratically elected government would be more than enough in another country, then or today.

The Dismissal was Australia’s JFK moment. Just about anyone over five or six at the time who’s retained the vaguest political consciousness, may well remember where they were at the time.

I thought I knew all about the Dismissal. I was an 11-year-old schoolboy. A priest burst in to class at my Catholic boy’s school to announce the Queen’s man had sacked Whitlam.

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We were instructed: pay attention – this is history in the making. It was. So much so that soon the dismissal was capitalised. It became, and remains, “the Dismissal”.

We do that with our more defining political events, like the Dismissal and “the Split” of the Labor party in 1955. In my home these events, two decades apart, were viewed as indelibly linked, at least emotionally if not quite politically or remotely causally. My mother – the younger sister of a federal Victorian rightwing Labor MP, William Bourke, who’d helped establish the Democratic Labor Party after the ALP expelled him in 1955 – loathed Whitlam for delivering the ALP government in 1972 after 23 years in the wilderness due in large part to the Split. Dad, the son of a left-wing former Labor councilor, idolised Whitlam.

So, the Dismissal further split the adults in my home, where the arguments about the rights and wrongs of the mercurial, vainglorious, John Kerr’s sacking of the Whitlam government were a microcosm of the fierce debate across the nation that preceded the federal election of 13 December 1975.

Consequently I had no trouble doing as instructed at school. I was certainly paying attention. Thanks to my parents I had already developed a deep aversion to – and scepticism about – big party politics. A defining memory of my childhood is of a blazing row between my parents after we had a chance meeting with Whitlam on the steps of Parliament House during a visit to Canberra when “the great man” (Dad’s words) was still opposition leader. Dad fawned over Whitlam, clasping his hand as if he was underwater and it was an oxygen supply. Mum walked away to the corner of the steps and glowered in her dark Irish way.

They argued, I remember, about mum’s brother and the Split. I was, and still am, on Dad’s side of that one. In feeble old age, and still (remarkably, I often think) together, they had the very same fight while visiting me in Canberra where I had (just as improbably given my aversion to politics) moved to write about national affairs.

Yes, those steps at old Parliament House hold my memories, too.

As a student of politics and as a political journalist, the Dismissal was a constant reference point – an Australian moment that has attracted, perhaps, more scholarship, journalism and cultural reflection than just about any other.

And the story continues to be written amid new archival analysis, the emergence of fresh documentary material and oral histories, such as those in the collection of the Museum of Australian Democracy and the National Archives of Australia. More material is being publicly released annually for poring over by scholars, writers and journalists.

The looming 40th anniversary has already given rise to some extraordinary revelations, not least from political scientist Jenny Hocking who has shed further light on just how closely Kerr colluded with Malcolm Fraser before 11 November – and how keenly he apparently kept Buckingham Palace in the loop.

Historian John Blaxland, meanwhile, in his most recent instalment of the official history of Asio, has illuminated further just how distrustful and contemptuous (and potentially undermining) of Whitlam’s government the United States Government and the Central Intelligence Agency were.

When the Museum of Australian Democracy invited me to participate in its ambitious 40th anniversary commemoration (it involved helping to design a live Twitter recreation of the Dismissal – #Dismissal1975 – and writing a long, lively essay with an element of fiction) I readily agreed with the satisfaction of someone who had grown up and felt conversant with the story of the Whitlam government’s sacking.

But confronted with a tight deadline and an overwhelming body of research (books, media, transcripts of speeches, personal recollections and the very official documents critical to the events of 11 November 1975) on which to base a narrative, I became overwhelmed by how little of the nuance, the drama, the subterfuge and the political context I had, indeed, been genuinely familiar with.

Twitter is the lifeblood of so much contemporary political communication and coverage, its cause and effect. But in 1975? I struggled to get my mind around the notion: after Kerr interrupted his own pre-luncheon drinks (he had a G&T) to sack him, Whitlam returned to The Lodge and had a steak for lunch while his praetorian guard filed in, one by one, to be told by the forlorn, still masticating former PM, “We’ve been sacked”.

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There was a conspiracy – or a mix-up – on the parking at Government House, where Fraser, who had arrived early, was waiting in a room close to the front door.

Had Twitter – or indeed mobile phones - been around in 1975, the game would’ve been up much earlier. It would be incomprehensible today, but Whitlam’s senators didn’t know at 2pm when the upper house convened after lunch that Labor had been sacked, even though some journalists already knew. Fraser’s opposition had been stalling supply; suddenly, after lunch the supply bills were passed with support from both sides of the chamber – thus fulfilling one of Kerr’s apparent conditions for Fraser to form a caretaker government.

The Whitlam government so nearly survived, thanks to wavering Liberal senators who were ready to cross the floor. Something new, I learned too, was just how dysfunctional the Whitlam government had been – economically, politically, administratively. Twitter might’ve helped Whitlam on Remembrance Day 1975, but it could have killed his administration during the Khemlani loans affairs, the beachwear and booze Labor national conference earlier that year and around the time of Cyclone Tracy in December 1974 when Whitlam interrupted a six-week overseas tour to visit the disaster zone of Darwin – before jetting off to Europe again.

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I remain thoroughly struck by Whitlam’s political naivety and blind faith in the virtue of parliamentary democracy during the Dismissal. He saw the best in Fraser and others, including, until 11 November, Kerr himself. Fraser still stands out for his single-minded determination and bastardry – of using the Senate to destroy a democratically elected government and, of course, for his collusion with Kerr – duplicitous, fragile, conniving and always fixated on posterity.

Of course a building can be the stage upon which memories – and historical events – are built. To me, however, old Parliament House has always seemed animate. And so it felt like a small step to afford it the corresponding capacities of recollection and observation in my essay.

A small step – that ends on its front steps on 11 November 1975.

The steps to which I’m sure people will gravitate, as if by instinct, the week after next.

'Remember, remember, the 11th of November!'

The Constitutional crisis of 1975, often referred to as 'the Dismissal' represents one of the most turbulent periods in modern Australian history. The ALP had been swept to victory in the 1972 Federal election and the Whitlam government was determined to implement a wide range of policy reforms. Despite successes in the areas of law reform, social policy, the arts, land rights and foreign policy, the Whitlam government was dogged by a series of scandals, the most serious of these being the 'loans affair' where the Government sought to secure finance without the consent of the Loan Council to fund projects during the lean economic period of the mid 1970s. In response to perceived mismanagement of the Australian economy by the Government, a Liberal party dominated Senate sought to block supply thereby freezing potential Government finances. The Liberals also demanded that an election be held for the House of Representatives or, failing this demand, that the present Government be dismissed. On 11 November 1975 Whitlam was dismissed as Prime Minister by Governor General Sir John Kerr, paving the way for a double dissolution and the end of the Whitlam era. The Dismissal was an event that polarised Australians, with many calling for changes to the system that removed a democratically elected government, yet today it is still possible for a Governor General to dismiss a Federal Government.

The 1992 documentary Whitlam was a Lighthouse Films production directed by Mark Davis and made with assistance from the ABC. This excerpt uses news footage and Parliamentary radio broadcast material to illustrate the day's events leading to the Whitlam government's dismissal. The footage gives an indication of the political turmoil of the times, showing large, politically charged rallies in support of the Whitlam government. However, despite displays of public support for Whitlam, Malcolm Fraser led the Liberal Party to a landslide victory in the 1975 Federal election. Gough Whitlam agreed to be interviewed for this documentary. Watch as the camera lingers on his face as he expresses his disappointment with the turn of events, a disappointment that had not eased in the intervening years.

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