IN THE AFTERMATH of the death of former Prime Minister Gough Whitlam, sections of the Left have wasted little time bombarding the country with inaccurate, debased versions of the “legacy” of the Whitlam government, and the alleged wrong it suffered on 11 November 1975 as the exercise of S64 of the Constitution saw it ejected from office. As conservatives pay tribute, the Left rekindles a fight it could not win in 1975 and will not win now.
Ignorance — in this case, of the law — is a potent weapon for those on the Left who would mould public opinion; hypocrisy, too, is a virtue, as too often those on the Left are either complicit in and/or openly commit the very sins they incite public outrage over when such actions are undertaken by their opponents.
I should make the clear point at the outset that my remarks today are not aimed at Gough Whitlam nor, in the main, to those Australians who hold him as an idol or a hero, despite the fact I do not share that judgement of him; rather, I want to talk about the “mythology” that has always existed in any public discussion of the former Prime Minister, and specifically, a legend that is at best highly embellished and bookended by a refutation of the Dismissal that has always been sorely wanting for any basis in fact.
It strikes me as an exquisite irony that as conservatives fete Whitlam in death with praise ranging from the moderate to the effusive — and this column quite happily did the same thing on Tuesday afternoon, as quickly as I could publish comment after learning Whitlam had died — the militant Left across Australia is railing against conservatives who might take advantage of Whitlam’s death to revel in his passing, and tear at their great leader’s legacy.
Presumably, they had in mind something resembling their own (gleeful, exultant, triumphalist) conduct last year when Margaret Thatcher died.
And just to ram their point home, countless manifestations of the Whitlam “legacy” — replete with decades-old embellishments, omissions, and outright fabrications — have leapt from the bunkers of the ABC, the Fairfax press, The Guardian, and all the other branches of the media and the commentariat given unquestioningly to the Left and the sanctity of its version of the country’s past.
It is fortuitous that some journalists, and some media outlets, remain intellectually honest enough to shoot these fictional stories down, and to call them for what they are and were; and without diverging down the tangential path of rehashing them, two excellent pieces from today’s press, by Miranda Devine at Sydney’s Daily Telegraph and Greg Sheridan at The Australian, use hard, cold facts to blow so many holes in the Whitlam “legend” constructed over four decades by his disciples that if it were the Titanic, there would be no need for any iceberg.
But I have had a first-hand taste overnight of the peculiar savagery the ceaseless rewrite of history in Whitlam’s honour is generating, thanks to a vicious exchange on social media involving acquaintances welded to the political Left and centred on that “nuclear weapon” of alleged misdeeds against Whitlam and his government: the Dismissal.
The fracas (which I am hoping will continue no further, in the interests of decency) centred on an article, penned by the outspoken left-wing journalist David Marr and published in The Guardian, which leapt adroitly at the throats of both conservatives and former Governor-General Sir John Kerr over the “ruthless clawing down of Gough Whitlam.”
Appearing less than three hours after news of Whitlam’s death broke, it seems an odd tribute, to say the least.
But — such is presentation — Marr weaves a story of lies, deceit, illegal conduct and sheer bastardry that he claims “the verdict of both the law and history has been savage” to. It is a compelling story. It is also unmitigated and misleading rubbish.
(And to be clear, that description applies to the version of these events adhered to by the Left generally, which is merely reflected in Marr’s representation of them).
As anyone with a basic knowledge of political history knows, early in 1974 — armed with a majority in the Senate — the Coalition parties under the leadership of Bill Snedden moved to block supply to the first-term Whitlam government to force an election; Whitlam capitulated, calling a double dissolution, and was re-elected: albeit still lacking a majority in the Senate, with Labor and the Coalition each winning 29 spots, with two Liberal-leaning Independents.
In October 1975, under the leadership of Malcolm Fraser — with the scandal-plagued Whitlam government limping in opinion polls, and evidence to hand that one of its ministers, Rex Connor, had continued to pursue loans negotiations with Tirath Khemlani after the revocation of his authority to do so, placing the Australian government in breach of US law over other loan-raising activities — the Coalition again moved to block the budget and force another election.
It was aided in this enterprise by two casual ALP Senate vacancies, one in Queensland and one in NSW; in Queensland, Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen appointed an obscure ALP member known to be hostile to Whitlam personally in the knowledge he would be expelled from the Labor Party for accepting the Premier’s nomination. In NSW, Premier Tom Lewis appointed an Independent. It meant that the Coalition controlled the numbers in the Senate.
As it happened, the supply bills of the budget were indeed blocked: the result was that had the government run out of money it would have ceased to be able to function, with wages, rents, and other expenses unable to be paid as the money to do so would not legally be available to the government.
Ultimately — as provided for in section 64 of the Constitution — the deadlock between the Houses was broken by the Governor-General terminating Whitlam’s commission, and appointing Fraser in a caretaker capacity until elections could be held.
(That’s the quickest version of the Dismissal I have ever seen :) )
I understand why this event caused (and causes) so much outrage in ALP circles. After all, this government — which its supporters had waited 23 years to see arrive — was terminated after just three, and by spectacularly unorthodox means.
But there are ample precedents for the legal use of regal and vice-regal constitutional powers in Australia and elsewhere; in fact, Labor itself was a willing cheer squad to the intervention of the Queen in 1977, when Bjelke-Petersen wanted to extend the term of his favourite Governor in Queensland, Colin Hannah — and the Queen said no.
The hypocrisy — with 1975 representing an outrage, and an abuse of power by an unelected representative of a “foreign” power refusing to accept advice from her Prime Minister — is compelling. In 1977, the ALP was cheering the same “foreign” power on for refusing to accept the advice of her Premier. Revenge is not an adequate justification. It is merely naked opportunism.
Even so, much of the bile Marr spouted on Tuesday is ridiculous.
What “verdict” of law has ever condemned the Dismissal? The matter was never taken to the High Court; Labor (and Whitlam) sensibly allowed it to stand, perhaps advised privately that seeking to overturn the decision was an enterprise unlikely to succeed. The Constitution is open to interpretation. But S64 is explicit that the Prime Minister holds office “during the pleasure of the Governor-General,” and it is generally accepted on all sides that the Constitution confers upon the Governor-General the ability to sack an elected government: even if, in Labor’s case in 1975, it did not like it.
The conspiratorial bent of Marr’s story fails to stand up; even with the emergence last year of the fact former High Court Justice Anthony Mason advised Kerr — as did another judge, Justice Barwick — it has been well documented that this advice was to confirm the constitutional integrity of the course of action on which Kerr had already determined, not to influence or “plot” it.
Whitlam was outraged that Kerr sought this advice, pointing to the convention that the viceroy should only be advised by the head of his government. But Kerr — in discharging a constitutional obligation of the office — quite properly sought advice to ensure the legality of his intended actions, and was perfectly entitled to do so.
It didn’t matter whether Bob Menzies was urging the Liberal Party to back down; he no longer held a seat in Parliament. Assertions the Coalition Senators were about to “crack” were and are not worth a can of beans; they didn’t. And far from Kerr being some anti-Labor, anti-Whitlam villain whose ill intent was calculated to “claw Whitlam down,” he “struck” — to use Marr’s term — at the last possible time to do so, and after every avenue for compromise and resolution had been tried, and had failed.
Marr is right that 11 November held no particular constitutional significance; it was, however, the last day on which an election could practicably be called prior to Christmas.
The fact the government had two weeks’ worth of money left on 11 November is part of the problem that forced Kerr’s hand; elections in 1975 required almost five weeks between the announcement and polling day, and the government had insufficient funds to make it that far. Or to Christmas. Or past the “silly season.” Without decisive resolution, tens of thousands of public servants would remain unpaid, as would all other government outgoings. The country would grind to a halt.
Whitlam’s plan to call a half-Senate election, contrary to Marr’s assertion, offered virtually no prospect whatsoever of Whitlam winning enough Senate seats to control the chamber. In fact — so far behind in published polling was the government at that time — it was far likelier the government would go backwards. Such judgements are, of course, subjective. But a deadlocked Senate after a half-Senate poll would have triggered utter chaos.
Whitlam’s other plan (which Marr conveniently fails to mention at all) was to get the country’s big banks to advance credit to the government indefinitely to fund its activities, thus circumventing the Senate and allowing it to stay in office despite its inability to pass its budget. The legality of this plan remains unclear to this day. It may have been legal, as Whitlam maintained; it may not. But it was certainly undemocratic, and a contempt of Parliament to boot.
The spectre of Kerr’s refusal to receive the Speaker of the House of Representatives is a red herring; the advice to dissolve the Houses of Parliament had been offered by Fraser and the proclamation to do so posted. Yes, the House of Representatives refused to adjourn for some time. But ultimately, the action that dissolved it usurped this last-ditch stand.
Most of the remainder of Marr’s article is melodramatic, biased twaddle designed to appeal to people’s hearts rather than their brains. It does not matter, incidentally, what Malcolm Turnbull told Marr. Turnbull, like so many of the other irrelevant bystanders Marr tries to drag into his argument, quite literally has nothing to do with it.
And his attempt to link any defence of the events of 1975 to “this ugly coup” remaining alive — and blaming conservatives for this fact — is simply an exercise in the provocative semantics of a partisan hack who seeks to continue to flog a dead horse decades after it died. It isn’t the Right that keeps dredging the Dismissal up, or disputing the facts surrounding it.
For all the high-minded piety of Marr’s piece, it fails to mention that the following Labor government of Bob Hawke fiddled the Senate by enlarging it, in a blatant attempt to ensure the Coalition could never again control the upper house (which it did — for one term — at the 2004 election). It never ceases to amaze me that the “anti-democratic” Dismissal = bad for the Left, whilst the anti-democratic structural distortion of a house of Parliament itself = good, sound, appropriate policy. Again, the hypocrisy of the Left fails to surprise in its consistency.
If Marr wanted to crucify the real villains of the piece, he would take aim at Bjelke-Petersen and Lewis, whose interventions undoubtedly made the difference between Fraser being able to block supply or not. But this features in Marr’s article as a virtual afterthought.
But whilst the Constitution has since been amended to dictate future Senate vacancies be filled by a member of the same party, what the two conservative Premiers did — whether you like it or not, and whether it seems decent or not — was completely legal and constitutional, if not perhaps done in good faith.
In the end, the Dismissal (as I have said in this column in the past) and ongoing debate on it are matters of constitutional law, not partisan politics, although it goes without saying that their ramifications were entirely political.
And Kerr, despite his (many) faults, took the only appropriate course open to him, and after exhaustive efforts to find an alternative resolution that was legal, functional, and — unlike Whitlam’s half-Senate election — likely to be workable.
Marr’s arguments (and countless others like them) pander to “the man on the street” who has scant interest in the constitutional and legal niceties of such matters, let alone any knowledge of them, and that makes this kind of hypocritical partisan rant all the more telling for its intellectual dishonesty.
On one level, the fact Whitlam’s government was annihilated at the 1975 election is irrelevant to this discussion, although it provides a clear indication of the mood of the public, and had there been outrage against the act of the Dismissal that Marr insinuates, Whitlam might have been re-elected or, at the very least, defeated far less heavily.
Of course, none of this is convenient for the Left.
And it sits perversely with the demands for respect that Whitlam acolytes who claim to be “grieving” and “in mourning” make that the vocal elements within their own ranks now seek to rekindle — and stoke — divisive matters such as this at the time of Whitlam’s death, supposedly in his defence, yet with a complete disregard for both the full facts of the event and its constitutional integrity.
This has been merely one look at the debased version of the history and legend of Gough Whitlam, as represented by his ageing surviving warriors. As night follows day, there will be plenty of others.