By Mungo MacCallum
As numerous eye-glazing speeches could attest, Gough Whitlam was a great lover of the constitution and the parliament. Like his friend and sparring partner James Killen, Whitlam had a respect bordering on reverence for the forms and practices the Australian version of Westminster.
This did not mean that he believed them to be unchangeable, set in stone; indeed much of his working life was spent in trying to modify and reform them when he felt it necessary.
But he always did so within the accepted boundaries: Whitlam, while he could be a radical when it came to policy, was always a gradualist, a Fabian when it came to process. He believed in referendum, not revolution. He assiduously followed the rules, both in the letter and the spirit.
But his opponents were not so scrupulous, and that was what ultimately destroyed him and his government. From the moment the Labor administration was elected, the conservatives determined to do whatever it would take to bring it down. After 23 years, they regarded their rejection as an affront, an aberration; the natural law – their law – must be restored.
And any excuse would do; if Whitlam employed tactics and strategy to achieve his aims, the coalition leaders cried foul and went feral. Thus in 1974, Whitlam and his colleagues devised a scheme to take control of the senate by persuading a sitting DLP senator, Vince Gair, to resign and take up a diplomatic, post.
This was certainly unusual, even sneaky, but it was entirely legitimate. However, the then leader Billy Snedden took the unprecedented step of forcing an election by using his senate numbers to block the budget.
Of course, budget measures were and are regularly postponed and rejected, as the current administration knows all too well. But this was not a routine measure: the coalition withheld what is known as the supply bills, the money appropriated for the day-to-day working of government especially in paying the public service.
This was seen as an outrageous breach of convention, never before seriously contemplated, let alone implemented. In 1967 the Labor senater leader Lionel Murphy had mooted the idea to Whitlam, who summarily dismissed it as unthinkable. But the coalition took the plunge not once but twice: in 1975 Malcolm Fraser devised an encore.
He was only able to do so by another egregious breach. When the Queensland Labor senator Bert Millner died in office, testate premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen replaced him not with another Labor nominee, but by an opponent, the risible Patrick Albert Field. Once again, this had not happened since Federation; replacements within the same party had always been automatic, and indeed have now become so by law.
But Field, with instructions to oppose Labor without question or hesitation, gave Fraser the numbers he needed. His trigger was the sacking of a senior minister, Rex Connor, over what was known as the Loans Affair. This had entailed an attempt to build massive infrastructure by securing petro-dollar funds from the Arabs through unconventional sources.
Once again, this was unusual, and in the end reckless, even foolhardy; but in spite of what was later alleged, it as in no sense illegitimate. The relevant decisions, albeit in secret, were signed through the Executive Council of Cabinet. But the whole thing went wrong, and eventually Whitlam removed the commission of Connor, as minister for minerals and energy, to end negotiations.
However, Connor persisted, still searching for the fairy tale millions. The Australian’s foreign editor, Greg Sheridan, in a series of graceless articles immediately after Whitlam’s death suggested that Whitlam had in fact given Connor a wink: if the money could still be secured, all would be forgiven.
At the time Sheridan was fomenting DLD conspiracies in student politics. I was on the spot in Canberra and for my first-hand knowledge can testify that this was not true: when Whitlam found out he was incandescent.
But in any case, Sheridan’s fantasy misses the point: Connor was dismissed, not for pursuing the loan, but for misleading parliament – the same crime that had undone the hapless Jim Cairns.
For Whitlam, this was the unforgiveable sin: he knew sacking Connor would bring dire political consequences, but he felt he had no choice: parliament was supreme. To a normal observer Whitlam deserved praise for his adherence to principle, but for Fraser it was what he called an extraordinary and reprehensible circumstance, and pulled the trigger: which brings us to the governor-general, Sir John Kerr.
Whitlam was confident that Kerr would remain on side not because he was weak (which he was, as Fraser has since confirmed) but because he was bound to follow the advice of his ministers. This, after all, was the convention observed by the British monarch, Kerr’s superior, for centuries. But Kerr had already broken ranks: he had taken counsel and encouragement from the Chief Justice and former Liberal attorney-general Garfield Barwick, who was also the cousin of Fraser’s own shadow attorney, Robert Ellicott.
So Fraser was prepared: Fraser was lurking when Whitlam saw Kerr to tender his advice to call a half-senate election, and when Kerr refused and Whitlam indignantly knocked back Kerr’s demand for an election for the House of Representatives, Kerr dismissed him.
Whitlam’s immediate (and conventional) response was that he would go to the Queen: Kerr replied that he had already terminated his commission and produced the document. Rather than throw it in his face, as his feisty wife Margaret later suggested, he meekly concurred: to the last he followed the rules.
Kerr did not: when later the Speaker of the House, Gordon Scholes, went to inform him that the parliament had voted confidence in Whitlam, Kerr refused to see him, an act of authoritarianism not seen since the days of King Charles I.
This was indeed, as Whitlam called it, a coup, a putsch. But maintaining his loyalty to the system that had failed him, he stood stony faced as the viceroy’s aide-de-camp shut down parliament and set him up for an election he knew he was doomed to lose: if Kerr, the governor-general he had appointed, had dismissed him, the voters would believe he had done something unforgivable. They didn’t know what it was, but that didn’t matter. It was all over.
So Whitlam stayed by the rules and was smashed – leaving his office to his enemies, but with his consistency, conviction and integrity untarnished. They don’t make them like that any more.