The Museum of Australian Democracy has announced that in commemoration of the fortieth anniversary of the dismissal of the Whitlam government, it will be tweeting the events of late 1975 leading up to 11 November. This will be a very interesting for those into in Australian history and helpful in understanding how the events in the weeks beforehand led to the dramatic dismissal of Whitlam by the Governor-General John Kerr.
For the last few years, one of my many research projects has been looking at how the UK government reacted to the dismissal and when I was last in the UK, I examined the FCO files relating to the ‘constitutional crisis’ of 1975. These files, which I discussed here and here, are mainly correspondence between the British High Commission in Canberra and the FCO in London, giving an account of the events leading up to the dismissal and then offering advice to the Wilson government on how to proceed, particularly as there was confusion over whether the Queen could have intervened in the crisis. One of the very interesting things to read in the files is the interpretation of the events leading up to 11 November, 1975 from the perspective of the staff at the High Commission. These are mostly letters written from J.M. Hay in Canberra to Alan Clark in the South-West Pacific Department of the FCO in London. I thought I would highlight some of this correspondence from the files.
On 22 September, 1975, Hay wrote:
The phoney war over the prospects for an early election continues thanks to Mr Fraser’s unwillingness to come out firmly one way or the other. It looks as though he is still casting around for an excuse but the indications are that the initiative is slipping out of his grasp…
There are indeed strong hints that the Mr Whitlam would soldier on should the Senate block supply and would return the budget bills to the Upper House for reconsideration while gradually turning off the tap on various Federal financial commitments. I doing so, he would hope to persuade the electorate that the Opposition was doing damage both to the Constitution and to the economy and thereby reverse the trend in the opinion polls.
On 23 October, Hay outlined that while the Senate continued to block supply to the Whitlam government and the Prime Minister refused to hold an election, both Whitlam and Fraser were looking to the Governor General to make a decision on this stalemate. Hay wrote:
Mr Whitlam and Mr Fraser seem set on a collision course, and more and more often the Governor-General is mentioned as the final arbiter. Mr Whitlam has given his very firm opinion that the Governor-General cannot take any step such as dissolution of Parliament without the advice of the Prime Minister… Mr Fraser, on the other hand, has made equally clear his opinion that the Governor-General has the power and the duty to dismiss the Government in order to resolve the crisis. It must be a very lonely time for Sir John Kerr.
On 31 October, Hay wrote:
We do not seem to be much nearer a solution to the political deadlock in Canberra and both Mr Fraser and Mr Whitlam are standing firm on their positions. It begins to look, however, as though the former’s support, both amongst his own colleagues and in the country, is beginning to leak away.
The letter continued:
Mr Fraser is now in the position that he can no longer be absolutely sure of the support of his colleagues in the Senate… Mr Fraser must now seriously doubt whether Opposition Senators will continue to fall into line on motions of deferral, never mind one of outright rejection of supply.
Hay concluded his letter that there were ‘no signs of compromise’, but that Fraser was unlikely to ‘gain… the support he need either in the Senate or in the country’.
On 7 November, Hay described an offer by Malcolm Fraser to Whitlam to pass the supply bills being held up in the Senate if Whitlam would call for an election of the House of Representatives and half of the Senate. Hay said that the High Commission was surprised by this offer by Fraser, writing:
It is difficult to see what Mr Fraser hoped to gain out of making an offer which he must have known… that Mr Whitlam, who believes that Governments are made and broken in the House of Representatives, would reject out of hand. In making the offer Mr Fraser also damaged his own position by effectively shifting his ground from a stance of principle to an admission that his tactics have been no more than a grab for power. In doing so he showed weakness in the face of the enemy – and few now have any doubts about the degree of personal animosity which exists between the two leaders – which would inevitably stiffen Mr Whitlam’s resolve.
Throughout the correspondence from late September to early November, Hay expressed concern that the deadlock was continuing and lamented that both Whitlam and Fraser seemed unwilling to compromise. It seemed, from Hay’s writing, that the British High Commission were dissatisfied Fraser’s politicking and expected that the Opposition’s tactics would not lead to the dismissal of the government in Fraser’s favour. My reading of this correspondence suggests that the High Commission expected Whitlam to survive the crisis and that the Australian public were not interested in returning the polls so quickly, as an election had been held in 1974 and was not due to be held until 1977.
Also evident in the correspondence was a concern that the Governor-General might have sought advice from the Queen or the British government. The view expressed by the High Commission to the FCO was that this was unlikely, but not impossible. In a letter from the FCO to the Foreign Minister, Lord Goronwy-Roberts, dated 24 October, suggested that while the best strategy was to do nothing for the time being, but also wondered whether it would be appropriate for the Queen’s Private Secretary ‘be advised to get in touch with Sir John Kerr with a view of “blocking off” any attempt to involve The Queen in Australian domestic politics’. However it was decided:
such advice could well offend the Governor-General who might feel he was being told how to advise on a matter for which he is already well qualified, while Mr Whitlam, if he heard of it, would inevitably suspect the UK’s involvement.
However when the dismissal did occur, the High Commission were taken by surprise and there were debates about what to send Fraser after being made caretaker Prime Minister as ‘a message in conventional terms would clearly be inappropriate’. In a telegram from the High Commission to the Prime Minister’s Office, dated 12 November, it was recommended that Harold Wilson ‘be advised to send a brief but friendly message’, wishing ‘Mr Fraser and his government well in discharging the responsibilities of their new offices and look forward to working with them in the spirit of friendly co-operation which traditionally shapes relations between British and Australian governments’.
As anger in Australia was directed towards the Governor-General, the representative of the Queen in Australia, the British government was steadfast to avoid being involved in the crisis. A telegram sent on 13 November from the FCO to the High Commission clearly stated:
It has accordingly been decided that UK ministers should avoid any involvement in this exclusively Australian domestic political dispute.
It was proposed that the line to take by those at the High Commission would be:
There is no Ministerial or Parliamentary responsibility at Westminster. It would be highly improper for any of us to enter into these very difficult problems – constitutional and others – which have arisen in Australia.
Despite earlier predictions that Whitlam would survive this challenge by Fraser, after the dismissal, the High Commission predicted that the Liberals would win, although they feared that the Liberals would control the lower house while Labor would control the Senate, leading to the same predicament in 1976. The High Commission started to favour a Liberal-National Party victory as this would mean closer and more straightforward ties between Australia and the UK, believing that if Labor was re-elected, Whitlam would seek to loosen ties with the UK, particularly making moves towards abolishing Australia’s ties to the British Monarchy.
In the end, the fears of the British were allayed by the electoral victory of Fraser’s Liberal-National Party coalition. These files reveal that the British government were keenly following the events in Canberra leading up to the dismissal in November 1975, while hoping that the events would not engulf them nor require intervention by London or the Queen. It is interesting to see that the High Commission underestimated the tenacity of Malcolm Fraser to unsettle the Whitlam government and to provoke such a crisis that needed the Governor-General to act in the way that he did. The 1970s saw the relationship between Australia and the ‘mother country’ greatly change, with Britain’s entry into the European Economic Community and this constitutional crisis affecting the traditional ties. While the Australian side is well-known by now, the perspective of the British on this untangling is yet to be fully uncovered.
(And it would be great to find the US perspective on this in the future too!)