By Mungo MacCallum
Charles and Camilla wafted into Australia last week, to be greeted by rapturous applause by the usual suspects.
As the ageing heir and his second wife preened and postured for the well-drilled spectators the royalists gushed, led by their self-appointed leader David Flint, a comedic courtier whose silliness is only exceeded by his vanity.
But there were those who noted that the time was perhaps unfortunate, their arrival in Canberra coinciding with the 40th anniversary of the vice-regal sacking of the Australian prime minister, Gough Whitlam.
It is natural, as well as fashionable, to say that this (though not, it appears, the monarchical system) is now history; we have moved on. And indeed, many have. But there are some who will not forget the momentous events of November 11, and continue to try and find how and why such an upheaval in the normally stable Westminster model could have been so dramatically disturbed.
One such is The Australian’s chief pontificator, Paul Kelly, who has just completed his third revision of his somewhat turgid book on the subject, this time with a little help from Troy Bramston. Kelly unblushingly describes his work as definitive: it is not, It is simply his version, and before it becomes the gospel according to St Rupert, it is worth taking another perspective.
I was there; I lived, breathed and sweated over the events before, during and after the dismissal, and I have maintained my rage. I was a first-hand observer, although not an impartial one: I became fiercely partisan, as did almost all of those involved at the time, including Kelly, who was then a committed Whitlamite before converting into a conservative Catholic and fervent Murdochian.
Kelly now claims that there were no heroes in the traumatic events; somewhat absurdly, he equates Whitlam’s mismanagement as at least as culpable of the subterfuge, deceit and flouting of the rules by the conspirators who overthrew him. But Kelly at least admits that there was a conspiracy, and indeed he and others have used the intervening years to explain just how deliberate and far-reaching it was.
At the time, one of the great puzzles was the unwavering confidence of the opposition leader Malcolm Fraser. Once he had breached parliamentary convention by securing the senate numbers with the aid of two unprincipled state premiers and then did so again by blocking of the supply bills, he never doubted that either Whitlam would surrender, or that the governor-general, John Kerr, would act to remove the prime minister. Few, if any, of his own colleagues shared his belief; outside the coalition party rooms, there were practically none.
But what they did not know was that Kerr had already defied his prime minister by seeking encouragement from at least two conservative counsellors, the high court judges Garfield Barwick and Anthony Mason, and even from Buckingham Palace – though not from his head of state, the Queen, and certainly not from his head of government and chief adviser, the Prime Minister. And Fraser himself was brought into the loop, at least in the last days but probably much earlier.
It was widely expected, by the Liberals as well as by Labor, that the senate majority, stitched together by another egregious breach of convention, was on the point of cracking; the polls had moved back towards Labor, and if supply was passed, Fraser’s gamble – and probably his leadership – was lost. But it was then Kerr struck, in what it is now clear, was a deliberate and carefully prepared coup.
There was, of course, outrage: but there was also those who believed Kerr could claim the constitution was on his side. He had broken all the rules, most crucially by refusing to obey the advice of his ministers, but the reserve powers left to the appointed viceroy were never spelt out; Kerr could, and would, say he was justified in his extreme action.
However, what followed could never be justified, and Kelly has always glossed over it. When Whitlam received the document terminating his commission, he did not, as his wife later suggested, throw it back in Kerr’s face; he walked out shell-shocked. He told a few people of the news on his way (one was a bemused Paul Keating) and retired to the Lodge for lunch. His advisers were summoned, but no one told the senate leader Ken Wriedt, who could at least have delayed the passing of supply after a beaming Liberal leader, Reg Withers, told him it would now go through unhindered – this, of course, was the Kerr-Fraser strategy on which both depended.
When, finally, the storm broke in the House of Representatives the Labor majority passed a motion of no-confidence in Fraser as Prime Minister and instructed the speaker, Gordon Scholes, to tell Kerr that a majority of the parliament demanded that he reinstall Whitlam and his government. Scholes took off for government house, but was refused admittance, and the resolution of the parliament ignored. Then, and only then, was the parliament closed down by Kerr’s aide-de-camp, David Smith.
This was indefensible, unconscionable. Since King Charles was deposed (and later executed) in 1648, it has been an absolute fiat that parliament is supreme; whatever powers may or not be available to the monarchy, the parliament is untouchable. If there were ever any doubts they were resolved by the settlement of 1688. Kerr’s offence in defying it was unforgivable – close to treason to democracy itself. The dismissal itself was merely the preliminary.
When this is recalled, the questions about Kerr’s motives – even whether it was an American plot, as often been alleged – are almost irrelevant. Certainly Kerr’s links with the CIA have been well-documented, and certainly the Washington administration of Richard Nixon loathed and detested Whitlam; its agents could well have urged, or even instructed, Kerr to terminate him with extreme prejudice.
But Whitlam himself never bought the theory, and there is a simpler one, proposed, by of all people, Fraser: Kerr was a weak and insecure man, easily influenced by the more forceful, and hoped, through his one decisive act, to gain lasting fame. And there is a precedent. In the year 356 the temple of Artemis at Ephesus, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, was torched by a similarly indecisive man who, after numerous failures, vowed that now the world would remember him for ever. As a punishment, the Greeks decreed that his name must never be mentioned – and as a result it has never been forgotten. It was Herostratus.
And so, perhaps, it will be, for better or worse, with John Robert Kerr. But like glorious the temple, the name of Edward Gough Whitlam will shine through the ages in spite of the destruction.