The Dismissal

Troy Bramston and Paul Kelly

Presented at the National Archives of Australia in Canberra
7 May 2016

Shaun Rohrlach:

Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen and welcome to the National Archives. My name's Shaun Rohrlach and I'm the Director for Access Programs here at the National Archives. That was a selection of audio visual footage from the archives collection that was pulled together a couple of years ago, that we put a lot of effort into preserving and it's great to be able to put it on show today.

Today's presentation is being recorded and we do have one of our photographer who's here taking photos as well.

Can I now welcome to the stage to introduce our guest speakers David Fricker, the Director-General of the National Archives of Australia, thank you.


David Fricker:

Thank you very much Shaun and thanks everybody very much for being here. A special welcome of course to our very special guests, Troy Bramston and Paul Kelly, for what I think is going to be a fascinating Speaker's Corner event here today. As you've just heard from Shaun, my name's David Fricker, I'm the Director-General here at the National Archives. Can I just begin first by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land upon which we meet this afternoon, the Ngunnawal people, and I pay my respects to their elders past and present.

Today's Speaker's Corner relates to a very significant part of our collection about those much mythologised events - although I leave it to the experts to talk about how history has treated those events and how history should treat those events - on 11 November 1975 when the Whitlam Government was dismissed. We have a very rich collection of records around that event here at the archives.

In fact back in June 2008, the image that we can see projected here behind me, is when Gough Whitlam himself - I think it was the last time he visited the National Archives - came to us and addressed a small audience, including some Australian democracy students from the Australian National University. Also there was a collection of some of our living archives people, the individuals who are themselves featured in the Memory of a Nation exhibition down there at the end of the corridor.

During his visit he was able to share with that gathering his personal recollections of 11 November 1975, that day that he was dismissed by the Governor General, Sir John Kerr. That event of his visit to us coincided with the exhibition of one of these records, Mr Whitlam's handwritten motion which I do have here. The motion that he penned with his few closest advisors over lunch at The Lodge on 11 November. He had planned to put this motion to the House after lunch that day. If you can see up there - because we're all old enough here to read handwriting which, can I say, is a vanishing skill in the Australian population. But let me read it out to you just in case.

The motion was that, this House declares that it has the confidence in the Whitlam Government and that this House informs Her Majesty the Queen that if His Excellency, the Governor General, purports to commission the Honourable Member for Wannon as the PM, the House does not have confidence in him or any government he forms. So with the motion of the pen on the page there, you can see history in the making and also, I think, the power of the record in terms of connecting you with moments in history.

But what we now know of course, and what Mr Whitlam did not know at that time, that Mr Fraser had already been sworn in as caretaker Prime Minister and that indeed, as he was writing this, he was being overtaken by events. So later when Whitlam did rise to address the House in a last attempt to save his government, the motion he presented was of course different to that one that we see up on the screen there. But the intent remained, to demonstrate clearly who held the confidence of the House.

I should point out, this original of this record is in fact held with the Whitlam Institute, good friends of ours. But we hold many, many records relating to the dismissal, including many departmental records, personal records. On the flipside here - that's the flipside of the motion - which just records who was at that session with Mr Whitlam in The Lodge. We have other documents as well from Government House and from the departmental records, diplomatic cables, et cetera.

I'm pleased to say that our special guests here this afternoon have themselves delved into these records…

[Aside discussion]

David Fricker:

…as part of this quest to dive into and explore and try and explain this very important moment in Australia's history. I do think - and I'm sure we'll hear more about this - that if you consider that the Constitution of Australia is that instrument from which all of our rights, all of our freedoms, all of our entitlements flow, and from which the way this nation is governed flows, then the moment at which a Governor General dismisses the Prime Minister, it's very difficult to think of a more important moment in Australia's history. So it's a very, very important work that's being done here and it is a topic, I think, which will continue to attract intense scholarship well into the future.

So it gives me a great deal of pleasure now to introduce our guests. Who, in the fortieth anniversary month of November 2015, published their book, The Dismissal: In the Queen's Name. The book is described, quite rightly, as revealing the story of Australia's greatest political crisis, with fresh interviews, the discovery of new archival material and a dramatic reinterpretation of events that will surprise readers. The treasure trove of new information already discovered by Paul Kelly and Troy Bramston deepens our understanding of what we know about the dismissal, reveals startling new information and contradicts some recently published claims. The book was, and still is, a fresh account, dispassionate in its analysis, vivid in its narrative and somewhat brutal in its conclusions.

So, as I say, we are very, very lucky to have these most distinguished speakers here with us this afternoon. If I can just quickly introduce each one. Now I'll I start with you Paul. So Paul Kelly is Editor-at-Large at The Australian, he was previously Editor-in-Chief of the paper and he writes on Australian politics, public policy and international affairs. Paul has covered Australian governments from Gough Whitlam all the way through to Malcolm Turnbull and in the coming months who knows, who knows who will be governing. He's a regular television commentator on Sky News program, the Australian Agenda. He's the author of nine books, including The End of Certainty on the politics and economics of the 1980s, Triumph and Demise on the Rudd Gillard era, and The March of Patriots providing a reinterpretation of Paul Keating and John Howard in office.

In 2001 at the centenary of Federation Paul presented the five part television documentary for the ABC, 100 Years: the Australian Story. In 1990 he was Graham Perkin journalist of the year. Paul holds a Doctor of Letters from Melbourne University. In 2006 he was a Visiting Fellow at the Lowy Institute for International Policy. In 2010 he was a Vice-Chancellor's Fellow at Melbourne University. Paul is a Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences in Australia. I'm sure the list could go on but I'm going to stop it there. For two decades Paul has been a regular participant in the Australian American Leadership Dialogue. So, as I say, we cannot think of a more qualified and distinguished speaker to have here this afternoon. Or can we? Because now I turn to Troy Bramston.


Troy is a senior writer and columnist with The Australian and a contributor to Sky News. He has worked as a policy and political adviser in government, opposition and in the private sector. He's the author of two previous books, previous to this one, Rudd Gillard and Beyond and Looking for the Light on the Hill: Modern Labor's Challenges. He's also the editor of four books, The Whitlam Legacy, For the True Believers: Great Labor Speeches That Shaped History, The Wran Era and The Hawk Government: A Critical Retrospective done with Susan Ryan in 2003. So it is, as I say with tremendous pleasure and a great deal of anticipation about the discussion that is still to come, that I introduce Paul Kelly and Troy Bramston.


Paul Kelly:

David Fricker, ladies and gentlemen, Troy and I are delighted to be at the National Archives for this event, this Speaker's Corner event, dealing with the events of 11 November 1975. Also we owe the National Archives a debt. We did a lot of research here which was indispensable in providing critical material for our book, The Dismissal. It's great to be in this wonderful building and particularly for me in a personal sense. I worked in this building for 18 months when I first came to Canberra many decades ago when the Prime Minister's Department was located in this building.

Troy and I bring different perspectives to the dismissal, which reflects our age. Troy had not yet come into the world on 11 November 1975. So for him it's a beloved historical exercise as a tremendous contemporary political historian, and he has shown a wonderful interest in the subject combined with diligent researching skills. I lived through the dismissal, at the time I covered the event. I spoke to Whitlam and Fraser throughout the course of the crisis, off the record. I've lived with the events of 11 November 1975 throughout my entire life. It's still very, very vivid in my mind.

I'd written two books about the dismissal. A book called The Unmaking of Gough which was published in 1976. At the twentieth anniversary in 1995 I wrote a very detailed account called November 1975. Troy and I decided on the fortieth anniversary that we'd give it another go. The reason we decided to do this was because there was a lot of new material coming out. In the archives, under the 30 year rule, there was new material not just from the archives but from the National Library. We did a whole new series of interviews about the event.

I believe, we both believe, that we've produced a lot of new and original material that throws fresh light on this event for the fortieth anniversary. The book attempts to be an impartial account but we've certainly drawn very, very rugged conclusions about the three principals, Sir John Kerr, Malcolm Fraser and Gough Whitlam. There are no heroes in this book. This is a story about men of extraordinary character and ambition playing out on the historical stage in the most brutal quest for power we've seen in the history of the country.

Now today Troy and I are going to divide this up in five minute cameos. I will talk about Sir John Kerr and about the High Court in my two cameos. Troy in his will talk about the Palace and the Queen, then Malcolm Fraser, then Gough Whitlam. So I'm going to now hand over to Troy to deal with his first cameo, which is about the Queen and the Palace. I hope you're ready for this.


Troy Bramston:

Thanks very much Paul and thank you to David and Shaun.

[Aside discussion]

Troy Bramston:

Well I wanted to start by thanking David and Shaun and thank you all for coming along. It's terrific to be back in this building. I was here on Friday looking at some Cabinet papers from the 1970s. This place has become, in many ways, my second home in the last 10 years or so, I've spent so much time here. We really did push the archive staff as hard as we could because we wanted to get so many new documents released. They really supported us to a very great degree in helping us to produce this book. So we're very thankful to David, who we met with while we were writing the book, and also to the many staff who have put up with my constant emails and phone calls asking for new documents to be released.     

Because that's really what Gough Whitlam's number one instruction was to people interested in history. He used to say, go to the documents, and so that's what we did. We think that we've accessed probably 1000 pages of new archival material that hasn't been seen by other historians before. Particularly the Kerr archives here, also the papers of Sir Garfield Barwick which we opened for the first time. There are other people too, the public service was a great source of material for us in this book, particularly the papers by John Menadue and others. We found a lot of new documents in private collections that we were able to access. Which we hope will one day find their way into a public institution.

So I'm going to start off by talking about the Queen and the Palace, the perspective that they - that we drew about the Queen and the Palace in the book. What we can say is that Kerr acted in the Queen's name but she would never have taken such action herself. The point about monarchy of course is to avoid confrontation, is to avoid being involved in politics, and John Kerr failed this critical test. That test of monarchy in a constitutional parliamentary setting is to advise, to warn and to counsel. But Kerr never took Whitlam into his trust or tried to procure an outcome short of a surprise dismissal.

In short, the Palace, and by implication the Queen, were surprised by the dismissal. They had no prior warning about Kerr's actions and they distanced themselves from it, and from him personally, in the years after. Of these conclusions we are in no doubt. We draw these conclusions based on the documents themselves, but also based on some new interviews we've conducted with the book. So Sir Martin Charteris was the Queen's Private Secretary at the time. Paul interviewed him about 20 years ago and we draw on his views in the book, which effectively represent what I've just told you about the Palace's real view.

We both conducted a series of new interviews with a man by the name of Sir William Heseltine. Who is an interesting character, he was the Queen's Assistant Private Secretary in 1975. He was born in Fremantle. He worked for Robert Menzies as his Private Secretary in the 1960s. So he knew very well about the interplay between the monarchy and the Parliament and the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition in the Australian setting. So his view is that this was not an ideal solution to the crisis, which should have been resolved by a political resolution.

Now there's a very interesting story here. Which was about what actually happened in the Palace when they found the news of the dismissal. So at about two AM the phone rings in the apartment where Sir William Heseltine was staying. On the phone was Sir David Smith, the Governor General's Private Secretary, ringing from Yarralumla. He informed him that the Governor General had dismissed the Prime Minister. Sir Williams says he took a double take, he almost fell out of bed when he heard the news he was so surprised by it all. It was two AM, he wasn't sure whether he should wake the Queen with the news or his senior official, Sir Martin Charteris.

So he thought he'd wait until about seven AM and then he walked over to the Private Office. He saw Sir Martin Charteris already there and he had just gotten off the phone from Gough Whitlam. But Sir Martin Charteris was very embarrassed because he had answered the phone saying, good morning Prime Minister, and Whitlam responded by saying, I'm no longer the Prime Minister, I'm just the member for Werriwa. So that was an embarrassing moment.

But the two of them decided they had to tell the Queen and tell her quickly. So they knew that she used to listen to about the seven AM news on the radio. So they rang her and said they'd like to come up and see her just before eight o'clock, and they did. Sir William can't recall whether or not the Queen was wearing her pyjamas and nightgown but he says it's quite possible that she was. We don't know precisely what the Queen's response was because, being Palace officials, they're not going to reveal what the Queen said. But they made it very clear to both of us that the Queen agreed with their view, which was this was not an ideal solution to the political crisis.

By 1977 the Palace was so concerned with Sir John Kerr - you might remember some of the footage of him at the Melbourne Cup in 1977 as he was booed and clearly under the weather, red-faced, had way too much to drink. Earlier that year at the Tamworth Show he'd fallen over in the mud. So Sir John Kerr was becoming a bit of an embarrassment for the Palace. They were already concerned about his actions in 1975. So we conclude in the book, with new evidence, that the Palace effectively pushed Kerr into an early retirement.

We came to this view because we came across a new memo written by Sir Paul Hasluck who was Governor General before Sir John Kerr. We were given this memo by his son, Nicholas Hasluck. In this memo Sir Paul relays a number of conversations he had with the Palace staff, including Martin Charteris. It was very clear in those discussions that the Queen did want to push Kerr into an early retirement, they were very concerned about how he'd handled the crisis. He actually quotes Martin Charteris quoting the Queen. It's a rare thing that you ever see the Queen directly quoted.

The Queen is reported to have said in a document written in 1977 that she found Sir John and Lady Kerr to be very greedy people. It's an extraordinary word, greedy, and it conveys a lot. I think particularly it conveys what the Palace really thought about the dismissal. So they were relieved when Kerr resigned in 1977. He says he wasn't pushed, he says that in his papers. But it's pretty clear from Malcolm Fraser's perspective and the Palace's perspective, they did push him to an early retirement. It's worth noting that he was appointed in 1974 for what he thought would be a 10 year term. So he had to resign only about three years into his term.

On the issue of the Palace and the monarchy and the British Government, I'll just make a couple of other quick points that we found in new documentary material. What was fascinating to us is to reveal some of the archives in the United Kingdom about what the British diplomats thought on the ground here in Canberra. In short, they thought the dismissal was extreme and unwarranted, they're words that the High Commissioner, Sir Morrice James, uses. They thought the dismissal was unjustified - they relayed this back to London - and they were worried about the impact on the monarchy.

Morrice James has an interesting conversation with John Kerr a few weeks after the dismissal. John Kerr thought he had to apologise for nothing. He thought his actions were correct. In fact, he told the British High Commissioner that the reserve powers to dismiss a government should be used every 25 to 50 years as a reminder of the Crown's authority to intervene in Australian politics. It's an extraordinary statement, it's there in the British archives in London.

Now the shock of the dismissal echoed in London. I had an interview with a guy by the name of Bernard Donoughue who worked for the British Prime Minister, Harold Wilson. He said they were shocked by the dismissal. They thought the reserve powers were some archaic unknown thing that could not be used anymore. We also found an interesting letter in London, that doesn't exist in Australia to our knowledge, that Gough Whitlam wrote to Harold Wilson just weeks after the dismissal.

This was really important because Whitlam always said, if he had have known what Kerr was thinking he would never have acted to dismiss him first, which is what Kerr always thought would happen. Which is why Kerr writes in his journal, held here in the archives, that he had to act by stealth leading up to the dismissal. But in this letter that Whitlam writes to Harold Wilson he actually says that, if he did get wind of what Kerr was planning he would have contacted the Queen and asked her to sack him. So that sits on the table as an important new historical revelation. We can't be precise about whether or not he would have done that but clearly that was on Whitlam's mind. Ill hand over to Paul.


Paul Kelly:

Let me discuss the extraordinary character and personality of John Kerr in his ambitions and in his fears. Contrary to conventional wisdom, Gough Whitlam knew very little about the man he made governor General, Sir John Kerr. We argue in the book, literally, that Sir John Kerr, from Labor's point of view and from Whitlam's point of view, was possibly the worst person in Australia to make Governor General. Kerr in office gradually became paranoid about Whitlam and the personal relationship between the two men disintegrated. Sir John Kerr was a very ambitious man. He was a man who wanted to leave his mark on Australia and this was a feature of his entire career.

He was born into a lower middle class home in Balmain and right from an early age was fascinated by the law and by politics. There were two great figures whom Kerr came to know very well, who had a profound influence on his life. HV Evatt, the man who became the leader of the Labor Party during the 1950s, and the man who was the most famous barrister during Kerr's period and later, by coincidence, Chief Justice when Kerr was Governor General, and I refer to Sir Garfield Barwick.

Now the reason Evatt was so important was Evatt had a great influence on Kerr intellectually. As a young lawyer Evatt wrote a famous book, The King and his Dominion Governors, about the powers of the Crown. But in particular the reserve powers of the Crown, an arcane concept of course. Kerr knew Evatt when Evatt was writing this book in Sydney and they discussed the reserve powers at great length. Evatt argued the reserve powers existed and they needed to be codified. So as a young man Kerr came to believe fundamentally in the reserve powers of the Crown, their reality and the fact they did exist.

Gough Whitlam believed they didn't exist. So Gough Whitlam in fact appointed, as Governor General, a man who had a profound interest in the reserve powers. A man who believed in the course of his own life that this was an important issue in his own legal and political development. Whitlam and Kerr of course never discussed this at the time Kerr was appointed. But Kerr did discuss this issue with a close friend, Sir Anthony Mason, then a High Court judge, after Whitlam had offered Kerr the post of Governor General.

In this remarkable conversation with Mason - and Mason has subsequently revealed - that Kerr said to Mason, at the time when he was considering taking the job, that he didn't rule out the use of the reserve powers if he became Governor General. It's an extraordinary, almost unbelievable, discussion. Later on as Kerr matured as a judge, he became close to Barwick and very influenced by Barwick and became a friend of Barwick's. Again, Barwick believed in the reserve powers and this became enormously important. Because when Kerr was Governor General, there was Barwick, his friend, as Chief Justice.

If we look at the political side of Kerr's life, he was a Labor man and he often thought about joining politics on the Labor side. Describing himself at the outbreak of World War II Kerr said, I was a socialist a democratic socialist, a so-called radical with no orthodox and well-defined ideology of a revolutionary kind. I was just ready, as it were, for Labor politics if things moved me in that direction. By the mid to late 50s he was a very different man. He was a success, he'd moved across the political spectrum, his friends were Liberals and many of these friends wanted him to join politics as a Liberal. Kerr often dreamt of replacing Menzies.

He talked about the offers he had from Liberals to enter politics and said, it was always discussed in terms of the top leadership. I think most of those who were seeking me out to consider joining the Liberal Party and going into politics, especially federal politics, had in mind the top leadership roles. Everybody knew that Menzies would someday go and where was the leadership to come from? Nobody really seemed to think of Harold Holt as a long term prospect. So here is a lawyer, a conservative lawyer who believed in the reserve powers of the Crown, who flirts with politics all his life, and he's appointed by Whitlam as Governor General.

Kerr was a vain man. He took the office of Governor General very seriously. He wanted to build up the office. He understood that Whitlam also wanted to build up the office of Governor General, vis-à-vis the Crown, and so they were on common ground. But what happened when Kerr was Governor General was that he felt that Whitlam was patronising him. He felt that Whitlam didn't take him seriously. He felt that Whitlam didn't recognise his status, his history, his intellectual capabilities. These were the seeds of distrust between them.

Then came the loans affair when Kerr believed that Whitlam patronised him and expected him to sign a minute. A minute which was extremely contentious, that Kerr had grave reservations about. So going into the constitutional crisis in October 1975, Kerr decided that he couldn't trust Whitlam, that he wouldn't confide in Whitlam about his thinking of the crisis. As time went on he became convinced that Whitlam would be prepared to move against him and go to the Palace to have him removed as Governor General if Whitlam had the slightest inclination that Kerr was sceptical about Whitlam's position and might, in fact, entertain the idea of dismissing the Prime Minister.

So this was the extraordinary situation. These two titanic figures, they fell out. One of the reasons they fell out was not just because Whitlam mishandled Kerr, that was certainly true, but he did not understand the fundamental nature of Kerr as a lawyer, as a judge and as a Governor General. I'll now hand over to Troy to talk about Malcolm Fraser.


Troy Bramston:

Well this book is about the real Malcolm Fraser, a man who was bold and ruthless in his pursuit of political power. There's never been a politician like Malcolm Fraser in 1975. The Malcolm Fraser in 1975 is not the compassionate, cultivated convert of the retirement phase of his life. You've got to put your mind back into what Malcolm Fraser was like in 1975. During the crisis Fraser used a mix of persuasion, flattery, intimidation and bullying to get Kerr to intervene in the crisis, to call an early election. I want to give you a couple of anecdotes that we think expose the real Malcolm Fraser in 1975.

The first happens on the very first day of the supply crisis, 16 October 1975. That's the day supply is blocked for the very first time. It's the day that a legal opinion written by Liberal frontbencher, Bob Ellicott, was published, given to the media. That Ellicott opinion said the Governor General should intervene and sack the Prime Minister. Kerr was a close friend of Ellicott's and had a close interest in it. One of the things we discovered here in the archives was that there was a secret rendezvous at the Commonwealth Club downtown. Where Ellicott met Kerr's Private Secretary, Sir David Smith, and passed over the Ellicott opinion to Kerr in secret in a yellow envelope that just simply had Mr Smith written on it, and that was then given to Kerr.

But this 16 October dinner, this was a dinner for the Malaysian Prime Minister, it was at Government House, a great occasion. There were ladies wearing their finest evening gowns, men in their tuxedos. We have a great photo we got from the archives, in the book. Of Whitlam and his wife, Margaret, Sir John and Lady Kerr and the Malaysian Prime Minister and his wife, all dressed up having this photograph at the dinner. But while that was all happening, Malcolm Fraser was also there at the dinner. Kerr decided that he had to pull Fraser aside and have a private conversation with him, breaking protocol on day one of the crisis.

The Kerr message for Fraser was extraordinary. This is written in a note that's in the archives. Kerr says that he distrusts Whitlam - remember, he's talking to the Opposition Leader - he distrusts Whitlam. He says he fears his own dismissal as Governor General and that he was thinking about using the reserve powers at some stage in the crisis. This is an extraordinary statement to make on 16 October. But then he also said to Fraser, you might be stuck with a Governor General who would not use the reserve powers if I get sacked. So it's an extraordinary conversation that gives Fraser an enormous advantage at the beginning of the crisis.

So concerned Kerr was that Fraser didn't get the message at the dinner, that he pulled him aside twice, before they ate and after they ate, just to reinforce what he was really thinking. Of course Kerr never conveyed any of this to his Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam, at any stage throughout the crisis. But in one of their last formal meetings that Fraser and Kerr had - of course he was able to meet with the Opposition Leader a number of times during the crisis. He asked Whitlam for that permission, Whitlam gave it. But Fraser decided that at one of their last meetings, I think it's their last, that he needed to turn up the pressure on Kerr. So he told Kerr to his face, in the study at Yarralumla, that if he didn't intervene and force an election, then Fraser would have to go out their publically and say he had failed his duty as Governor General.

For a proud man to be told that he would be trashed in public by the Leader of the Opposition was an extraordinary thing. Fraser knew what he was doing. He understood Kerr, he understood his psyche, as did the senior figures in the Liberal Party. So at that last meeting they gave Kerr a message that they knew would have, hopefully, a significant effect. Now this was the Opposition, as I say, talking to the Queen's representative in Australia. It was brutal, it was bold. Fraser told me about this conversation, as he did many others. He was almost boastful about it. It's a reminder - a chilling reminder - of the real Malcolm Fraser in 1975.

I want to take you forwards - on the day of 11 November, towards the end of the crisis, another discussion takes place with Malcolm Fraser. There's a secret meeting that had never been revealed before that we discuss in the book. Early on the morning of 11 November there was a meeting of the senior leadership of the Liberal Party convened by Tony Eggleton, the Federal Director of the party. At that meeting Fraser was told, if you don't get an outcome today it's, quote, all over for you. We will have to give in, the Liberal senators and the National Party senators will have to pass supply and gift Whitlam a great victory. So Fraser knew that early in the morning.

He goes to a meeting with Whitlam at nine AM, tries to reach a compromise or some kind of an outcome, he doesn't. He then goes to a party room - then before he goes to a party room meeting, the private phone line rings in Malcolm Fraser's office at 9:55 AM. On the phone is Sir John Kerr calling from the study at Yarralumla. In that phone call Kerr tells Fraser that he's planning on sacking Whitlam later that afternoon. He asks him a number of conditions. Would you accept a caretaker commission, would you recommend an election, would you promise to guarantee the passage of supply and so on.

Now this was such an important phone call because it gave Fraser the strength he needed to carry on for the rest of the day. Whitlam had no idea that this phone call took place. Fraser knew it was important that he wrote a note about what this phone conversation said. As Kerr was talking to him, he flipped over the agenda meeting for the Liberal Party meeting to start at about 10:30 and he wrote down what Kerr had told him. He lost the note, he later found it. He gave it to me, we published it in the book.

There were two people listening to that phone call on the opposite side of the desk. One was Vic Garland, the Opposition Whip. He did an interview with Paul, was in no doubt that Kerr was tipping off Fraser about what he was planning to do at lunchtime. Reg Withers, the Opposition Senate Leader, was also in the room. He did an oral history interview with the National Library. Withers said that Fraser was giddy with excitement when he heard that phone call.

He was so excited he forgot that Garland and Withers were standing opposite him and when he hung up the phone call Fraser said to them, you guys didn't hear a word of that conversation. But we could put all these pieces together now like a puzzle and indicate that that meeting was critical, that he was tipped off by Kerr. Fraser also made a statutory declaration about this phone call before he died. He left it in his personal papers at the University of Melbourne, we publish it in the book for the first time.  

Now Malcolm Fraser always thought the dismissal was an exhausted subject but he nevertheless discussed it at length. I had a number of discussions with him, as did Paul. I wanted to finish on a couple of quick things that Fraser told me about Kerr. He said that Kerr was frightened of being dismissed, that Kerr was lonely, that he was not a strong man, that he was always seeking reassurance and he was worried about his place in history. So the conclusion to draw from that is obvious. It's that Malcolm Fraser exploited Kerr's character defects for his own political advantage.


Paul Kelly:

To the High Court. Sir John Kerr died in March 1991 and his memorial service was held in April that year at St James' Anglican Church in Sydney. The main eulogy was delivered by Sir Anthony Mason, Kerr's best friend. Mason was a judge of the High Court in 1975. One of the great untold stories of the dismissal is the personal relationship between Kerr and Anthony Mason during this critical period from August through to November 1975.

As a lawyer and a judge, Kerr understood the full ramifications of sacking the Prime Minister as Governor General. He wanted allies, he wanted to ensure that this unprecedented action would be guaranteed, and right from the start he wanted the High Court on side. Wasn't it extraordinary that on the High Court bench there was a Chief Justice Barwick, whom he knew well, and there was his best friend, Anthony Mason, also on the bench. We argue in the book, contrary to everything Gough said after the crisis and probably believed until the day Gough died that Barwick had been a principal engineer of the dismissal, we establish I think beyond any doubt this is wrong.

That Barwick wanted to sign up and support the Governor General in his dismissal of Whitlam. But the real confidante of the Governor General, the man he spoke to many times during the crisis, the man Kerr said gave him encouragement and helped him and fortified him in this decision, was Mason. That what Barwick never understood, although he would have given the advice anyway, was that Kerr and Mason were talking to manipulate Barwick. We call this chapter, manipulating the Chief Justice, manipulating the High Court.

So let's deal with Kerr and Barwick and then deal with Kerr and Mason. On 20 September, a month before the budget's blocked, at a dinner at the Union Club in Sydney Kerr is sitting next to Barwick who's Chief Justice and Kerr says to Barwick, are you in a position to advise me if supply is blocked. Barwick leaves open the door, he leaves open the door to Kerr. So Kerr knows right from the start, a month before supply is blocked, that he's got a pathway to talk to the Chief Justice if he needs it. That's fine, he doesn't go back to Barwick.

What happens is he talks to Mason. Now Kerr has produced a very detailed and extraordinary document about these talks with Mason, and Mason more recently has done his own document decades later. So we have these two documents. Kerr - talking about his relationship with Mason and talking about the document that he writes about his discussions with Mason - says, if this document is found among my archives it will mean that my final decision is that the truth must prevail. And as he - that is Mason - played a most significant part in my thinking at that critical time and as he will be in the shades of history when this is read, his role should be known.

Kerr was always worried that Mason didn't want his role known. On another occasion Kerr wrote of Mason, I feel that although he and I do not differ at all about the facts of what happened between us and are still very good friends, he - Mason - would be happier for the sake of the Court if history never came to know of his role. So Mason's role is that during the crisis he and Kerr talked regularly about the situation, about how Kerr sees it and they talk about Barwick and they talk about when Kerr should go to Barwick. They talk about the tactics of the Governor General going to the Chief Justice.

At one stage Mason says to Kerr, you've got to be careful when you go to Barwick. If you go to Barwick too soon you could be in trouble. Barwick is likely to advise you to sack the Prime Minister and, if you're not ready to sack the Prime Minister at that stage, then you're going to be in difficulty because you'll have this advice from the Chief Justice and you're not ready to act on it. So they discussed the timing as to when Kerr did it. On 9 November they spent a lot of time together in Sydney, they had a long discussion. Kerr confided in Mason in that discussion that he'd made up his mind, he was going to sack Whitlam. Mason said, I'm very pleased that you've made up your mind. They discussed tactics.

At one stage Mason even wrote a draft letter of dismissal for the Governor General to give the Prime Minister. This is extraordinary, Mason's a High Court judge, he should not have done anything at all like this. Now Mason says they had one major difference of opinion. Mason says he told Kerr, before you sack Whitlam you've got to give him the chance of staying Prime Minister, you've got to give him the chance to change his mind on the issue. In Kerr's papers this is never referred to. Kerr never anywhere refers to Mason giving this advice. So there is a disagreement between the two of them on this fundamental point. As to whether or not Mason actually said to Kerr, hey give Whitlam the chance of going to the election as Prime Minister.

After 9 November, fortified by Mason, that night Kerr rings Barwick and they agree to meet the next day. It's his first conversation with Barwick since 20 September. He only goes to Barwick when he's decided and he gets the written opinion from the Chief Justice to this effect. What we have here is Kerr, as a matter of tactics and strategy, involving the High Court, clearly implicating the High Court in his decision to ensure the High Court is on side. He's got a written opinion from the Chief Justice.

Now at least, as far as Barwick's concerned, Barwick's role and advice is documented. Barwick says to Kerr, I'm happy to advise you but I've got two conditions. I want it notified in the Vice-Regal notices the next day that we met and I want my advice made public and released, and that's what happened. With Mason, we never knew about Mason's role for decades. When Troy and I were doing the book, we went separately. We interviewed Bob Hawke and Paul Keating separately. Because remember what happened, under the Hawke Government Mason was appointed Chief Justice of the High Court of Australia.

Both Hawke and Keating said to us on the record, had they known about Mason's role with Kerr in relation to the dismissal, the Labor Cabinet of the 1980s would never have appointed Mason as Chief Justice. The implication is very clear. The secrecy surrounding Mason's role was to Mason's great benefit. This is an extraordinary story. The story of how the Governor General implicated the High Court in the dismissal of the Prime Minister to ensure that it could not be undone. Troy will now talk about Gough Whitlam.


Troy Bramston:

Gough Whitlam was a towering political figure in his day. He was a conviction politician. He only had one mode of operation which was to crash or crash through. In 1975 he said his objective was to smash the Senate. That's what he wanted to do, he saw this is as a great fight over constitutional principles and over parliamentary democracy. He said that democracy was at stake. But it was not, in truth, a contest about higher constitutional principles. It was about political tactics and strategy. That's what Malcolm Fraser understood. That's what Gough Whitlam didn't understand and he failed in that respect in 1975, even though we conclude that the dismissal was unjust and unwarranted.

But, in truth, during the crisis Whitlam's mistakes are simply beyond belief. He makes blunder after blunder. He misses opportunities. He fails to see a pathway to a resolution. He ignores possible options to end the crisis earlier than 11 November. He made incredible mistakes in how he not only saw the crisis, but importantly in how he saw Kerr. As Paul explained, John Kerr was not the Labor Party figure of the 1950s in 1975. I did a long interview with Tony Staley who was a Liberal Party frontbencher in 1975, very close to Malcolm Fraser.

He said they had no doubt that Kerr had transformed and transferred himself politically, emotionally and intellectually to the conservative side of Australian politics. That's how Kerr saw himself and they knew that and they worked on Kerr on that basis. They did a lot of research, the Liberal Party, they spoke to people who knew Kerr personally. Paul and I did an interview with Sir Laurence Street who was New South Wales Chief Justice after Kerr. Laurence Street told us that he got a phone call from the president of the Liberal Party, John Atwell, to do a character assessment of who Kerr was. So that's what he did. So Street gave them a character assessment of Kerr.

He told them that Kerr is a guy who, if he was ever at the crease, he'd want to hit a six. If he had a mark to make in history, he would never miss that opportunity. He saw himself as a political figure and he wanted to make his mark in history. He wanted to be Prime Minister one day, he said that in an oral history interview, that was his ambition. Gough Whitlam knew none of this, the Labor Party knew none of this about who Kerr really was. So Whitlam treated Kerr with contempt, utter contempt. He ridiculed him in front of him, he made jokes about him and he ignored him at key moments of the crisis.

He also ignored advice from the public service. We found a collection of documents here that are stunning. There are two things that the public service said what Whitlam should do. One of them was that he should write to the Governor General formally spelling out how he is the Governor General's principal adviser and try to box him in at the start of the crisis about what his options are, who he can talk to, who he can't talk to, what he can do, what he can't do. That may have had an impact on his decisions. It may have helped to curtail what Kerr could and could not do. But Whitlam ignored that. The letter is sitting in the archives here unsigned.

Another thing the public service did was they suggested that Whitlam try to keep the 1975-76 budget in control of the House of Representatives. They came up with this ingenious constitutional device where, to pass the budget, after passing the Senate it had to go back to the House to be endorsed another time before it could be given Royal Assent and became law. What that would have meant was that even if the Senate had have passed the budget on 11 November 1975, which they did, it would have had to come back to the House and Whitlam would have been in control of those budget bills. Of course this was a contest about supply, about passing supply. Whitlam ignored that advice from the public service, completely ignored it.

Of course when he was dismissed, he went back to The Lodge, he wrote that handwritten note that David put up on the screen there and he didn't do anything. He didn't tell the senators that he'd been dismissed. There were no senators called to that Lodge to hear what had happened, to discuss strategy or to discuss tactics. Malcolm Fraser went straight back to Parliament House, convened the senior members of the Shadow Cabinet and told them what they needed to do. Because he knew that the contest had changed, it was now about passing supply. Whitlam rarely engaged his staff or his ministers. He thought he knew best.

I interviewed Whitlam's Chief of Staff in 1975, John Mant. John Mant told me - I said look, John, tell me about the sort of discussions you had in the Prime Minister's office about the supply crisis, the planning, about tactics, strategy, role playing. He said there were none, there were no discussions in the office about how to handle this crisis. He said, Gough thought he knew best. He said, you've got to understand that by November 1975 Gough thought most people were piss ants and by November of 1975 the piss ant group had grown to a very large size and it also included John Kerr.


Bill Hayden of course has told a great story about what happened on 6 November, five days before the supply crisis. Hayden of course was Treasurer in 1975, he went out to see Kerr at Yarralumla to talk about alternative financial mechanisms in the event that the budget was not passed. Kerr didn't want to talk about that. He wanted to talk about the crisis. Kerr said to Hayden, you know never underestimate Whitlam. When he's in a crisis and his back's against the wall he can be magnificent. He can come out of this, he can win, he can fight and win. Hayden thought this was a very strange discussion to be having. He was supposed to be going straight from Yarralumla to the Canberra Airport to fly back to Brisbane.

Instead he went straight to Parliament House, he got Gough Whitlam out of a meeting and he said, Gough my copper's instinct - because he'd been a Brisbane copper - tells me that he's going to sack us, the Governor General was going dismiss the Government. This was 6 November. Whitlam says, comrade he wouldn't have the guts to do that. So Whitlam ignored the views of his advice, he missed the warning signals and he undertook almost no contingency planning or crisis management. He failed to understand that supply was the key issue on 11 November and he ignored that opportunity to try to look at other options on the day, but also in the months leading up to it.

In conclusion, Whitlam always said that he wanted to be remembered as an achiever because he was not a martyr. He never wanted to be remembered because of the dismissal. But I think the dismissal, as much as anything else, exposes Whitlam's political failures and points to all those things that went wrong during the Whitlam Government between 1972 and 1975, even though they had some magnificent achievements as well. Thank you.


Shaun Rohrlach:

Thank you very much Paul and Troy. Ladies and gentlemen, we've got a few minutes for some questions. We've got some microphones with our two gallery hosts. If you just pop your hand up and wait for a microphone so we can get it into the recording. Any questions? Down the front here, if we just - [Kathy].


Thank you very much, both, that was outstanding, it was excellent. But it leaves me now in the position where in 1975 I thought we had a standard Westminster system where the Prime Minister advised the viceroy in our case, but I'd never read the Constitution. Having done so, the problem now seems to be that the Constitution makes the two houses equal, apart from changing supply or altering it or originating it. So we've got a Constitution that doesn't move us from the problem we had in '75. We have the precedent whereby a Governor General can sack a government. We have that advice from the Chief Justice of the High Court. To my knowledge, no other Chief Justice has given an opinion that's different from that one. So with those three things, could this not all happen again?

Paul Kelly:

A very good question. The powers are the same, as you say. The Senate still has those powers over supply. The reserve powers of the Crown still exist, that's now widely recognised. You are correct that Sir Garfield Barwick's advice sits on the table. However we did interview Barwick's successors as Chief Justice. They made it clear that they did not subscribe to the Barwick opinion. In theory, because the powers of the Senate and the Governor General have not been altered, in theory it could all happen again. In practice, it won't happen again for two reasons.

The Senate is unlikely to block supply in future. I couldn't be completely categorical but I would say that it is most unlikely, that's been clear ever since 1975. But more significantly, it's now very clear that the office of Governor General has evolved. There's been a recognition on the part of every subsequent Governor General that Kerr's action was inappropriate. I think it's inconceivable that any future Governor General would duplicate Sir John Kerr's actions.

Shaun Rohrlach:

Other questions?

[Aside discussion]


Thanks very much. In your eminently readable book my prize for the most outstanding revelation went to the information that you provided about Anthony Mason. My second and third prizes went to some of the interesting revelations about discussions between Kerr and Menzies and the revelations about discussions between Prince Charles and Kerr. I wondered what were the most exciting discoveries for you as you were researching the book. Were there any moments when you looked at something, a piece of paper, and thought, yes the gods smile on me?

Troy Bramston:

All the time.


Most often in this building, just down the corridor there. Paul and I spent many hours sitting in the reading room here reading mountains of documents. They'd bring them out on these trays stacked up high. We'd just devour these documents and we'd often pause and say, get a load of this. Because there are so many things, I mean there are lots of things to know about that you can find in documents. There are still things that we're asking to be released and the archives are working through them. I'm sure there's going to be more secrets to find out and we'll probably do a fiftieth anniversary book in 10 years' time because there are lots of new things.

But you asked a question about what was the most interesting. Look, there's so many but I'll just mention one of them. Just to briefly mention the memo we got from Nicholas Hasluck that his father wrote, which really gives us for the first time quoting the Queen and her views. That's an important document. The oral history interview that Kerr did in the National Library, I'll just mention that as one thing that stands out, you're right. That is an extraordinary thing, that Kerr did this oral history interview about his life, I think it's 1977. Did it over a number of sessions.

He never talked about the dismissal but that was okay because he talks about all this other stuff. About how he was approached about a dozen times to go into politics for the Liberal side in State and Federal Parliament and, as Paul mentioned, did dream of succeeding Sir Robert Menzies. So that's a really interesting thing. That interview was given - we were able to use that with the permission of Kerr's family. But it was so explosive, all this stuff in it, that it has now been resealed and it can't be accessed by anybody else. But a lot of the best bits are in the book. So if you haven't got the book, I encourage you to buy the book.

But look, the correspondence with Menzies as well, which are in this building, are really interesting. Menzies really hated Whitlam, hated Whitlam and he makes that very clear to Kerr. What we see in the retirement years of Kerr's life is the Liberal establishment, the conservative establishment, are writing him these letters. Barwick, Mason, Menzies. Ellicott and they all write these letters to him reassuring him that he did the right thing. There are a lot of letters that Kerr wrote that are in the archives here that we've opened up. Where it's really sad because he writes all the time in these letters that people say he's obsessed by the dismissal but he's not. When, in truth, that's all he ever writes about in these letters and he writes hundreds and hundreds of letters for the rest of his life. They're really revealing in a personal way.

I'll just finish with a quick comment. He writes to his son about the dismissal miniseries that was on Channel 10 in 1983. I don't know if you remember seeing that. But he takes objection to how he's portrayed by John Meillon in that miniseries. He says in every scene Meillon is holding a glass like this as he's talking. Kerr says, look he's not saying that I drink a lot but the impression's there, but you don't see me drinking but he's always holding a glass. So look, these documents come alive and they're really important and it's good that you mentioned it. I encourage all of you to, if you've got some time, make some requests and look at these documents for yourself.


It was particularly fascinating you talking about Kerr's - the approaches Kerr had had to stand for office himself and the discussion about a fear of him being sacked. It almost sounds like there hadn't actually been a philosophical shift in his thinking becoming a Vice-Regal representative, from being an active political player. In some ways it's almost like a, it should have been me, I should have been Prime Minister.

Paul Kelly:

What we argue in the book is that Kerr, as Governor General, approached the crisis with the mentality of a judge. A judge expecting to make a judgement, expecting to make a definitive decision. But this is the wrong mentality. The Crown is not a judge. The Crown sits above the political system. The Crown is the unifying figure which provides stability for the system. The Crown must always be impartial. If the Crown thinks of itself as a judge, intervening and making decisions for one side or against the other side, then that clearly is in contradiction with the traditional notion of monarchy.

So I think this was the mistake Kerr made. He saw himself as a judge who was the arbiter, who would make the final decision, who would intervene, who would determine the crisis. But the role of monarchy is not to intervene. The role of monarchy is to facilitate arrangements in the political system so things are resolved at the political level without the Crown having to take a position.

Troy Bramston:

What's interesting in Kerr's journal that he kept for about six months in 1980 I think it is, he says in there that Whitlam always said to him that he didn't have the strength to do my job, meaning to do the Prime Minister's job. But Kerr writes in his journal effectively saying, well look I will show him, I showed him, didn't I, that I was tough enough, I was tough enough to make the big calls. Fraser too doubted that I could do this but I did it, I showed him as well. The other thing that comes to mind when you mention about Kerr's ambition, there's a great story. When Kerr took his first wife to Admiralty House in Sydney on Sydney Harbour, of course it's next to Kirribilli House, the Prime Minister's Sydney residence. He apologised to his wife for taking her to the wrong house.


Shaun Rohrlach:

Any other questions? Just down the front here.


It's Terry Larkin and I wanted to ask a question about the supply and the financing of the supply, which you refer to the meeting between the Treasurer and the Governor General about the plans how supply could be financed if it wasn't passed. I wonder if that was actually notified in the official notices that the Treasurer was called. Also one wonders about the briefing that the Treasurer and Mr Hayden might have had from the Treasury who were, by no means, well disposed towards the Whitlam Government.

But that is [unclear] by the way because I remember when within 1975 - I think it must have been August, September - Paul, either you or David Love, I forget which, ran into me and said, oh about this supply thing, does that mean that old age pensions, all those things, can't be paid, it'll be total chaos. I said, oh no you don't understand. Things like pensions, social welfare, all that are covered by what's called standing appropriations, they don't require passage of the budget, they go on year after year and it's only new policy that goes in the budget. In effect the budget, even the budget last week, only contains about a half of the actual public expenditure. The other half is covered by standing appropriations so that there would be no chaos of old age people, and so on, not receiving their fortnightly pension.

But that - and this seemed to be - and I think of course Mr Fraser conjured up, oh there'll be total chaos. I noticed even two months ago a letter in The Observer or something, one of the - David Flint wrote that, oh of course Sir John Kerr had to intervene because there'd be total chaos, pensioners wouldn't be receiving their pension and so on, there was a crisis. So I just wonder about that particular point and whether indeed it could have quite readily - the financing of the public expenditure could have certainly continued by the simple process of issuing Treasury bills, which there is power to do that under the Constitution and under the financial agreement.

Of course they are borrowing for temporary purposes also quite readily and it could have been financed and Whitlam then could have obviously gone to an election, if he wished, as Prime Minister and there would have been no technical grounds, in terms of, there's absolute chaos. Of course in the little cut you did, you saw Malcolm Fraser on the steps of Parliament House [1974], oh there'll be total chaos if supply is not granted. I just wonder whether too much was made of that and Whitlam even got himself outmanoeuvred in terms of public relations and technical correctness amongst other things.

Paul Kelly:

Very good to see you Terry. You've raised a lot of issues. Just quickly, what I'd say in the book is we deal with the alternative financial arrangements, which tend to be overlooked these days. We argue there's a strategic difficulty with the alternative financial arrangements. Because Whitlam's strategy is to try and crack the Coalition by creating this sense of alarm in the country about the consequences of blocking supply. But the effect of the alternative financial arrangements is to say, well okay it's not going to be all that severe because when supply is exhausted we can still stay in office anyway because we've got another arrangement. So actually there's a massive contradiction here.

Now the other point to make is that Kerr - and we document this - was alarmed about these alternative financial arrangements. He fears they're going to be illegal or unconstitutional and this ties into his profound suspicion of Whitlam. So he begins to get even more agitated thinking, what's happening here? I'm the Governor General, supply's been blocked and I've got a government which is looking at alternative financial arrangements which I think could be illegal or unconstitutional. So this feeds, even more, his paranoia about Whitlam.

Shaun Rohrlach:

We might just take one more question, if there's one more in the room. Down the front here.


I'm sorry I haven't read the book as yet. But I wanted to inquire about the involvement that you may have had, or that Sir Anthony Mason had, in the writing of the book. I understand that he's been pretty coy, in terms of what he has had to say, or not say.

Troy Bramston:

Well that's true. Sir Anthony Mason did make a public statement, which was published in Fairfax newspapers in 2012 when Jenny Hocking's biography of Gough Whitlam was published. A slightly longer version of that statement was deposited in the National Library, not much different. But he refused repeatedly to talk to us for the book. We wrote to him a number of times and his view is that he has nothing to add and he owes nothing to the public record, has no obligation to history or the public record. It's very disappointing that he wouldn't engage on these things. There's a lot of questions we have for Anthony Mason. Did he keep notes at the time, what other things does he disagree with Kerr on and so on.

I'll just make one other point about Mason. Is that everybody involved in the 1975 crisis - everybody from Palace officials to Whitlam, Fraser, staff, frontbenchers, Garfield Barwick, others, Ninian Stephen on the High Court, Harry Gibbs - anybody who had any role to play in these events has, at some stage, written something about it or subjected themselves for interviews. All of them have done interviews. Mason's the only one who has refused to be interviewed about these matters. So I think it's really regrettable that he didn't contribute. We wanted to give him an opportunity to do so but he declined repeatedly.

Shaun Rohrlach:

Thank you very much. I'll just invite David Back for a vote of thanks. As he's coming up, before you leave today I just encourage you - it's of a similar era - to take the opportunity to look through our current exhibition, Tuning In: ABC TV 1964-75. Where we've put on display for the first time a dedicated exhibition of part of - a very small fraction of - our audio visual collection from the ABC collection that we host in our Sydney repository. That's on display in our temporary gallery. I just invite David for a vote of thanks.

David Fricker:

Look, once again Paul and Troy, thank you so much for today. I mean the last - you were just saying you haven't read the book yet. But even today's presentation you get a sense of the rich minefield of - yeah, well it is a minefield in many ways - explosive array of content that's in that book and the tremendous amount of research that you've both done. I do think it does - going to I think, [Geoff], your initial point about, well where are we now? I think for me the most important dividend that we all get from this amount of research and this depth, this intellectual depth that goes into this, are questions that can focus our minds as a nation going forward.

The Constitution of Australia needs to be maintained, it needs to be cared for. Unless we can really learn these lessons and understand the strengths and the vulnerabilities of our Constitution, we cannot make informed decisions about going ahead. We know how hard it is to change the Constitution and that's why we really do need these tremendously valuable, profound and very, very useful documents and research. So I really do thank you both very much for coming along today, taking the time out of your schedules today, to share your thoughts with all of us. I'd ask everybody - and I will present some gifts - to join me in, once again, thanking Paul Kelly and Troy Bramston, thank you.


David Fricker:

If I can present you with these modest tokens of our appreciation. Thanks very much.


David Fricker:

Alright and thank you all very much once again and please do enjoy our exhibitions, thank you.
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