The unfair dismissal
Much guff has appeared in some parts of the media about how, in this second volume of her biography of Gough Whitlam, Jenny Hocking has discovered that Sir Anthony Mason (then a High Court judge) was the shadowy third man who counselled then governor-general Sir John Kerr to sack Australia’s 21st prime minister.
In fact, the director of the Sydney Institute, Dr Gerard Henderson, revealed this decades ago – first in his column in The Sydney Morning Herald on January 8, 1994, and then later that year in his magisterial history of the Liberal Party of Australia, ‘Menzies’ Child’. To be fair to Hocking, she does make reference to Henderson’s work, but only in the end notes.
It is certainly true that, in this well-researched book, Hocking has unearthed some other fascinating information, especially about Kerr’s recollections about matters leading up to his dismissal of Whitlam on November 11, 1975. This especially applies to the actual extent, and the details, of the governor-general’s ”secret” discussions with Mason. These and other ”revelations” are almost entirely derived from her analysis of Kerr’s ”private and confidential papers relating to the constitutional crisis of 1975”, which had not previously been available.
To this reviewer, there are three other matters of particular interest. First is the fact that, as Kerr wrote in his personal papers, he was extremely fearful that the prime minister would sack him, should Whitlam find out what he was planning.
The second is Hocking’s claim that, well before the dismissal, Kerr – whom until Remembrance Day, 1975, Whitlam naively regarded as his ”best appointment” – informed the young Prince Charles in Port Moresby in some detail about what he was intending to do.
And third is that on his return to England, the Prince of Wales took the matter up with the Queen’s private secretary, Sir Martin Charteris. Unknown to Whitlam, Charteris wrote to the governor-general that should what he euphemistically referred to as ”the contingency to which you refer” arise, the Queen would ”try to delay things”. However, it was Charteris’s opinion that, in the end, the Queen would be obliged to take the advice of the prime minister.
In one of the book’s key chapters, ”The Third Man”, Hocking states: ”Neither Kerr nor the palace ever revealed that, weeks before any action in the Senate had been taken, the governor-general had already conferred with the palace on the possibility of the future dismissal of the prime minister, securing in advance the response of the palace to it.”
One problem with these remarkable claims is that they seem to be based solely on Kerr’s private and confidential papers. Some other independent collaboration would have been more than helpful.
Perhaps more importantly, Hocking doesn’t satisfactorily address two key issues: that Whitlam, who knew he was likely to be defeated in another federal election, persistently tried to govern without supply, and that like all informed observers, Whitlam and Kerr both knew the reserve powers had previously been used when NSW governor Sir Philip Game dismissed maverick Labor premier Jack Lang in 1932.
The reality is that Hocking’s book is very much Whitlam’s view of Whitlam. This means that Kerr, Mason, Sir Garfield Barwick, Malcolm Fraser and a host of other political figures who thwarted Whitlam are all portrayed in a negative light.
This consistently pro-Whitlam perspective also applies to most of the events and policy decisions that occurred during his brief but tumultuous time in office. This applies to Hocking’s treatment of Whitlam’s seeming acquiescence in Indonesia’s planned invasion of East Timor.
While many commentators think Whitlam, Fraser and subsequent prime ministers, in effect, sold the people of East Timor down the river, Hocking is anxious to portray Whitlam in an especially benign and positive light.
One of the strengths of ‘Gough Whitlam: His Time’ is an array of illuminating black-and-white photographs that aptly illustrate Whitlam’s time in, and after, high office. My favourite is a photograph of Whitlam, left ear cocked, listening to the Echo Wall in the Temple of Heaven in Beijing in October 1973. Australia’s first ambassador to China, the highly influential and capable Dr Stephen FitzGerald, is seen closely observing the PM.
The book also boasts an extremely useful index and bibliography. It is pleasing to report that Hocking does acknowledge the invaluable work of her two research assistants, Dr Natasha Campo and Dr Sarah Tayton.
However, in the same paragraph of the acknowledgments, Tayton’s name is misspelt as Taton.
GOUGH WHITLAM: HIS TIME
The Sydney Morning Herald, September 29 -30, 2012, SPECTRUM p 33.