By Dr George Venturini
2. Medieval combat for ‘the Palace letters’
So, was Prince Charles just a visitor to Australia in November 2015?
Interpretations of the events of 11 November, forty years before the visit by Prince Charles and Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, have been offered by many, including the present writer: ‘The Anglo-American ambush of the Whitlam Government, 11.11.1975’, The AIM Network, 8-11 November 2015. It is gratifying that much of what was written there is now confirmed by a distinguished Australian scholar, who has devoted years of research for a two-volume biography of Gough Whitlam and was privileged to come on information available only recently when it became possible to examine certain private papers of Sir John Kerr, the Governor General who led Whitlam into the trap of a coup conceived in secret and deceit.
Unfortunately, it is left to professional performers in that little provincial theatre which is the Australia Parliament to praise the Australian people as ‘intelligent, informed and caring about what is going on’ – or similar vote-catching, and totally insincere, expressions. Very few Australians in fact take pride in speaking of what educated persons would call ‘the res publica’, the common – in the sense of mutual – interest.
A care for the common good demands much more than Australia – still so far from being ready for either the stringencies of liberties or radical rebirth, with its vast, neuter-minded middle-class still cocooned in commercial consumerism – is prepared to offer.
In the Australian electorate at large there is, indeed, a constipated core of conservatism, a soft underbelly of complacency and a despairing sovereign indifference whereby it is easy ‘to believe’ that, since “the Crown is above politics” and the Queen is a benign, old-grand-ma, powerless figurehead, Governor-General Kerr must of course have dismissed Whitlam on his own initiative, without the Queen’s knowledge, and that he did so over the refusal of the Opposition to pass ‘Supply’ – the bills to fund the government. Ask the ordinary Jack or Jill out there, and if s/he knows anything and/or remembers what happened on 11 November, it would be ‘the fact’ that the Opposition of the day had for weeks blocked the passage of the Government’s Supply bills, and that, alone, had forced Kerr to act. If challenged with a contrary view, s/he would display, aggressively, a militant anti-intellectualism, motivated only by a desire not to be disturbed by ‘politics’ – and that is a very comprehensive word, indeed! If s/he is informed, and one step ahead of the ordinary person, s/he might go along with Kerr “Statement of Reasons” for the dismissal. Kerr wrote that “Because of the principles of responsible government a Prime Minister who cannot obtain supply, including money for carrying on the ordinary services of government, must either advise a general election or resign. If he refuses to do this I have the authority and indeed the duty under the Constitution to withdraw his Commission as Prime Minister.”
Nothing could be farther from the historical truth. And that was documented by Professor Hocking in her recent work: The dismissal dossier: Everything you were never meant to know about November 1975 (Melbourne 2015), released on 1 November.
There had already been some anticipation: on 26 October 2015 an article by Gabrielle Chan in The Guardian – the Australian edition was headed: ‘Prince Charles knew of idea to dismiss Whitlam before 1975 crisis’. The article referred to the yet un-published Hocking’s book.
The article disclosed how Governor-General Kerr “had regular contact with the palace in the lead-up to sacking”. Kerr had even gone to the extent of suggesting to Charles that he could have been a future governor-general – a subject which, in the clearly lese Westminster System remains within the prerogative of the prime minister, who chooses and nominates while the sovereign appoints.
Kerr, first canvassed the possibility with Prince Charles as early as August 1975 – two months before the constitutional crisis began.
Kerr – a terribly insecure sycophant of a man, plagued by fear for his past connections with Intelligence agencies, both within and outside Australia, and by his recurrent battle with alcohol which since his appointment in July 1974 had already necessitated at least two un-publicised recoveries into hospital for detoxification, who was rumoured to have ‘indifferent sexual tastes’ and to have consumed ‘young flesh contacts’ as recently as the Lawasia conference at Kuala Lumpur in 1968 – was going to enthrone Charles as Governor-General! The famous constitutionalist had forgotten that such an act would require Prime Minister Whitlam to advise the Queen.
When Kerr raised his plans with Prince Charles, the next in line to the throne confirmed his knowledge of Kerr’s plans to dismiss an elected Prime Minister.
One enters carefully into ‘the Royal world’ – made of smoke, mirrors, hints, protocols, and hypocrisy – in common parlance: cant. And superb practice of that cant is left to courtiers, fawners, lackeys, sycophants and servile self-seeking flatterers.
But Hocking had already provided compelling evidence for ‘a decision of the highest order’. Hocking biography showed, from Kerr’s personal notes, that the Queen herself had been giving him the confidence to dismiss Whitlam (Jenny Hocking, Gough Whitlam: his time, Melbourne 2012).
The evidence was until recently circumstantial, but involves ‘Royals’, and it was used cautiously.
In mid-September 1975, two months before the dismissal, Kerr was in Papua New Guinea attending that country’s independence ceremonies. There he spoke with Prince Charles. They had a personal connection, according to a biography of Charles, because – as already said – the previous year Kerr had raised with the heir to the throne the possibility that he might have a term as Governor-General himself. With that established connection, Hocking wrote that Kerr was confident enough to raise with Charles the possible dismissal of the Whitlam Government and his concerns that he could be dismissed had the Prime Minister got to ‘The Palace’ first.
According to Kerr’s notes – as examined by Hocking – Charles replied: “But surely, Sir John, the Queen should not have to accept advice that you should be recalled at the very time, should this happen, when you were considering having to dismiss the government.”
Hocking writes that when Charles returned from Papua New Guinea he took up Kerr’s concerns with the Queen’s Private Secretary, Sir Martin Charteris. Sir Martin then wrote to Kerr, just a week before the ‘Supply’ crisis leading to the dismissal began – says Hocking with what she calls “remarkable advice”.
The Queen’s private secretary told Kerr – and this again is according to Kerr’s personal notes quoted by Hocking – that should “the contingency to which you refer” arise the Queen would “try to delay things”, although, Sir Martin said, in the end she would have to take the advice of her Prime Minister.
That seems a rather circuitous way of saying everything, but committing to nothing in the mannered “Chinese-esque” language of courtesans.
And there is no doubt that the clearly implied support of the Monarch would have been an immense comfort to the Governor-General, who feared he might be out of commission if he tried to dismiss Whitlam, as Marius Benson speculated in ‘Whitlam dismissal a decision of the highest order’, abc.net.au, 3 September 2012).
Benson turned out to be correct.
Hocking amplified her account and confirmed Benson’s supposition in the updated edition of her book: The dismissal dossier, published on 18 October 2017.
In fact, Kerr wrote “regular and extended” letters to the Queen and her private secretary Sir Martin Charteris during the period leading up to the dismissal; Kerr was assured that every one of his letters was read by Charteris and the Queen. As Kerr noted, “and she herself told me that if I found the need to write to her direct to feel entirely at liberty to do so.” The style and the substance of that sentence give an abundant measure of the servility of the man-Kerr ! One week before the dismissal Charteris informed the Governor-General of the Queen’s intentions if Whitlam moved against Kerr: “Charteris told him that should this ‘contingency’ occur, the Queen would ‘try to delay things’ for as long as possible …”, so that Kerr could sack Whitlam. [Emphasis added]
Interestingly, on 12 November 1975, Gordon Scholes, still Speaker of the House of Representatives, would write to the Queen, asking her to restore Whitlam as Prime Minister. The reply from Sir Martin, dated 17 November 1975, reads: “As we understand the situation here, the Australian Constitution firmly places the prerogative powers of the Crown in the hands of the Governor-General as the representative of the Queen of Australia. The only person competent to commission an Australian Prime Minister is the Governor-General, and The Queen has no part in the decisions which the Governor-General must take in accordance with the Constitution. Her Majesty, as Queen of Australia, is watching events in Canberra with close interest and attention, but it would not be proper for her to intervene in person in matters which are so clearly placed within the jurisdiction of the Governor-General by the Constitution Act.”
Everything is possible to foreign, distant, un-accountable monarchs: “try to delay things” or do nothing – whatever.
It is quite credible that Kerr was contemplating dismissing Whitlam two months before he so acted. But Kerr ignored Whitlam’s instruction, deceived him, and went on to Barwick, a sworn political and personal enemy to Whitlam.
Seeking confirmation of his already-arrived-at decision, Kerr met with Barwick and asked for his views of a dismissal of Whitlam. Barwick furnished him with written advice containing his view that a Governor-General could and should dismiss a Prime Minister who was unable to obtain ‘Supply’. Barwick specified that the Prime Minister should also not have refused either to resign or to advise a general election – a suggestion with which Kerr agreed.
Barwick gave Kerr the support he needed.
Kerr felt encouraged. And never mind that in giving his opinion Barwick was breaching the highly esteemed ‘doctrine of the separation of powers’. Barwick could have written pages and pages on it without believing a word of it!
Whitlam had the highest respect for ‘the doctrine’ and firmly believed that the Queen’s representative must rely on the advice of his ministers – the essence of the Westminster ‘tradition of constitutional rule’. This immediately opened another door for Kerr: he could have summoned Fraser and told him that he was bound by Whitlam’s advice, so the only solution was for Fraser to retreat.
As it turned out some thirty seven years after, there appeared another member of the High Court and a friend of Kerr involved in the ambush. It was Sir Anthony Mason. Mason had a reputation for impartiality. He was – as the myth-making language goes -‘apolitical’.
In the end, Mason also breached convention by offering Kerr advice and even preparing a document of dismissal, that Kerr ended up not using. Mason was satisfied by taking an apparently more neutral stance and telling Kerr that he should at least warn Whitlam of his thinking and give him the advantageous chance to call an election himself – as Prime Minister. Sir Anthony gave Kerr similar advice to that of Sir Garfield, privately, on 9 November. But Mason added that the Governor-General needed to notify the Prime Minister of his intention to proceed to dismissal.
Kerr identified the person who would become Chief Justice as the “’third man”, who secretly advised and “fortified” him in his decision to dismiss the Whitlam Government.
Kerr’s private records insist that Sir Anthony “played the most significant part in my thinking” and even reassured him that he had made the right call two days before he dismissed the government. They also assert that Sir Anthony, at the time a High Court judge, was the author of a statement that Kerr “incorporated in my public statement” justifying his actions.
The records were uncovered by Professor Jenny Hocking. Hocking says that Kerr’s records suggest that “Mason was not merely the third man: he was, in many ways, the man.”
Kerr’s records make it clear that he wanted the extent of Sir Anthony’s role to surface not after his own death but while Sir Anthony was still alive, with the aim of deflecting his responsibility for the deception and dismissal of Whitlam.
“In the light of the enormous and vicious criticism of myself, I should have dearly liked to have had the public evidence during my lifetime of what Mason had said and done during October-November 1975 … [but] he would be happier … if history never came to know of his role,” Kerr wrote.
And further: “I shall keep the whole matter alive in my mind till the end, and if this document is found among my archives, it will mean that my final decision is that truth must prevail, and, as he played a most significant part in my thinking at that critical time, and as he will be in the shades of history when this is read, his role should be known.”
The account adds weight to the perception of Kerr as a weak man who wanted and needed to feel his actions had the approval of others. Aside from being portrayed as a constant confidant, the records depict Sir Anthony “as providing a necessary bridge between Kerr and chief justice Sir Garfield Barwick” writes Hocking.
Sir Anthony’s role in the dismissal has been the subject of speculation for decades, after Kerr noted in his memoir that one person other than Barwick, “sustained me in my own thinking as to the imperative within which I had to act.”
The detail laid out in Kerr’s private papers on their “running conversation” staggered Hocking. “I was just astonished by what I read.”
Sir Anthony had consistently refused to be drawn on his role. But he offered his own detailed account of what took place and agreed to render it public. (Sir Anthony Mason, ‘It was unfolding like a Greek tragedy’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 27 August 2012).
In conclusion: here was a ‘third’ man; but there was also a First Woman.
Continued Saturday – Medieval combat for ‘the Palace letters’ (part 2)
Previous instalment – Charles lll
Dr. Venturino Giorgio Venturini devoted some seventy years to study, practice, teach, write and administer law at different places in four continents.
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