By JOHN MENADUE | 21 September 2018
To obfuscate and cover their tracks, those who collaborated in ‘The Dismissal’ and their establishment friends spare no effort to criticise the performance of the Whitlam government. Those attacks are becoming quite threadbare. It is amazing what people with guilty consciences do to try and justify outrageous behaviour or avoid responsibility or change the subject.
The fact is that they collaborated in the dismissal of a democratically elected government. In contrast, Gough Whitlam, after 40 years, was more and more vindicated.
Those who collaborated in the dismissal of the Whitlam government were our ‘betters’ – a governor-general, two high court judges, parliamentary leaders, a media magnate and the business elite. I have written in my book Things You Learn Along the Way (pages 148-167) about the deceit of many of the collaborators.
In a post on 21 Octobe last year, “Farewell to Gough Whitlam“, I drew attention to the words of former Senator Reg Withers, then leader of the Coalition in the Senate, that he could not have held the numbers much longer in the Senate. My strong view is that Sir John Kerr’s premature intervention saved Malcolm Fraser.
Professor Jenny Hocking of Monash University, in her new book The Dismissal Dossier: Everything You Were Never Meant to Know about November 1975, adds to the revelations of not only Sir Garfield Barwick and Sir Anthony Mason. She tells us that John Kerr was in direct and secret telephone contact with Malcolm Fraser in the critical period before The Dismissal. In her research, Hocking has found a posthumous record of Withers’. This record, quoted below, highlights conversations between John Kerr and Malcolm Fraser.
“Withers reveals that not only had Kerr decided to act against Whitlam in the week before 11 November 1975, but that both he and Fraser knew this. Withers confirms that the Governor-General and the Leader of the Opposition were in secret telephone contact, using their secure private numbers. Withers recounts that he was in Fraser’s office in early November when Kerr contacted Fraser using the private number for the Leader of the Opposition’s parliamentary office. Nobody knew what his private number was except Tamie, Withers said. Fraser told the caller that he could be contacted on that number at any time … Fraser then asked the called for their number, repeating as he wrote it down, ‘I can also ring you on this number?’ … As Fraser hung up he said to Withers ‘You never heard this conversation’.”
This really is a smoking gun. It confirms what I said in 1999 in my book.
“ … Fraser believed that Kerr was in fear of dismissal. Further confirmation that Kerr had revealed to Fraser his insecurity was given to me by Fraser in a discussion on 28 January 1976. My file note reads ‘Governor-General encouragement to the Opposition. On 28 January this year– 1976 – Mr Fraser said – on the street outside West Block that on his first meeting with the Governor-General during the supply crisis – 21 October – the Governor-General had said that he could not give Whitlam any inkling of what he had in mind or Whitlam would be immediately on the telephone to London seeking the Governor-General’s dismissal…Malcolm Fraser has denied saying this to me as reported by Paul Kelly in November 1975. Kelly reported ‘When I asked Fraser about Menadue’s account of his note, he insisted that he [Menadue] was wrong. Fraser said that during the crisis he was aware that Kerr felt his position was at risk from Whitlam but Fraser is adamant that Kerr did not act improperly by saying this to him during their talks’. I stand by my account.”
In light of Hocking’s revelations, I stand even more in support of my account that Kerr conveyed to Fraser that he had in mind to dismiss the Whitlam government. That is an outrageous thing for a governor-general to do. It was quite contrary to convention developed over centuries that the head of state acts on the advice of his or her prime minister. It also highlights personal deceit by the Kerr.
I am also certain that Murdoch knew that a dismissal was in prospect. In my book, I recorded a discussion with him.
“I did have lunch with [Rupert Murdoch] and Ken Cowley on 7 November 1975, in Canberra at a Kingston restaurant … In my record of 11 December about that lunch with Murdoch five weeks earlier I wrote: Rupert Murdoch told many of his friends that Mr Fraser had informed him that the Governor-General had given him (Fraser) an assurance that if he held on long enough there would be a general election before Christmas … although I have no direct information. He did tell me however on 7 November that he was quite certain that there would be an election before Christmas and an election specifically for the House of Representatives. I suggested to him that a half-Senate election was the only possibility. He rejected this view and said that he believed that there would certainly be a House of Representatives election before Christmas and that he would be staying in Australia until this occurred. He was very confident of the outcome of any election and even mentioned to me the position to which I might be appointed in the event of the Liberal victory – Ambassador to Japan… Murdoch denies my account of our lunch. I stand by it. Murdoch was intimately involved with Fraser in the dismissal”.
Eighteen months later I was on my way to Japan!
I have found on other occasions that Murdoch has very convenient memory lapses, like his request to become the Australian high commissioner to London. Once again, the Hocking revelations add strong support to the view that Fraser knew what Kerr was going to do.
It also explains why Murdoch threw his newspapers into a frontal attack on the Whitlam government in October and November 1975. He also applied direct public pressure on Kerr to “do his duty” and dismiss Whitlam.
What do the collaborators now say in light of these new revelations about the propriety of a governor-general dismissing an elected government that had a majority in the House of Representatives? In that process he collaborated with judges, senior members of parliament and the media.
We used to think that our ‘betters’ believed in tradition, conventions, parliament and the independence of the judiciary. People of power and privilege find it hard to keep their head and accept that they must play by the rules that they expect others to observe. How naive we were to trust them then and even now! Yet our society depends on trusting other people. So for me that betrayal of trust is the most wounding of all.
(John Menadue AO worked for Gough Whitlam, followed by a distinguished career in the public and private sectors. He headed the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, was Ambassador to Japan, and later CEO of Qantas. Now retired, John is a patron of the Asylum Seekers’ Centre in Sydney. This article, slightly updated, first appeared in John’s own blog, “Pearls and Irritations” in October 2015.)