We Won't Know The Full History Of The Dismissal Until The Queen Says So

11/11/2015 5:44 AM AEDT | Updated 15/07/2016 12:51 PM AEST
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During Australia's constitutional crisis of 1975, Prime Minister Gough Whitlam addresses reporters outside the Parliament building in Canberra after his dismissal by Australia's Governor-General, 11th November 1975. Kerr named opposition leader Malcolm Fraser to lead a caretaker government until elections in December. (Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

On 11 November 1975, the Governor General Sir John Kerr dismissed the Labor government led by Prime Minister Gough Whitlam and installed as Prime Minister the leader of the Opposition, Liberal leader Malcolm Fraser, whose party had lost the previous two elections.

Gough Whitlam had come to office on 2 December 1972, ending 23 years of coalition government, and had been re-elected at the double dissolution election of 18 May 1974 just 18 months before The Dismissal.

On the afternoon of 11 November 1975, Kerr revealed that he had secretly met with the Chief Justice of the High Court of Australia, Sir Garfield Barwick, the previous day -- unbeknownst to and against the express advice of the Prime Minister Gough Whitlam.

The Dismissal unleashed a bitter, divisive and prolonged controversy -- over the actions of Kerr, and over the roles of Fraser and Barwick -- and always with the lingering sense that there was more to be found.

In the 40 years since, the history of The Dismissal has changed dramatically and the picture that we see today is a vastly different one. The initial view of The Dismissal as Kerr's reluctant solution to the Opposition blocking Supply in the Senate, to Whitlam's refusal to recommend an election -- and Fraser as the accidental beneficiary of a Prime Ministerial job vacancy -- was simple, neat, and wrong.

Since that time a more complex and a far more confronting story has emerged, revealing the knowledge and collusion of key individuals and the deception of the Prime Minister on a previously unimagined scale. Over the years the discovery of critical new material has led to a reappraisal of the roles of the key players -- Kerr, Fraser, Whitlam and Barwick -- and a recognition of the deep involvement of a second High Court judge, Sir Anthony Mason, whose extensive role had been a carefully maintained secret for 37 years.

That history changed dramatically in 2012 when I uncovered the treasure trove of material on The Dismissal in Sir John Kerr's private papers in the National Archives. Kerr had left an extraordinary record, 12 pages of detailed description, of his discussions with the High Court justice Sir Anthony Mason over a 10-month period, beginning in March 1975 and continuing right up until a final critical intervention by Mason late on the afternoon of 11 November 1975.

These revelations showed that Mason had been deeply involved in Kerr's planning prior to the dismissal, to such an extent that he had even written a draft letter of dismissal for him, although Mason has stated that Kerr did not use it.

The extraordinary significance of Mason's role, which had never previously been revealed, did not end with The Dismissal itself. Late on the afternoon of 11 November, Mason gave one final piece of advice to the Governor General, after the House of Representatives passed a crucial motion of no confidence in the newly appointed Fraser government and called on the Governor General to reinstate the Whitlam government.

In an extraordinary intervention, Mason told Kerr that this motion was 'irrelevant'. Kerr then refused to see the Speaker, refused to accept the House of Representatives' motion of no confidence in Fraser and ignored its call to reinstate the Whitlam government.

By ignoring this critical motion of no confidence in Fraser, Kerr had repudiated the defining feature of our parliamentary democracy -- that the party which commands a majority in the House of Representatives forms government.

Further material, which I have recently published, has been just as significant as the revelations of Mason's extensive secret involvement. In a posthumously released interview, the Opposition's chief strategist, Senator Reg Withers, finally acknowledged what had long been suspected -- that Kerr was in secret telephone contact with Fraser the week before the dismissal.

Both Fraser and Kerr had repeatedly denied this prior contact for decades. Fraser himself left an interview with an extraordinary revelation that overturned all previous understandings of the singular reason for the dismissal -- the need to secure supply. Fraser states clearly and categorically that the passage of Supply was not a condition of his appointment by Kerr, and that he would not have been dismissed from office himself had he been unable to secure it.

Ironically, the most crucial aspect of The Dismissal has become increasingly obscured as the years passed, and that is Whitlam's decision to call a half-Senate election. Whitlam had told Kerr that he would be calling the half-Senate election on 6 November, five days before The Dismissal.

Whitlam was to announce the half-Senate election on the afternoon of 11 November and had confirmed the details with Kerr over the previous five days, right up to the morning of 11 November when the date of the half-Senate election was agreed. The 'ambush', as Whitlam always described it, then occurred as he arrived at Yarralumla soon after 1 pm, with his letter advising the half-Senate election, only to find that the Governor General had prepared a letter of his own, dismissing him from office.

Kerr's deception of the Prime Minister in relation to the half-Senate election could not have been more pronounced.

Finally, there is the intriguing question, what did the Palace know? Kerr's papers make it clear that the Palace -- the Queen, Prince Charles and the Queen's private secretary Sir Martin Charteris, among others -- knew that Kerr was considering dismissing Whitlam from as early as September 1975, when Kerr confided this to Prince Charles.

Kerr's concern was conveyed from Charles to the Queen's private secretary, Sir Martin Charteris, who then wrote to Kerr just weeks before the dismissal. Kerr's notes include a hand-written reference to 'Charteris' advice to me on dismissal'.

These letters remain embargoed until 2027 and I was recently refused access to them. Government House informed me that the letters are embargoed 'At her Majesty, the Queen's instructions'. Even once this embargo is lifted, the Queen's private secretary will advise on access to this vital correspondence about the actions of our Governor General during one of the most contentious and significant episodes in our political history.

There could be no better example of our arcane and subservient status as a constitutional monarchy than this -- that we cannot know the full history of the dismissal of the Whitlam government until the Queen says we can.

From what we now know, The Dismissal emerges as a rare instance in history of a genuine political conspiracy -- carefully planned, conceived in secret, developed in consultation with key individuals holding critical positions of institutional power, and carried out in unapologetic deception of the Prime Minister.

In all of this, the key element was deception and it is this deception that explains the extraordinarily significant revelations that have continued to emerge about it. Because it is in the nature of deception that it will unravel, and none more so than political deception.

In archives, private papers and long-embargoed interviews, each of the key protagonists left a record confirming their role -- a mea culpa in death from those who lacked the moral courage to acknowledge it in life.


Professor Jenny Hocking is the author of The Dismissal Dossier: Everything You Were Never Meant to Know About November 1975, which is published by Melbourne University Press.

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