Features Australia

Dismiss dismissal dogma

Don’t blame Kerr or the Palace - blame Fraser and Whitlam

21 November 2020

9:00 AM

21 November 2020

9:00 AM

Beware those who claim a monopoly on historical truth. Their goal is not enlightenment or edification, but rather the unthinking acceptance of approved myths. As we marked the 45th anniversary of the dismissal of the Whitlam government, we were once again being told how to regard it. A case in point is Troy Bramston’s recent piece in the Australian (‘The dismissal and me: a political obsession’, 10 November). Notwithstanding his claim that the dismissal ‘never ceases to surprise or astonish’ as new discoveries come to light, Bramston offers a now familiar take. This, he immodestly suggests, is the correct interpretation. If he is right, why would anyone bother studying the dismissal at all?

The orthodox dismissal portrayal is familiar to anyone over the age of 25. The ‘clever, calculating and cunning’ governor-general, Sir John Kerr, is at the centre of the drama. By ‘ambushing’ his prime minister, Gough Whitlam, Kerr undermines democracy, divides the country and weakens faith in our own institutions. Cue the boos from the anti-Kerr mob. (Gough may have felt he was ambushed, but this was only because he was blind to what was obvious to many others, including some of his closest colleagues).

While Whitlam and his opposition leader Malcolm Fraser are criticised, it is inevitably muted. The former’s violation of constitutional convention (by threatening to govern in the absence of supply) and spectacular mismanagement are ignored or glossed over. And while the latter’s ‘ruthlessness’ for pushing the political system ‘to the brink’ is duly noted, this is never expanded upon. For purveyors of the approved view, Kerr inevitably gets top billing. And in the spotlight, it is no surprise that his character flaws and failures come into sharp relief.

This has always struck me as odd. The constitutional crisis was brought about by Whitlam and Fraser, not Kerr. A case can be made that they, not he, should bear the lion’s share of the responsibility. The event’s seeds were sown by our founding fathers, who in their wisdom (or folly) combined elements of Westminster and Washington in our founding political document (which gave the Senate the power to reject or defer the supply of funds to the government). Kerr was more victim than author of the drama.

Bramston condemns Kerr for not acting as the Queen might have done, but there is no equivalence here. The Queen is free to ‘consult, encourage and warn’ wayward prime ministers for the simple reason that she cannot be sacked by them. Kerr did not have that protection. Both he and Gough knew he could be removed by a single call to the Palace. Walter Bagehot, who Bramston quotes in support of his view, was writing about the English Constitution, not the Australian one.

In applying the microscope to Yarralumla, the dismissal orthodoxy loses sight of the larger picture. The dismissal was not an end in itself, but rather the first and necessary step toward the only viable solution to the political deadlock: a general election. When he terminated Whitlam’s commission, Kerr was not passing judgment on either Whitlam or Fraser. All he was doing was putting the dispute before the people, the highest political authority in the land.

What the orthodoxy condemns as undemocratic could equally, and perhaps with more reason, be viewed as a case study of democracy in action. And let’s not forget that the Australian people, when given the opportunity by Kerr, delivered a crushing judgement against Whitlam and his government. Again, the orthodox dismissal view prefers to ignore or downplay this.

Bramston says it is a mistake to ‘conflate’ (sic) this result as a ‘justification’ for Kerr’s act since the Whitlam government was ‘almost always going to lose’ the next election regardless. This, of course, is a non-sequitur. Yes, Whitlam’s government was on the nose, but to deny that the election was fought on the dismissal defies reason. (It’s a bit like claiming the coronavirus was irrelevant in the US election.) If any poll can be said to be a referendum on a particular question, surely this was it. Whitlam, for his part, embraced this framing.

So why has the orthodoxy not been seriously challenged? (Yes, I am aware of the conspiracy theories indulged in by some. The lurid accounts of Palace, CIA and even Rupert Murdoch’s involvement, but they lack any supporting evidence.)

Call me a sceptic, but the focus on Kerr suits both major political parties. Whitlam, in particular, revelled in the martyrdom of the dismissal. Victimhood became Gough, appealing to his inflated sense of self-importance. It gave him a political opportunity, a chance to divert attention from his extremely poor governing record. When he told his supporters to ‘maintain the rage’, he looked forward to an election to be fought on just this issue. It also, of course, proved a salve in the face of defeat. Narcissists, both then and now, cannot bear the thought of personal or political rejection. Far better to blame someone else.

And what of the Liberals? My sense, admittedly from a distant vantage point, is that Kerr was a convenient fall guy. Better for them that the furious mob went after him. Fraser, in particular, had a lot to answer for. He was asked many times why he chose the nuclear option of blocking supply when he was almost certain to win the next scheduled election. And to my knowledge, Fraser never went close to offering a convincing reply. Fraser’s adoption of left-wing causes later in his life, I suspect, took him out of the firing line.

Both Whitlam and Fraser, then, had good reason to divert attention from their own failings. Yet their self-serving assessments are taken at face value by Bramston and others. In the interests of balance, you would think Kerr would get a hearing, but despite writing extensively on the dismissal he is typically not quoted. Nor is Robert Menzies, who in its aftermath told Kerr that he ‘was right as a matter of constitutional law’ to remove Whitlam and ‘displayed remarkable moral courage’ in doing so. Historical correctness, like its political cousin, de-platforms those with inconvenient perspectives.

The orthodox wisdom on the dismissal conforms remarkably closely to the tribal mythology of the Labor party. Our history, if it is to inform and enlighten, cannot be owned by any party or interest. Nor should it presented as settled truth, not open to reinterpretation or debate. My hope is that, in the lead-up to the dismissal’s 50th anniversary, an emerging generation will look at this episode with an open mind. Respectful of the facts, to be sure, but sceptical about what their ‘betters’ tell them to think.

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