Books Australia

Kerr’s curse

30 January 2016

9:00 AM

30 January 2016

9:00 AM

Here it is, yet another book on the Dismissal.

The fall of Gough Whitlam in 1975 has created quite a cottage industry – with Paul Kelly penning what feels like eighty books on the matter alone – and some people may feel that it’s time to call it a day with Gough, Mal and Sir John.

But as we look back forty years to the most extraordinary moment in Australian political history, we are due for one – perhaps final – leap into that pool of melodrama and machination and constitutional chaos. And how lucky we are to take the plunge with Paul Kelly and Troy Bramston.

The Dismissal: In the Queen’s Name is the definitive account of Sir John Kerr’s ousting of Gough Whitlam as Prime Minister in 1975 and the consequences of pushing the Australian constitution to the limit.

Bramston – a brilliant interviewer – has weaved together the memories of titans past and present while Kelly’s all-seeing-eye persona, his knowledge and his gravitas give us the rest. The result is a perfect guide to the Dismissal for any new-comers and a joy of a read for any signed up tragics.

In 1975, this country was in a bit of trouble. The Whitlam Government – plagued by scandal and an economy in freefall – was coming apart at the seams and Malcolm Fraser (who had just dethroned Billy Snedden as Liberal leader) was intent on putting this dog of an administration down. And the recently-appointed Governor General was Sir John Kerr, until then chief justice of New South Wales.

Bramston and Kelly are unsparing with all three of our heroes. Whitlam, the revolutionary leader who has proved totally incompetent. Fraser, the tactician of genius whose born-to-rule arrogance blinded him from seeing the consequences of what he was doing. And topping it all off there was Kerr.

Kelly and Bramston lay a lot of the blame at Kerr’s feet. They argue – with a lot of evidence – that Kerr wilfully deceived Whitlam about his plans to dismiss him and that a sizable part of his reasoning over the final blow consisted of thinking that if he didn’t knock off Gough, Gough would knock him off. Perhaps he suffered more scorn than he deserved in the end but the Kerr profiled here is vain, paranoid and more than willing to push the constitution to its limit.


Is too much blame laid on Kerr? Maybe. But this latest book paints a distinctly unflattering portrait. His judgment that he just couldn’t discuss the supply crisis with Whitlam because he was an impossible bloke seems mad. His border-line joy in plotting with Fraser and Sir Garfield Barwick come across unsavoury. But he was placed in a situation no Governor General could really dream of. Kelly and Bramston are unforgiving but the reader may find pity in her heart for this delusional man.

Whitlam comes across as a bully to Kerr, oblivious to any notion to him as a threat. Kerr may have pushed the whole ‘constitutional umpire’ thing a bit far, but he did have the classic right to be consulted, to advise, and to warn. Whitlam denied his Governor General such courtesies and his lack of respect helped to destroy him.

What do Kelly and Bramston think of Malcolm Fraser? They’re not crazy about blocking supply – nor, by the way, are those old Liberal giants Alexander Downer and Peter Costello, the latter saying he’d have ‘gone off my tree’ if the Senate had blocked his money bills – but they see in Fraser the great-man-of-history theory at work: his ruthlessness and his political genius drove the political system into dark new territory, though the gamble worked.

A shame though, that the great-man aspect didn’t survive into his years as Prime Minister. Fraser in his final accounts still refuses to admit it, but everyone says the Dismissal hung over him for the rest of his days.

But the surprise player here is Sir Anthony Mason. Mason – appointed to the High Court by McMahon – ended up as a lauded progressive Chief Justice under Hawke and Keating.

How odd therefore that this book makes clear he advised Kerr (despite Whitlam’s instructions to the GG only to talk to him) on the viability of dismissal.

Mason says he counselled Kerr to warn Whitlam and to offer him the opportunity to call an election first. But it’s clear despite that caveat, that he was up to his neck in the whole thing, even if the conspiracy started as a mere intellectual exercise.

Mason is so beloved that the legal fraternity refuse to talk about him to the authors -despite pouring the bucket over Barwick – and was so highly regarded that Whitlam refused to believe he had played any part at all, that he could be the third man among the legal villains. Kelly and Bramston do a brilliant job in bringing his involvement to the fore.

This book has generated a wee bit of controversy as it has cleared both Her Majesty, the Queen, and Their Majesties, the CIA, of any wrongdoing. The palace is said to have disliked Kerr and Lady Kerr and were shocked when the news broke. But the Queen – as always – seems to keep her cards very close to her chest. When Labor rushes to her to quell Kerr, she just says it’s not her problem.

As for the CIA, did they love Gough? No. But were they planning a Chile-like coup in the Oval Office? No, of course they weren’t, don’t be silly. Bramston and Kelly are very adamant that there is absolutely no proof the CIA were involved in the dismissal.

Still, you have to love Margaret Whitlam’s line that while Gough thought the Yankees weren’t involved, as a reader of thrillers, she had a little more time for the conspiracy theory.

Another joy here is the big boys of today’s politics looking back. We have Malcolm Turnbull and Tony Abbott (surprise, surprise) disagreeing on Kerr and Barwick. We have Bob Hawke admitting he’d never have appointed Mason chief justice if he knew of his collusion with Kerr. We have Paul Keating saying he’d have put Kerr under house arrest (we can only hope for Keating’s sake, the military would stay on his side).

So did we need another book on the dismissal after all? Yes in fact, we did. Australia is a country – unlike Britain, unlike America – which seems to forget its history with a carefree abandon. We should be grateful, though, that this particular work is of such a high calibre.

And Paul Kelly and Troy Bramston have given what looks like the final word on the crisis that may have destroyed Canberra. And they have reinforced Kerr, Whitlam and Fraser as the closest things our political world has to legends.

Richard Ferguson is a regular contributor to The Spectator Australia

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