It is forty years on from the Dismissal, or coup, that ended the Whitlam government.
Forty years ago, to the day, Australia learned it would not be permitted to have an effective progressive government. The fires of change were extinguished, stamped out, and the old dead certainties returned.
A government that caught Australian society up – to some extent – from its benighted past, that brought it into the present, and even threatened to push it forward into the future, was cut down in its prime, aged not yet three years. For a short while, at least in one part of the world, despite obstructions and turbulence every step of the way, and despite numerous imperfections, another world seemed possible. This world was possible, she was breathing, but she was attacked, mercilessly, until she was killed.
I was not yet born. Hope was killed before I was born, and I grew up with innate desires for justice, equality, dignity and sanity in a society that acknowledged nothing of them. It professed amnesia on the topic; instead there were shiny toys, consumer goods, grades, jobs and mortgages. I did not know for a long time that such beliefs were what is called “politics”: I grew up in a society where “politics” was the bickering of boring men in suits on TV about issues so far from the central, real ones that I could not even recognise what the subject was. Only much later did I realise they were debating the ramifications, the elaborations, and the fine parameters of the solutions imposed in previous generations to foreclose on the real questions. It was precisely the hope of optimistic answers to these questions that had long ago been killed.
So one thing is not in doubt as to what the Dismissal represents, forty years on: its crushing of the human spirit. Forty years on we are afar and asunder.
It is important to understand such a crucial historical event. And so I would like to present a summary of my understanding and its significance, so that others might learn about it and what it means, and I might learn from others what it means to them, in terms of history, law, culture, and politics, from the small-P politics of the technicalities of the coup through to the capital-P politics of covert intervention and geopolitical significance. For the episode is simple in many ways, complicated in others; clear and well-documented in some ways, murky in others; subject to much controversy, but some parts are less controversial than others.
For three brief years, 1972 to 1975, a society tucked at the corner of the world, a backwater country in the bottom right corner of the world map, a long-time colonial outpost of various empires, with an appalling history of genocide and racism but an admirable supply of salt of the earth, caught up with history.
As elsewhere in the world, a cold conservative establishment had ruled for generations. With important exceptions, and occasional interruptions, Australian society had maintained its backwards, consumer capitalist, depoliticised, conservative culture. To a large extent it sleepwalked through the cultural change experienced elsewhere in the 1960s. It entered the 1970s largely left in the 1950s.
Those years have become in some ways a myth; in some ways romanticised; no doubt I am, to some extent, propagating myths and romantic notions of a time that was, in many ways, not particularly different from all the other years of Australian history. But those years have had such a definite and lasting impact on Australian institutions and politics, at least, that some of the awe expressed at the rapidity and extent of the change is justified.
* * *
The Australian Labor Party was the first labour party ever to take charge of any nation in the world (in 1904), but after the second world war steadily lost both its ability to win elections and its ability to hold itself together. Whether because of internal strife, ideological schisms, factionalism, too many moderates and too much compromise, too many hardliners and too much radicalism, poor leadership, poor institutional structures, an implacably hostile media, structural opposition to entrenched economic and political power, strategic ineptitude, proximity to communism, hostility to communism, significant economic growth, comfort and complacency, or a federal Constitution that stymied every plank in their programme, they spent decades in the wilderness. To some extent all of these causes played a role; there are certainly others too. It is an interesting and important task to untangle them.
But that does not change the fact: for the entire postwar era, from 1949 to 1972, the Australian Labor Party fought nine elections and lost them all. Nor was it a quixotic era of romantic, valiant efforts and tragic losses; it was continual bitterness, division, and infighting.
Whitlam emerged as a leader from the centre and the right of the party. Politically he was far removed from the idealists that sought the nationalisation of the means of production, distribution and exchange. Socially he was born into a privileged family; his father was the Commonwealth Crown Solicitor and he grew up in Canberra surrounded by erudition, bureaucracy, politics and law. He studied law and became a barrister practising in Sydney; far from a classic Labor background and far from working class.
With a mixture of eloquence and arrogance, punctilious legalism and reckless brinkmanship, strategic politicking and passionate crashing through, movement-building and legal creativity, he became leader of the party and united it around a programme that was both a pale shadow of the party’s official socialist programme and a blueprint for a revolution in Australian society.
Whitlam was relatively conservative, as far as Labor party ideology went, but the official party ideology was staunchly socialist – though of course the practice by elected politicians was very different. He was legalistic to a fault, but specialised in finding creative legal means to establish Labor party policy within the constitution, which like in many other places essentially outlaws many progressive reforms (especially socialist ones) – or at least places great constraints on them. It took a Queen’s Counsel like Whitlam to come to centre the party’s policies around loopholes in the constitution. Whereas previous Labor governments had tiptoed for a few years, then tried something bold like nationalising the banks, only to have it struck down by the High Court, Whitlam was much more politically and legally effective.
In practical effectiveness and impact, if not in ideology, Whitlam remains perhaps the most revolutionary democratically-elected reformer in the Western world. The country really did change more in 3 years than in the 20 years previous. When he passed away last year, Australians were inundated with enormous lists of the reforms achieved: universal health care, consumer protection, Papua New Guinea decolonisation, no-fault divorce, redistributive school reforms, commitment to international law, recognising China, abolishing conscription, getting out of Vietnam, free university education, massive arts programs, legal aid, urban development, a national sewerage program, territory representation in Parliament, removal of British remnants in governmental structures, anti-discrimination laws, abolition of the racist White Australia immigration policy, the beginnings of indigenous land rights, welfare for the homeless, legislating equal pay for women, abolition of the death penalty, the list goes on. I know of no equivalently broad and rapid set of reforms anywhere in the world achieved by constitutional legal means. This was not the whole of the programme on which the government was elected, but it was most of it. Some of it has been rolled back, but much of it remains. Australian society is enormously better as a result.
One can imagine, with such a torrent of change all occurring in an historical instant, after long sleepy decades of conservative rule, the reaction of elites. It was absolute screaming paranoia and anti-communist hysteria. The conservatives – the Liberal and National parties – in Parliament tried fervently to block all the legislative change; they were implacably obstructionist and irredeemably hostile to all this change as they saw their relaxed comfortable country fading away before their eyes. The country was simply having a catching-up with history, but for them it was like the end of the world.
They blocked everything. Labor did not control the senate and instead of just blocking standard legislation, in 1974 the Liberals threatened to block the supply bills – the ones that provide the supply of money so that government can function. This tactic is subversive of the parliamentary order: it puts a figurative gun to the government’s head, and says that as long as the government does not command unusually large majorities it will not be permitted to function. It is a method approaching the level of a constitutional coup; within the system, it could only be legitimate, if at all, when a government had committed a vast crime or abuse for which no other means of accountability were available. Whitlam, of course, had merely passed progressive legislation. Moreover, he held his government accountable to high standards, and sacked ministers when they failed to meet such standards.
In any case, as a result of such obstructionism incompatible with representative democracy, well short of having run a full first term, in 1974 Whitlam performed a constitutional manoeuvre. In the Australian constitution there is a special provision to dissolve both houses of parliament, and then both houses sit together in a joint session and their vote overrides any previous blockage. Despite all the hysteria and fanatic hostility from the media, Whitlam won the double-dissolution election convincingly with a 5-seat majority (marginally reduced from 6) and got his program through in the joint sitting. Triumph.
Into 1975 the conservative paranoia turned maniacal. Despite the Whitlam’s government’s clear and renewed electoral mandate, the Liberal s again found an excuse to block supply. Their excuse was the so-called “Loans Affair” – see below. It was a scandal which engulfed the government, but what is clear is that it was far from any sort of crime of impropriety which would justify the extreme action of blocking supply. The media, hostile as always, became especially vicious, and the matter escalated and escalated. The crisis continued and deadlines for supply loomed, with the possibility of the government shutting down for lack of money. Finally Whitlam decided, against the entrenched obdurate opposition, to call an election of half the senate, which would resolve the impasse and decide the issue. As Australia is a monarchy, he had to formally advise the Queen’s representative, the Governor-General, John Kerr, who by constitutional convention would then issue writs for the election.
One very poor design fault in the Australian constitutional system is that these two people – the Prime Minister, and the Governor-General – each have the authority to sack the other with immediate effect. In 1975 there was an even greater design fault: not being designed at all. Because the Australian constitution is largely unwritten, deriving from convention and ultimately from British tradition, it was not clear exactly what the Governor-General’s powers were or how they should be used.
Whitlam went to Kerr’s “palace” (Government House) on November 11, 1975 – forty years ago to the day – and met Kerr to call the election. But before Whitlam could pass Kerr the document advising the election, Kerr passed Whitlam a document which was his letter of dismissal. Whitlam was sacked as Prime Minister with immediate effect.
It was a carefully premeditated plan: Kerr had known exactly what Whitlam’s plans were, but had kept his own plans secret and indeed had been conspiring in secret with the leader of the opposition and two High Court judges.
Immediately after Whitlam was sacked and, shell-shocked, left Government House, Kerr called on the leader of the opposition, Malcolm Fraser. Fraser had in fact hidden himself in another room, at the opposite end of Government House, while Whitlam had come and gone. In a pure moment of palace intrigue, Fraser literally emerged from the shadows, was ushered up the hallway, whereupon Kerr appointed him Prime Minister with immediate effect.
Tragedy. And it continues to burn in the heart of every progressive Australian ever since.
* * *
It is a sore point – and an expressly partisan political one – in Australian electoral politics ever since, to respectively denounce or justify Kerr’s actions. At the time little was known about the exact thoughts, meetings and communications of Kerr and Whitlam, but more has come to light over the years. Amazingly, more continually comes to light, right through to the last few days. But as the historical evidence has accumulated, all arguments in defence of Kerr have been comprehensively demolished by the facts.
In the Australian government, the Prime Minister is the head of the government and, as in Westminster-style parliamentary systems, by convention is the politician who is the leader of the political party with a majority in the lower house. The Governor-General is a largely figurehead position: their signature is required for laws to come into effect, and to appoint governments and call elections, but they essentially act as a rubber stamp. Unlike the Prime Minister, the Governor-General is not elected – they are appointed by the Prime Minister – and has no democratic legitimacy to set any policies of the government, nor (essentially) any discretion in following the government’s wishes to sign legislation or call elections. As a vestige of the British constitutional monarchy, the Governor-General does however act as Head of State (representing the Queen) and does have some so-called “reserve powers”, including the formal ability to sack the government in a constitutional crisis. The extent of these powers is debated, but it is clear that such powers, so far as they exist, are only to be exercised in the most extreme of circumstances; and in any other case they remain a mere figurehead.
Kerr had met with Garfield Barwick, the Chief Justice of the High Court – which is supposed to be an absolutely independent body from both the executive government (which included Kerr and Whitlam) and the Parliament – the day before the sacking. Twice. This was done in explicit defiance of unqualified advice given to Kerr by Whitlam not to do so. Kerr and Barwick had in fact met several times over the preceding months to discuss the issue. Separate from these meetings, Kerr had also established a “seminar” group at the Australian National University several months earlier to advise him on his powers. This again was done in secret, without Whitlam’s knowledge, and even worse, the meetings were attended by another sitting High Court justice, Anthony Mason, who was an old friend of Kerr’s. The “seminar” was hardly an academic exercise in archaic constitutional law and its conventions: it happened through the period that Liberal senators threatened, then outright refused, to vote on supply bills. By October the attendees had become acutely uncomfortable, as the issues – and possibly illegitimate readings of them – were being practically considered by Kerr.
Nonetheless, Kerr continued to confide in the High Court judge Mason every step of the way. Mason even wrote a draft letter sacking Whitlam (Kerr eventually used his own version). Kerr also sought out the Queen’s private secretary to discuss his own position, again in secret, without Whitlam’s knowledge. None of this was known at the time, and has only come to light as Kerr’s papers have been released and read by historians, and discussed in the most recent and leading historical work on the topic, Jenny Hocking’s two-volume biography Gough Whitlam: His Time. (Much of my account here is based on that book.) Mason put out one statement on the issue but still refuses to talk about it. To call this a “conspiracy” is not hyperbole or rhetorical – it is simply to state what happened. Kerr took some pains not to explicitly tell his co-conspirators, particularly Barwick, to his precise plans, but compartmentalisation of knowledge and deniability are standard features of conspiracies.
It gets worse for Kerr. On 6 November, Whitlam told Kerr of his intention to call an election, with the formal written documents to be presented on 11 November. So Kerr knew the crisis would be resolved by an election, and knew exactly what Whitlam would do. Incredibly, on the same day Kerr decided, and wrote in his diary, that “no compromise could be found” – even though Whitlam had just found one, and explained it to him – and that he would have to act on the advice of the Liberal opposition leader Fraser. The “independent” Governor-General Kerr – supposedly in a position above electoral and party politics – was thus in active allegiance with the Liberal opposition to the elected government, despite having direct and first-hand knowledge that any political crisis would be averted, right down to the exact details of the election and its date of announcement. While Whitlam was making arrangements to resolve the crisis, keeping Kerr fully apprised of developments, Kerr instead drafted a letter of dismissal. This 14-page draft, never used but found later in Kerr’s papers, gave the official reason for dismissal as Whitlam being “unable to obtain Supply from the Parliament” – just as Whitlam had just told Kerr of his plan to hold an election so as to resolve the impasse and pass supply. Not even these basic facts could stop Kerr writing down falsehoods as an excuse to sack Whitlam. In fact, much of Kerr’s draft focused on himself, his own sense of personal affront, and the “public criticism” he had “endured”. Kerr did this all in secret. Kerr’s reasoning was factually wrong and completely indefensible as a matter of both constitutional law and political legitimacy. Whether he was deluding himself or simply unable to comprehend Whitlam is an interesting question of forensic psychology, but in any case his written self-justifications fail for the most elementary of reasons.
Whitlam, sadly, never got wind of Kerr’s subterfuge, missing several hints along the way. The first Whitlam knew of it was being peremptorily sacked in Kerr’s office. But Kerr did tell others of his plans – including the High Court justice Anthony Mason, to whom he mailed directly various documents of advice. And Kerr met the High Court Chief Justice Barwick on the 10th – the day before the dismissal – twice.
A combination of naiveté, attendance to protocol, and legal formality meant that the very idea of a “palace conspiracy” was unthinkable to Whitlam. Whitlam simply took the view that the Governor-General could only act on the Prime Minister’s advice. Whitlam had told Kerr as much, advised Kerr not to do otherwise, and assumed that was that. And Kerr knew this; he used Whitlam’s innocence against him. Incredibly, Kerr wrote in his diary that Whitlam “was not entitled to know… my thinking… because he was not open to reason”. Kerr’s attitude to Fraser, the Liberal leader, was of course entirely different, and demonstrates his true allegiance.
On the very day of the dismissal, Whitlam, in blissful ignorance and on the (poor) assumption that his opponents were minimally reasonable, quite rightly sensed complete victory in the Labor Party’s continuing parliamentary impasse with the opposition. When he explained his plans to the party room his colleagues erupted in cheers. He telephoned Kerr to tell him what time he was coming – 10 am – and Kerr pushed back the meeting time to 1 pm. Whitlam even triumphantly started debating Fraser in Parliament, as it was a Parliamentary sitting day. When Fraser, without notice, walked out of the chamber to hide in the shadows of the “palace”, Whitlam had no inkling of what was going on. When Whitlam later of course also went to Government House, and was sacked, he left without any knowledge that Fraser was hiding in the shadows down the hallway. Even many Liberals who were happy that Whitlam had been sacked were shocked to find that Kerr had gone further and actually appointed Fraser Prime Minister – a clear usurpation of parliamentary democracy, forming a government clearly against the electoral will, and rewarding years of Liberal obstructionism with government.
There has been considerable speculation that Whitlam could have manoeuvred to reinstate himself. Perhaps he could have refused to accept Kerr’s letter of dismissal. Perhaps he could have torn it up in front of Kerr. Perhaps he could have, as his wife suggested shortly afterwards, slapped Kerr in the face and told him to pull himself together. But a stickler for protocol, and unwilling to take any steps that might escalate into a potentially violent confrontation and rupture the decorum of parliamentary procedure, Whitlam immediately returned to the Parliament to pass a motion of no-confidence in Fraser’s supposed new government. The lower house passed a resolution advising the Governor-General to form another government under Whitlam.
Perhaps the most effective way Whitlam could have fought back would have been for Labor now to defer or block a vote on supply themselves; Labor did not have an effective majority but with some independent or opposition votes they could. Labor senators had been instructed previously to try to pass a supply bill again. Incredibly, due to a tragic lack of communication, Labor senators voted without knowing Whitlam’s government had been dismissed hours earlier. (Incomprehensibly, at least one senator did know but said nothing.) Liberal senators could not believe their luck as supply was passed, and with supply secured, Fraser returned to the Governor-General.
A final unprecedented scenario then occurred – another rush to the palace. Fraser raced there with supply secure, while the Speaker of the House took the house’s no-confidence motion advising (arguably, legally forcing) the Governor-General to sack Fraser and re-appoint Whitlam. Fraser arrived first; Kerr promptly dissolved the Parliament and his plan was complete. The Speaker’s no-confidence motion then stood for nothing. This final, shocking usurpation, was far beyond any constitutional conventions regarding the Governor-General’s powers – not just dismissing the government in a crisis, not just appointing a Prime Minister who had no mandate, but also dissolving the entire Parliament once the vice-regal representative’s policy wishes had been achieved. That is why we it deserves the title of a coup rather than simply a dismissal.
Thus hope was killed in Australia.
* * *
Putting aside the minutiae of Parliamentary chicanery, and the intricacies of palace intrigue, one sees in hindsight a clear common set of values and interests among the elite sectors of Australian society. At one level this clear set of allegiances was expressed in the meetings and understandings between high-ranking officials such as Kerr, Barwick, Mason and Fraser. At another level such allegiances were expressed between Liberal politicians, with all their old-boys-clubs and connections, the business establishment, and other privileged and reactionary sectors of society which united against the government. And at yet another level it was expressed through cultural conservatism, in the media screaming for Whitlam’s head, the hysterical fears of socialism and communism, and the horror at the old world giving way to the new. These elite and conservative sectors were united in their preference to overthrow a legitimately elected government rather than endure progressive reform.
This was an elite that could not believe it no longer ruled, that still believed it was born to rule, and acted to reinstate the correct order of nature. And in so acting accordingly they managed to obstruct, to destabilise, to plunge into crisis, and finally to remove an elected government. It was, in the final analysis, a coup of the elites.
One interesting question that arises – one that is particularly important to the Left – is to what extent this elite opposition included, or was assisted by, military and intelligence services, domestic and international. Many, particularly on the Left, described it as a CIA coup and many still do.
So let us examine this question – to some extent, at least, and to the level of my own understanding.
* * *
Anti-communism and US subversion. At that period of time throughout the world, US foreign policy, and especially intelligence activities, were primarily, at least by their own account, motivated by anti-communism and containment of Soviet influence. This anti-communism regularly bordered on paranoia. Where that paranoia existed, and where it was in US interests to do so, governments were subverted or even overthrown. Reformist, social-democratic or independent nationalist governments were regularly painted as “communist” as justification for US intervention – from Iran, to Indochina, to Brazil, to Nicaragua, to Greece, to Indonesia and many other lands. It is not at all surprising that they would take an interest in a government committed to such rapid social change as Whitlam’s – no matter how meticulous its adherence to constitutional parliamentary practice and democratic processes. It did not stop them destabilising the democratically elected governments of Italy, British Guiana, Chile, or Guatemala. Neither being a Western democracy nor an American ally provided immunity against such actions. So there is no reason the US would not take a similar approach in Australia – indeed, it would be surprising if it were otherwise.
In 1974, true to form, the US appointed Marshall Green as ambassador to Australia. Green had played an important part in overthrowing Sukarno’s government in Indonesia, and the massacre of hundreds of thousands of left-wingers. No doubt he was trying to influence matters; he is reported to have made incendiary speeches against the government.
Whitlam, the privileged Queen’s Counsel, committed as he was to the Westminster Parliamentary system, to representative democracy and social-democratic reforms without altering the basic economic framework of capitalism, was about as far from a communist as it was possible to be, among reforming politicians. Whitlam explicitly eschewed the old-school Labor party programme of socialism by nationalisation of the means of production, distribution and exchange; never did anything of the sort; and never so much as suggested it. But Arbenz in Guatemala was equally non-communist; as was Mossadegh; as was Lumumba. A rational evaluation of the policies of any of these politicians would have revealed their distance from communism and the Soviet Union, but that did not stop intervention, and nor did it with Whitlam.
To some extent, no doubt, CIA officers were deluded by their own propaganda that Whitlam represented another menacing domino in the communist march through south-east Asia. But there are also more rational reasons for US intervention in each case. There were threats to US interests. Arbenz was a threat to the United Fruit company; Mossadegh to BP (then AIOC) of which the US wanted a cut; Allende to Anaconda. And all of these examples, further, constituted the potential threat of a good example, an alternative model of development, an alternative economic system, beyond the domination of the US and capitalism more generally.
Whitlam equally represented the threat of a good example; indeed, an exemplary one, of progressive change within the existing system. He also, certainly, attempted to pursue a more independent foreign policy, by recognising China, forging closer ties with Japan, opposing nuclear testing in the Pacific, and in general reorienting foreign policy with Asia. But beyond extricating Australian forces from Vietnam, however, he did little to oppose US policies in the region. Indeed he defended the brutal US-backed Indonesian dictator Suharto, and his attitude towards the genocidal Indonesian invasion of East Timor was based on staying out of the problem. As he put it to the Indonesian government, his aim was to “minimise the public impact in Australia” – and this attitude, according to Australian diplomatic cables, helped to “crystallise” the thinking of the Indonesian government, “now firmly convinced of the wisdom of this course”. Of course a green light from Ford and Kissinger meant far more to Suharto than Whitlam closing his eyes, but Whitlam’s effort, or lack thereof, was not inconsequential.
So, while independent by some measures, Whitlam’s foreign policy hardly presented a threat to US interests, and even descended to an acquiescence in US-supported Indonesian genocide. But there were also more specific threats.
Refusal to cooperate in subversion. Whitlam also had a troublesome propensity to disapprove of his government’s intelligence services being used to subvert democracy abroad – a disturbing level of independence. In 1973 he was informed that two officers of ASIS, the Australian Secret Intelligence Service, were stationed in Santiago working with the CIA in their program of subversion of the democratically-elected left-wing Chilean government of Salvador Allende. It has been argued that the ASIS officers were “only” collecting intelligence from CIA agents in the field, rather than actively engaging in subversion. But the distinction is minimal; Australia was actively participating as a proxy in the CIA’s covert program of destabilising democracy. Whitlam ordered the ASIS station to be closed in April 1973.
Incredibly, ASIS defied the orders of the government they were supposed to serve. ASIS took months to remove the ASIS officers from Chile, continuing to collaborate in overthrowing Allende. Later, ASIS also misled the government about its operations in what was then Portuguese Timor.
The domestic intelligence agency, ASIO, was no better. ASIO had long served as a political police, amassing vast files on left-wing activists and politicians, including a significant proportion of the Labor party. Many literary, cultural and political figures in Australian life have been subjects of ASIO surveillance; a recent documentary series details the relentlessness and depths of their invasions of privacy. This included an especially large file on Jim Cairns, who became Whitlam’s Deputy Prime Minister and Treasurer. As soon as Cairns assumed the role ASIO promptly leaked his file to a favoured journalist, scaremongering about Cairns’ alleged communism. This was nothing new. The previous Liberal government had a longstanding arrangement with ASIO to feed damaging information on left-wing figures to favoured media contacts. (As it turns out, this arrangement was approved by Garfield Barwick, who was then Attorney-General, before he went on to become Chief Justice and conspire with Kerr to sack Whitlam.) As a Royal Commission later found, ASIO had also been providing such information to the CIA.
While ASIO had been carefully surveilling social democrats, Labor politicians and non-violent activists, it had ignored actual terrorist threats like Croatian fascists, who had been conducting bombings and arson attacks on Australian soil for a decade – leading Attorney-General Lionel Murphy to raid ASIO offices in early 1973.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Whitlam felt that ASIO’s relationship with the US was too close, and eventually in September 1974 ordered ASIO to sever ties to the US. Again, incredibly, the order was defied. According to ASIO’s own official history, the head of ASIO, Peter Barbour, “felt this would be harmful to the nation”, and so decided to maintain relations, albeit less formal ones. Whitlam finally sacked Barbour in September 1975 on the recommendation of a royal commission into the Australian intelligence community.
The only conclusion is that the allegiances of the intelligence community to their US counterparts were stronger than their allegiances to their own government.
Pine Gap. Primary among US interests in Australia was intelligence infrastructure crucial to American signals intelligence collection. The US base at Pine Gap, near Alice Springs, was essential to US communications with its satellites, whether for spying, nuclear weapons verification, or otherwise. The US lease over Pine Gap was due for renegotiation in late 1975, and US officials were deeply concerned about losing this base.
On 3 November 1975, barely a week before the Dismissal, Whitlam accused the CIA of channeling funds to the National Country Party – the Liberals’ Coalition partner – via an agent in Australia. Though Whitlam did not name the agent, it soon came to light the Whitlam was alleging a CIA operative named Richard Stallings had provided funds to Doug Anthony, the leader of the National Country Party. The revelation was made by Anthony himself in Parliament on November 4. Unfortunately for the CIA’s efforts to protect Pine Gap, Stallings had been the first head of the Pine Gap base. It was not previously known at that point that Pine Gap was a CIA base, and US officials were alarmed at their cover being blown.
Ted Shackley, who was head of the CIA’s East Asia Division, berated ASIO representatives in Washington in a meeting a few days later, on 8 November, declaring that the “the whole Australian intelligence relationship with the US” was “under threat”. It was later reported that Kerr “sought and received a high-level briefing from senior defence officials” about this threat the same week, apparently at the Defence Signals Directorate in Melbourne, while he was there for the Melbourne Cup. (In subsequent years Kerr was to make a very public drunken fool of himself at this horse race.) But Kerr and others denied it, and Hocking in her book, having examined Kerr’s copious diaries and papers, reports nothing further of it.
On 10 November – the day before the dismissal – Shackley sent a secret cable on a dedicated CIA-ASIO link. It was not intended to be seen by Whitlam. This cable warned that Whitlam’s statements on CIA agents threatened to “blow the lid” on CIA operations in Australia, and ended ominously: the “CIA feels that everything possible has been done on a diplomatic basis… if this problem cannot be solved they do not see how our mutually beneficial relationships are going to continue”. The CIA essentially viewed Whitlam as a security risk. However, by this time the previous head of ASIO, Peter Barbour, who had defied Whitlam’s orders, had been replaced by Frank Mahony, whose loyalties lay with the Australian government. He immediately took the cable to Whitlam, but Whitlam intended to reveal the connection between Stallings, hence the CIA, and Pine Gap on the next day, November 11. Events, of course, intervened.
The incredible timing – Whitlam sacked on the very day he was due to report the Pine Gap-CIA connection – of course, looks deeply suspicious.
Funding opposition parties. Funding the opposition would certainly reflect a common CIA tactic. It had been used in Chile, for instance, in the 1964 and 1970 elections – indeed, in 1964, the CIA spent more per voter on the campaign of Eduardo Frei in the Chilean election, than was spent by the Johnson and Goldwater campaigns per voter in the US Presidential election of that year. The allegations made by Whitlam of CIA funding of opposition parties are certainly not unique to him; Victor Marchetti, an ex-CIA officer, has claimed that the CIA funded both Liberal and National parties; and it has been alleged the CIA offered the opposition “unlimited funds”.
Union influence. Attempts to gain influence within the union movement around the world, in order to promote anti-communist, ideologically moderate forms of trade unionism, were run by the CIA and its fronts throughout the Cold War period. A long-running scheme of “Leadership Grants” brought talented, more conservative trade unionists from around the world to the US where they were given “leadership training”, inculcating into a “labour elite” and inoculated against communist ideas. Clyde Cameron, Whitlam’s Minister for Labour and Immigration, testifies of first-hand experience of the CIA funding opposition tickets against him in internal elections of the Australian Workers Union.
In this Australia appears to have been treated similarly to other Western nations; however, more serious and specific allegations of US influence over Australian unions were made by Christopher Boyce. Boyce worked in the “vault” at a CIA subsidiary in California, a communications relay room which received messages from Pine Gap, and read telex messages which implied the CIA had infiltrated leadership of Australian unions and were able to exert influence to achieve their own aims. Specifically, Boyce read a telex from Langley at a time when shipments from the US bound for Pine Gap could have been disrupted by imminent strikes by Australian pilots and air controllers. The telex stated that the CIA had suppressed the strikes and the shipments would continue. Boyce was outraged and lashed out, attempting to sell secrets to the USSR; he was eventually convicted of espionage; later he escaped from prison and committed several bank robberies. Today, having served his time, his story remains consistent.
Boyce also relates first hand the culture of the CIA contempt for Whitlam – and how his CIA employee workmates referred to the Governor-General as “our man Kerr”.
Kerr’s CIA connections. Kerr was quite deeply involved with several organisations connected to the CIA. Despite being a Trotskyist in the 1940s, Kerr worked as a barrister specialising in representing anti-communist unionists in their internal union battles. He then moved from the Labor to the Liberal party and became heavily involved with the Australian Association for Cultural Freedom, the local branch of the Congress for Cultural Freedom, a CIA-financed anti-communist cultural organisation. Kerr also became president of the Law Association for Asia and the Western Pacific, another CIA front. As such, the CIA was paying for Kerr’s travel.
These associations prove only that Kerr mixed in some social, political and cultural circles which were sympathetic to the CIA’s anti-communist stance. They could have also provided a social milieu in which he would have developed personal connections to those close to the CIA. Quite likely they would have tried to court him as best they could.
It has been alleged that a deputy CIA director said that Kerr “did what he was told“.
Tirath Khemlani and the Loans affair. There are significant allegations about CIA involvement in one of the scandals that enveloped the Whitlam government, the so-called loans affair. This affair concerned efforts by the Whitlam government to obtain loans for an ambitious development project for the Australian resources sector, the “magnificent obsession” of Whitlam’s Minister for Minerals and Energy, Rex Connor. The government approved an authority for Connor to seek a $4 billion loan; it was an unusual procedure, to vest authority in the Minister for Minerals and Energy rather than the Treasurer, but Treasury was resolutely opposed to the loan and the government circumvented it. It was a creative financial strategy for a government, and in its legal creativity followed other political strategies of the government, but was not improper or illegal. Connor soon came into contact with a London-based Pakistani commodities dealer named Tirath Khemlani. Khemlani was a rather dubious character: he made various demands of the government but was rebuffed; he sought loan funds from various governments and eventually announced that funds were available; and interminable delays followed, with the money never materialising. Connor could have refused to deal with him, but having spent his whole life dreaming of his development projects, he was desperate to get the loan. Eventually Whitlam had to call off the search for loan funds, causing great damage and embarrassment to the government. It has been alleged that Khemlani relied on a company with CIA links, Commerce International to supply the funds, and indeed that the whole affair was a setup by the CIA.
The loans affair however did not end there, because a similar situation then occurred with the Treasurer, Jim Cairns, who sought funds via a Melbourne businessman named George Harris. Cairns insisted on various conditions in their agreement, including the condition that no brokerage fee be included. Some weeks later newspapers published copies of a letter purporting to be signed by Cairns and promising just such a fee. It is possible the letter was a fabrication; or that Cairns signed a letter containing a paragraph in error; or that the letter was drafted maliciously; there are other possibilities also. The published letters were dubious in origin; the CIA’s Daily briefing report on the matter noted that “some of the evidence had been fabricated”.
Media attention on the loans affair intensified, leading to escalating, wild allegations and assertions circulating in the media. It has been alleged this media circus involved “a welter of supposedly incriminating documents forged by the CIA”. A CIA employee Joseph Flynn later claimed he had forged some of these documents, having been paid by Michael Hand of the infamous Nugan Hand bank. (Michael Hand, having been living under protection under an assumed identity in the US for many years, has been found as of only a few days ago.)
The loans affair was seized upon by Fraser as an excuse again to attempt to block supply. In this way, the loans affair directly destabilised the government. But Fraser had been constantly scouring the government’s activities for a “reprehensible circumstance” it could use for this purpose, and no doubt if Khamlani had not come on the scene they would have found an alternative. The Whitlam government committed no great impropriety, but handled the matter with great ineptitude.
* * *
Covert intelligence operations, by their nature, are difficult to assess in detail. They breed rumour and innuendo – indeed, misinformation is often a crucial component – and usually involve unreliable or otherwise dubious characters.
The above is not meant to be comprehensive, or complete, but a summary of some evidence in relation to CIA activities against the Whitlam government.
But it does make clear that the CIA threatened action against Whitlam to potential co-conspirators, did in fact view Whitlam as a security risk, and sent a secret cable to ASIO which was meant to be kept secret from Whitlam with sinister implications. The CIA expressed every intention to move beyond “diplomatic means” in Shackley’s cable, one day before the dismissal.
Moreover, there is evidence that the CIA engaged in disinformation – producing false, forged, and incriminating documents for the media – in the loans affair, and possibly even deliberate fraud against the government, if Khemlani had a direct CIA connection. This affair successfully destabilised the Labor government, since Fraser used it as an excuse to withhold supply – but Fraser would likely have found some excuse in any case.
There is also evidence of funding opposition parties and conservative tickets in union elections. And there are less specific allegations of a closer CIA connection: that Kerr was “our man” and “did what he was told”.
Thus, we say for sure that the CIA wanted Whitlam out. We can say for sure that the US government was alarmed at the highest levels about the possibility of losing Pine Gap, crucial as it was (and remains) to signals intelligence and spying capabilities. We can say that Australia was not immune to worldwide CIA tactics of anti-communist influence, for instance through its trade union leadership program, and that its anti-communist cultural institutions included within their orbit the key figure of John Kerr. We can say for sure that Australian intelligence agencies were more aligned with their US counterparts than with the Whitlam government whose orders they were required to follow, but which they instead defied; although Mahoney appears to have been a loyal replacement.
There is also evidence of CIA activities to destabilise the Labor government, whether by funding opposition parties, spreading misinformation or forged loans affair documents. They no doubt did what they could to advance their own interests.
It is clearly fair, then, to say that it was the coup was actively supported by the CIA.
* * *
Less importantly, it is not so clear that Kerr was in direct contact with the CIA or other intelligence agencies or their agents, or followed their orders in any way. The strongest argument here is Kerr’s character and the extensive self-documentation he provided throughout the period.
Kerr’s personality was well known. He was a haughty, arrogant caricature of an elite who wore a top hat and essentially lived as if he were in Victorian England; the associated politics go without saying. He was thin-skinned, insecure and an inveterate drunk. After 1975 he was wracked with guilt and loathing for the rest of his life, continually trying to justify his actions for decades afterwards. Given his propensity to self-justify, his stream-of-consciousness diaries, and his lack of discretion, it seems unlikely he could have failed to mention or kept a secret of any direct CIA contact.
Moreover, Kerr’s own papers show that he had made up his mind to act, even writing a draft letter, several days before the dismissal and several days before the Shackley cable – which appears to have been taken directly by the loyal ASIO replacement director Mahony straight to Whitlam. If he had shared a briefing from the DSD, it may have been of some influence, but not enough to mention in any of his notes. As far as the former barrister and judge Kerr was concerned, the issue allowing him to sack Whitlam was inability to obtain supply – however false that argument was – not any national security or intelligence considerations.
The coincidence between the Shackley cable and the dismissal the next day may be less incredible than it seems. There were many dates in that period that had special significance to the intelligence community. Had the dismissal occurred on a day where an intelligence official was sacked, or a particular CIA activity took place, or an announcement made by Whitlam on foreign policy, the dismissal may have seemed equally suspicious. Given the government’s turbulent relationship with the intelligence agencies, there were many such days during its term of government.
For CIA operatives to describe Kerr as “our man” is quite possibly simply an expression that Kerr shared their anti-communist and conservative values. He even mixed in some of their cultural circles, and they were cheering on their man in Australian politics, as they would cheer on their football team. Kerr proved his anti-communist credentials while sitting as a judge on the Commonwealth Industrial Court, where he sentenced a communist union member, Clarrie O’Shea, to an indefinite prison term for contempt of court, for refusing to turn over the accounts of his union.
It appears that Kerr acted to achieve the CIA’s desired result, for his own independent reasons.
The allegation that Kerr “did what he was told” is emphatic, but it is an isolated assertion, and intelligence officials are renowned for braggadocio. There remain, however, many things we do not know.
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There are still many things we do not know, but amazingly, more evidence comes to light each year. Christopher Boyce, released from prison, gave a rare interview only last year. ASIO’s official history of the period has only been released this year. A declaration by Malcolm Fraser as the events on the morning of the dismissal was released only last week. Michael Hand’s whereabouts were discovered just a few days ago. And the correspondence between Kerr and Buckingham Palace –with the Queen and her advisors – has not been released, and is not due for release until 2027.
Much evidence remains in the shadows. Some will remain there, and some will see the light.
For many purposes, however, it is enough to know that the CIA wanted to remove an elected Australian government, and acted accordingly.
There was domestic opposition to Whitlam, and it was fanatical, hysterical, powerful, and ruthless. The Liberal party, business, and other elites had governed the country for the previous 23 years, and for a majority of the time since federation. An entire class had developed with the arrogant belief it had a right to rule; a tradition inherited from British colonialism. And when an upstart government started to be effective in implementing progressive reforms and social change, it broke all of its own established rules and conventions in a ruthless attempt to overthrow them. Their rage snowballed into crisis after crisis. The intelligence agencies, including the CIA, were enthusiastically all in favour, and enthusiastic participants, but domestic opposition was likely sufficient on its own account.
In the end, who precisely bears the responsibility for killing hope in Australia is not the most important question. It is enough to know what was done and who was involved.
It is important to understand that a rich, western, parliamentary democracy like Australia is not immune from the subversion of foreign intelligence. No doubt the CIA (and, for that matter, MI6) were doing so as they pleased. They have done that everywhere they can, especially when there’s a government left of Genghis Khan. The dismissal of the Australian government in 1975 earns its place in the long lists of US military and CIA interventions. Indeed it appears as one of the 56 chapters in William Blum’s chronicle of the subject.
I avoid calling the Dismissal a “CIA coup”, however. A more accurate phrase might be “CIA-supported coup”, but the more important reason is that when Australians say that the dismissal was a CIA coup, it lets Australian elites off the hook.
Australian elites – from the Liberal party, to various organs of government, to the media, to business owners – were united in their hatred of the Whitlam government. They, as much as any subversive foreign intelligence organisation, should not be let off the hook. They have crushed our dreams once, and we should not let them do it again.
* * *
Hope was killed by elites who could not bear to see progressive change, even in its most legitimate, democratic form.
This all happened before I was born. There has never been such hope in Australian society as there was in that period. It is not romanticising the period to say so. We are all tired of this hope-starved world.
Whitlam moved the Labor party rightward, away from nationalisations and on a more moderate, more creative, social-democratic course. After the dismissal, subsequent leaders moved the party further rightward, in parallel with other social-democratic parties around the world. It has long been a pale shadow of its former self.
As the party moved right, those of its dreams which had been implemented became routine and part of the basic minimum of a civilized society: who could now imagine a society without no-fault divorce, consumer protections, anti-discrimination laws or a public health system?
But those of its dreams which never came to fruition were forgotten, consigned to oblivion along with all those dreams which were more distant utopias, those which had never even been dreamed. The light on the hill became indistinct, faded away and in the end became nothing more than a bigger, better, shinier, electronically-glowing version of the ever-consuming present.
With the collapse of communism around the world, an authoritarian yoke was lifted off a vast portion of the world’s people. But with its collapse and social democracy’s retreat, the promise of a world not based on rapacious individualism, the very idea of a better world disappeared too.
Social movements still maintain that a better world is possible. It is an admirable and necessary position, but it is minimal. To insist something is possible is merely to remind ourselves of the idea, to guard against amnesia. The struggle of people against power is often the struggle of memory against forgetting, but it is also more than that.
These forty-year-old memories must be replaced by another flourish of progress, to renew the hopes of the next generation.
Hope was killed by elites before I was born, but I was not born then to have my hope killed.
They did not kill my hope.