March 30, 2023

22. Gough Whitlam Was Out To Lunch

22. Gough Whitlam Was Out To Lunch

It was a mad moment in Australian political history;  The 1975 Australian Constitutional Crisis - but don’t let that title put you off!  It’s a story of double-crossing, conspiracy theories, the CIA, Australia - a mature world democracy - without a government, demonstrations, dissent and a country in crisis.  And all, perhaps, because Gough Whitlam was out to lunch. 

I was so grateful to Australian historian Barry York for talking me through this extraordinary story.  Never has politics been so entertaining.  I somehow feel this story could only happen in Australia - perhaps that’s why I love the country so much.  Thanks Barry.

Incidentally, the feature image shows the Australian Senate, the upper house of the Parliament of Australia - that’s where it all happened back in 1975.  Oh, to be a fly on the wall.

You can contact Barry on Facebook - Barry York.

Last week's episode
[Episode 21] Date Me - Dating can be hard enough. But imagine you had been involved in a life-changing accident, were adapting to a new life in a wheelchair and were ready to pick up from where you left off with… boys.  Date Me is such a story of a young girl who experiences the highs and lows of human interaction. Find out how she takes back control. 

Next week's episode
[Episode 23] Access Denied: The Kursk Submarine Rescue Story

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[00:00:00] Barry York: Whitlam used to say, "I often said it wouldn't have happened if only I could have spoken directly to the Queen". That's really funny because Whitlam was a bit of a Republican, I think, and yet here he was wanting to bypass the de facto head of state, who was an [00:00:20] Australian under the Australian constitution.  [00:00:40] [00:01:00]

[00:01:04] Steve: Edward Gough Whitlam. Born on the 11th of July, 1916 in Melbourne, destined to become the 21st Prime Minister of Australia. He was memorable as a man of strong convictions with a keen eye on [00:01:20] human rights, but also by the manner in which he was ultimately dismissed as Prime Minister of Australia. It's an extraordinary story, which we'll pick up in 1967 when he was elected as head of the Australian Labor Party. I asked Australian [00:01:40] historian Barry York to help me share the story.

Protagonist 1 - Geoff Whitlam

[00:01:47] Barry York: Whitlam was from the right wing of the Labor Party in factional terms. But he was a very cosmopolitan, highly intellectual, [00:02:00] very charismatic and very big man. And he was a modernizer. He just wanted to bring Australia into the modern world and recognizing that we were a British country in Asia who had a future in that region.

[00:02:19] Steve: Whitlam was [00:02:20] first elected as Prime Minister of Australia on the 5th of December, 1972.

Whitlam The Reformer

[00:02:25] Barry York: I think people were generally getting fed up with the 23 years of coalition, basically conservative rule, and here's Whitlam this international statesman, he could quote Shakespeare, he [00:02:40] could draw on the ancient Greek classics. But an unfortunate situation was that his government more or less coincided with the oil crisis and that had a terrible effect on the Australian economy.

[00:02:56] Steve: At this point in the story, it's worth a quick pause to [00:03:00] understand how the Australian Parliament works.

How the Australian Parliament works

[00:03:02] Barry York: Australia has the Westminster system basically. But a difference is that we have a House of Representatives with 151 members currently, and we have a Senate [00:03:20] like the House of Lords, except our Senate, which has 76 members, has more power than the House of Lords. It can reject bills and it can block supply. By that I mean it can stop money bills getting through.[00:03:40]

May 1974 - Blocking the money supply

[00:03:40] Steve: It's May 1974, and the Senate is doing just that - blocking the money supply. Whitlam's problems are mounting.

[00:03:51] Barry York: Whitlam didn't have the numbers in the Senate, which meant that those opposed to him could block [00:04:00] the Appropriation Bills that Labor needed to pass, not just to implement some of their reforms, but to keep the government going. I mean to pay the public service and their wages and that kind of thing. And the man controlling the blocking, head of the Liberal Party at the time, [00:04:20] Malcolm Fraser.

Protagonist 2 - Malcolm Fraser

[00:04:21] Barry York: He was... very conservative. He was a squatter too. What in Australia we call a squatter. He was a big landowner, I think in the Gippsland region of Victoria. Unlike Whitlam, he was very snobby and [00:04:40] aristocratic in the way he related to the public. He sort of always seemed to have sneer, yeah, so he was very different to Whitlam.

[00:04:48] Steve: To try and break the impasse, Whitlam asked the Governor General - who will come onto in a minute - to call a double dissolution election. All seats in the [00:05:00] House of Representatives and Senate were up for grabs. On the 18th of May 1974, Whitlam was re-elected, but with an even smaller majority.

1974 Election - Whitlam re-elected on smaller majority

[00:05:11] Barry York: He had a majority of nine in the House of Reps. So he never had a really huge majority but... he had a [00:05:20] majority, that's all that mattered. And the House of Representatives is known as the People's House, you know, and the people felt morally that the People's House should be the one that... effectively governs.

[00:05:34] Steve: But unfortunately that isn't all that mattered. Whitlam still couldn't get supply [00:05:40] passed, therefore, no money. In the Labor Party's dash for cash, things started to look a little weird.

 Dealing with Saddam Hussain

[00:05:58] Barry York: It was a bit of a [00:06:00] shamozzle. It included trying to obtain a huge loan from what I regard as a fascist regime in Iraq, Saddam Hussain's regime. Approaches were made to him through... an intermediatry. His surname was Khemlani. It turned out he [00:06:20] was a bit of a conman. So it didn't do the Whitlam government any good to be seen that they could be hoodwinked by Mr Khemlani. And it wasn't good that they would seek loans from a regime like that in Iraq.  

[00:06:36] Steve: Whitlam managed to deflect responsibility for [00:06:40] what became known as the Loans Affair to Rex Connor, his Minister for Minerals and Energy, who promptly resigned from the fallout in October, 1975. Malcolm Fraser cited the Loans Affair as an example of reprehensible behavior from the Labor government as he continued [00:07:00] to use his control of the Senate to block passage of those Appropriation Bills needed to finance government expenditure unless Whitlam called another election. It's worth mentioning at this point the third and final protagonist in the story; Sir John Kerr, the [00:07:20] Governor General of Australia.

Protagonist 3 - Sir John Kerr

[00:07:29] Barry York: Prior to John Kerr, we had Paul Hasluck as Governor General. The Governor General is the de facto head of state, representing the Queen. [00:07:40] Whitlam appointed John Kerr as Governor General because Hasluck had stepped down during Whitlam's time. I think Whitlam saw John Kerr as somebody who would be favourable to Labor because Kerr had had an association with trade unions as a lawyer in the [00:08:00] past.

[00:08:00] Steve: Whitlam knew that Fraser could go to the Governor General to ask for the removal of the Prime Minister. This was within the powers of the Governor General. However, as Kerr has been appointed on his advice, Whitlam wasn't worried by this. As was once said, "Keep your [00:08:20] friends close and your enemies closer". On the 11th of November 1975, Fraser made his move. It was Remembrance Day and this was certainly going to be a day to remember.

Whitlam is sacked

[00:08:35] Barry York: Fraser went to the Governor General. The [00:08:40] Governor General under section 64 of the Constitution claimed the power to dismiss a Prime Minister under those sort of circumstances. Whitlam was kept pretty much in the dark and then called into the Governor General and told that he was being decommissioned [00:09:00] as Prime Minister and his government was being decommissioned.

[00:09:09] Steve: Australia was - and is - a constitutional monarchy with republicanism bubbling just under the surface. The Governor General, the [00:09:20] representative of the Queen in Australia, had removed a sitting Prime Minister. Ouch. This was the first and probably last time that this would ever happen. What happened next is total comedy caper.

Whitlam goes out to lunch

[00:09:37] Barry York: Remarkably what Whitlam did [00:09:40] after being told he was dismissed, he went for lunch. Meanwhile, in the Senate, his leader in the Senate, Ken Wriedt, supported a motion by Fraser, because Fraser knew that Whitlam had been dismissed, for the supply to be [00:10:00] passed. And of course, Wriedt and the other Labor members all voted for it to be passed, not knowing that the government had been dismissed.

[00:10:10] Steve: Incredibly, with no mobile phones to fire up communication, Whitlam went out to lunch straight after his dismissal. And [00:10:20] since the Labor party in the Senate didn't know that the Labor government had been dismissed, they continue to vote for that much needed supply. Fraser made sure that the Liberal senators all did the same for once, and so the Appropriation Bills were passed, the money supply started flowing, [00:10:40] just in time for Fraser to be appointed the new Prime Minister. You couldn't make it up. Then once the politicians found out, all hell let loose.

[00:10:56] Barry York: I interviewed former members of Parliament [00:11:00] and they described the chaos in the old Parliament house. People were running around, to use an Australianism, like headless chooks, he said it was just panic.

[00:11:12] Steve: The Governor General's official secretary, David Smith, had the dubious honour of reading the [00:11:20] proclamation confirming that the government had been dismissed, which ended with the words, "God saved the Queen."

[00:11:28] Barry York: Whitlam was standing there, this huge figure, looking over his shoulder. And as soon as the proclamation had been read, Whitlam grabbed the microphone and said, [00:11:40] "Well may we say God saved the Queen because nothing will save the Governor General". And... brilliant words typical of Whitlam.

[00:11:49] Steve: And then I suppose the backlash was quite intense?

[00:11:52] Barry York: People were in disbelief and a large crowd gathered outside parliament to protest. An [00:12:00] elected Prime Minister had been dismissed. There were huge protests. It was very intense, a lot of anger against Fraser and Kerr. Among my generation at a dinner party, you can always say, "Oh, where were you when Whitlam got sacked?" You know. And every one of my [00:12:20] age will know exactly where they were. It's one of those events like Kennedy being killed, Elvis dying, you know.

[00:12:28] Steve: This event would become known as the 1975 Australian Constitutional Crisis. As the demonstrations spread across Australia, so did the [00:12:40] conspiracy theories.

Conspiracy theories abounded

[00:12:41] Barry York: One is that the Queen herself somehow initiated it. And the other one is that the CIA somehow created the constitutional crisis. We know the Americans weren't happy with Whitlam [00:13:00] in various ways, moving away from total subservience to them.

[00:13:05] Steve: Luckily, the Australian people had a chance to express their feelings in yet another election very shortly after Whitlam's dismissal. Among the many ironies of this story was the fact that, despite the massive demonstrations [00:13:20] and dissent at the time, cries of foul play towards the Governor General, Fraser won that election by a landslide. How about that? So what changed as a result of the 1975 Constitutional Crisis?

Reflection - what changed as a result of the 1975 constitutional crisis?

[00:13:37] Barry York: It's very hard to change the [00:13:40] Constitution and it didn't surprise me that Labor didn't move for a referendum. The bitterness and division of lasted a long time. And I was told by some of the people at Parliament House that I interviewed years ago, they said, "Oh, it completely changed the atmosphere in our [00:14:00] old Parliament house where this happened. People weren't talking to each other, glaring at each other. There was hatred, you know.

[00:14:07] Steve: More irony as later in life, Whitlam and Fraser became good friends. Fraser said that he was an entertaining dinner companion; warm, jovial, [00:14:20] witty, and luckily in this case, a man without animosity. Incidentally, what became of Sir John Kerr?

What became of John Kerr?

[00:14:28] Barry York: Oh look, it's a Shakespearean tragedy in a way. He degenerated personally. He never recovered from the hatred. He was presenting [00:14:40] the Melbourne Cup to the winner, and he was drunk. He was drunk as a skunk. He was slurring his words. He was staggering at the microphone. There were thousands and thousands of people there and they all started booing and geering. He ended up a wreck, you know, a [00:15:00] broken man, probably an alcoholic.

Whitlam dies

[00:15:08] Steve: Kerr lived out his years back in London, where he was often seen worse for wear. He died from a brain tumor back in Sydney in 1991. By [00:15:20] contrast, Gough Whitlam was greatly mourned when he died in 2014 at the age of 98, some 39 years after the 75 Constitutional Crisis. Despite the passing of years, Whitlam had retained great fondness from the Australian people.

Flowers for Gough Whitlam

[00:15:38] Barry York: When Whitlam [00:15:40] died, I was working at the Museum of Democracy in the old Parliament House building. I get to work very early and I noticed somebody had left a bouquet of flowers with a card to Gough, thanking Gough. They'd left it a on the front steps where he had been dismissed. And... I [00:16:00] thought, "How nice", you know, "somebody has left a bunch of flowers". At lunchtime I was going to go for my walk and the steps leading up to the entrance were totally covered with bouquets of flowers and cards, and it became such a problem by [00:16:20] the end of the day, that security had to cordon off the steps and tell people to go around the back if they wanted to come in.

[00:16:28] Barry York: He didn't change capitalism or he wasn't a socialist, but we were a pretty backward country prior to that, you know. People missed him. There was [00:16:40] a lot of outpouring of grief, including by his former opponents who finally acknowledged all the good things that he did.


[00:16:48] Steve: So in the long run, Gough Whitlam was the winner, if personal affection was the yardstick. It was a mad moment in Australian political history; double [00:17:00] crossing, miscommunication, conspiracy theories, the CIA , Australia - a mature world democracy - without a government, albeit temporarily, demonstrations dissent, a country in crisis. And all, perhaps because Goff Whitlam [00:17:20] was out to lunch. [00:17:40]