The one that got away

Craig McGregor

THAT AFTERNOON, IN the sea-green undersea world of the House of Representatives, the bells shrilling, politicians hurrying into the chamber, the media watching scornfully from the press gallery, Whitlam looked like a whale among minnows: huge, imperturbable, impassive. I wrote in my notebook: ‘Gough sits at the centre table, spectacles perched unexpectedly on nose, poring over papers, pretending to ignore the hubbub of questions and jeers and challenges which flow over his head; it is only when he gets up, one foot jacked up on a green leather chair, that the House falls silent. He seems confident, conversational, half-humorous, whereas everyone else on either side of the House seems frozen into inaction. Fraser asks a question about the government’s plan to bypass parliament to get the money the Senate has frozen. Whitman replies: ‘We are being treated to a charade in the Senate. The deadlock could be solved by allowing it to vote on the budget.’ He calls Fraser’s actions ‘reprehensible’, quoting Fraser’s own words back to him. Fraser looks sombre, even glum. Around him on the front bench only Andrew Peacock, the moderate heir-apparent to the leadership, is smiling and joking. What’s he got to worry about?

Fraser has apparently run into a brick wall, his image crazing like safety glass. The hard-line Right has turned a surefire election win into a toss-up; sometimes in the future the Liberal Party will call for moderation, the pundits argue, and will turn to Peacock.’

Possibly.

LATER THAT AFTERNOON, in the non-members’ bar again, the consensus was that it would all be over next week – in Gough’s favour. Fraser was drinking a lot. The Libs were worried. Everyone was worried. Someone suggested a new T-shirt for the Opposition: I’M A LIBERAL LOSER. I bumped into Peter Bowers again. ‘It’s incredible, I can’t believe it,” he said. ‘The Libs have lost but are pretending they haven’t. They can’t find their way off the tram.’ Parliament seems to be in perpetual crisis: divisions, censure motions, exhausted politicians filing into the House, voting obediently and then filing out again. Whitlam strides into the House again, sits down, gives a cursory nod and then a smile to Fraser. Fraser smiles back. It’s interesting that Whitlam always sits alone at the parliamentary table, whereas Fraser is flanked by his supporters. There is talk of new tactics by the Opposition, new revelations. The group of advisers around Fraser seems determined, grim, unyielding. Do they know something I don’t?

I decided to see David Barnett, Malcolm Fraser’s press secretary. Barnett and I are old acquaintances; we had been cadet reporters on the Sydney Morning Herald together, when he was hanging around the edges of the Push and living a semi-bohemian life in a flat at Kings Cross. He was older, greyer, still wearing brown horn-rimmed glasses, but otherwise much the same Barnett: impatient, forthright, a tart tongue and a sharp mind. He was looking, when I finally cornered him in his office, very very harassed. This was a formal interview, for which I took notes in my notebook.

‘David,’ I asked, ‘what is the position of the Liberal Party now about the crisis?

‘Our position now,’ he said, speaking carefully, ‘is exactly as it has been for some time. The Governor-General must intervene to dismiss the government. There is no other possible solution.’

I was incredulous. ‘Are you being serious?’ I asked.

‘What do you mean, am I serious? Of course I’m serious. That’s our position.’

‘Nobody,’ I said, ‘in the Labor Party or in the press gallery believes that’s possible...’

The phone rang. Malcolm Fraser wanted to see Barnett. He got to his feet. ‘Come around and see me later.’

Strolling through Kings Hall, I mulled over what Barnett had said. Dismiss the government? It didn’t seem possible, but it was worth checking out. So the next day, November 5, I went to see Graham Freudenberg, one of the inner circle of Whitlam’s apparatchiks. I thought to myself, irreverently: I hope to Christ Gough’s got Kerr in his pocket; he appointed him, he must know what he’s doing. Formally, in my capacity as a journalist, I told Freudenberg what Barnett had said and asked for a reaction. Freudenberg, who is the author of A Certain Grandeur (Penguin 2009), a political biography of Whitlam, and a man who says nothing without measuring it first, frowned and lit a delicate cigarette. ‘The advice of Byers, the Solicitor-General, to us is that the Governor-General must follow the advice of the Prime Minister.’ Freudenberg seemed harried, nervous. ‘What’s the government’s strategy?’ I asked. ‘We’ve got no plan of campaign. It’s ridiculous,’ Freudenberg admitted suddenly. True, he said, every so often Labor’s top strategists would meet, discuss tactics, decide on what should be done. ‘The difficulty,’ said Freudenberg pensively, ‘is to communicate it to Gough.’

‘Can Whitlam rely on Kerr?” I asked.

Freudenberg shrugged. A typist was trying to get his attention. Outside, in the office beyond the anteroom, there were posters, telephones ringing, a sense of unending pandemonium. Somewhere there too was William Dargie’s famous portrait, framed, of the Queen. Australia was still, nominally, a monarchy. Or, more realistically, a ‘Governor Generalate’. Nevertheless it seemed that only a miracle could save Fraser. That afternoon in the House of Representatives, when Fraser got up to leave, one of the Labor ministers jeered at him: ‘Hooroo, Malcolm, come back again.’ Said a press gallery correspondent: ‘Malcolm’s going to have another five fingers of brandy to steady him.’ But the interview with Barnett, and then with Freudenberg, had left me profoundly uneasy. The Labor government was living, literally, from second to second but thought it was ‘inconceivable’ that Kerr would intervene.

The following day I caught up with Andrew Peacock, the man who was destined to lead the Liberal Party and then lost it to John Howard, in his tiny office in Parliament House. He was wearing silver-rimmed spectacles and was leaning back, grinning, in his chair, feet propped up against his desk. ‘What are you going to do?’

I asked him. ‘Nothing,’ he replied. He seemed supremely confident. When I pressed him for a reply he said, smiling even more broadly: ‘Some of the people in my party are learning that hardliners can smash themselves to pieces.’ He was referring to his leader. He obviously thought Fraser was going to lose. At lunchtime I went with some newspapermen across to the Lobby restaurant, opposite Parliament House. A couple of tables away was Fraser himself. He looked sick, preoccupied. Robert Drewe was interviewing him but they seemed to be sitting in absolute silence; it must have been a difficult interview.

THURSDAY 6 NOVEMBER 1975. Five days till the denouement. Fraser had gone to see Kerr. In the melee of reporters and photographers and TV cameramen outside Parliament House someone accidently hit Fraser on the head with a camera. Flustered, Fraser retreated to the House but as he walked down the sloping aisle in the chamber he missed his step, stumbled, and was almost brought to his knees. It was a terrible moment. The chamber was stunned into absolute silence. It seemed almost too symbolic. Later that day Whitlam leant with one magisterial arm against the table of Parliament and boasted that he had been accused of destroying yet another Liberal leader. My patience is unlimited, he said. ‘Parliament will sit until the Senators call off their strike. I alone will decide when the writ for the House of Representatives election will be held...’

Hubris.

The Opposition moved into the offensive. It mounted a series of censure motions in which, temporarily, the House divided and the government and opposition members sat on opposite sides of the House to normal. For a few minutes Malcolm Fraser and his men occupy the government benches. Whitlam squats himself down in Fraser’s chair, but Fraser leaves the Prime Minister’s chair vacant. A symbol? The atmosphere is tense, charged with possibility. Gunpowder, treason and plot: where are you, Guy Fawkes, now that we need you?

Next day I unwittingly stumbled across what, in retrospect, may be an extraordinary piece of political history. Kerr was going to sack Whitlam, and Fraser and his office knew it beforehand.

David Barnett was the key. I went to see him again and, more as a matter of courtesy than anything else, checked that I’d got his quote right. ‘Your position,’ I said, reading from my notes, ‘is still that the Governor-General will have to intervene and dismiss the government.’

Barnett looked at me. ‘Did I say that?’

‘You certainly did’.

‘When’s this going to be printed?’

‘This weekend, probably.’

‘If you print that I said that,’ said Barnett evenly, ‘I shall deny it.’

I was astonished. I knew I hadn’t made any mistake. Why should Barnett deny something he had said just three days earlier?

‘What the hell is the Opposition’s position now?’ I asked.

‘You can say,’ Barnett replied blandly, ‘that we believe the Governor-General has a duty to resolve the deadlock between the houses.’

‘But not by dismissing the government?’

‘I can’t remember,’ said Barnett, ‘ever saying that.’

In retrospect, I suspect that Barnett was frightened, very frightened, that he had told me exactly what Kerr was going to do. Not force a double dissolution, or a half-Senate election, or ask the Senate to pass Supply, or any of the other actions that had been suggested as a way of resolving the crisis. He was going to dismiss the government.

It was three-and-a-half days before November 11, when Kerr did exactly that. In all likelihood Fraser knew what was going to happen. Barnett probably knew. Otherwise, why would Barnett backtrack so fiercely?

I didn’t realise at the time the significance of Barnett’s lapse. I went to see Freudenberg again and asked him directly: ‘Graham, what will the Labor government do if Kerr attempts to dismiss it?”

There was a long pause. ‘He won’t.’

‘Look,’ I said, ‘David Barnett has told me, formally, that Kerr must intervene...’

‘Gough’s position,’ said Freudenberg, ‘is that the Governor-General must heed the advice of his Prime Minister.’

‘But what is your contingency plan if Kerr does exactly what Barnett says, and moves to dismiss the government?’

I realised that that Freudenberg might not be willing to reveal the government’s hand, but he answered: ‘We haven’t got one.’

I was aghast. Surely Gough, of all people, had read his history? No plan? No plan at all?

I HAD A deadline to meet. The implications of what Barnett had revealed was unimaginable. Nobody thought Kerr would sack Whitlam. It seemed too tendentious. Before I flew out of Canberra I telexed the story I had written about the crisis to The Australian, but didn’t include Barnett’s statement/denial/restatement.

If I had it might have changed the events which were unfolding even as I wrote. For some reason or other the paper didn’t want the article. I took it around to The National Times, which published it on 9 November 1975.

Just forty-eight hours later it was all over. Kerr dismissed Whitlam, Fraser took over, and Australia’s mild experiment in reformism had come to an end.

Standing back from it, it’s clear the dismissal of the Labor government was not fundamentally the result of a constitutional crisis, though that was an element, or a political crisis, which it partly was, but an ugly exercise in class power. As I wrote in Class in Australia (Penguin 1997):

When the crisis of 1975 erupted Whitlam found himself confronted by two men in a position of immense legal and constitutional power (Sir Garfield Barwick and Sir John Kerr) who had virtually spent their lives proving they were no longer beholden, politically or emotionally, to the (working) class from which they had come. The parallel between the two men was extraordinary. Both were class jumpers; both provided a classic case history of the working-class scholarship boy who is force-fed through a highly competitive, elitist system, groomed for success, richly rewarded for carrying out the tasks of those who pay him, and ends, not by retaining any loyalty to his poor background, but by conforming utterly to the class into which he has moved.  Sociological studies of English working-class boys who were selected at the 11-plus examination for a grammar school education, similar to Fort Street’s, reveal much the same pattern. By 1975 Kerr, the Governor-General, and Barwick, as Chief Justice, were two of the most powerful upper-class figures in Australia. It needed one final act of repudiation, perhaps, to clinch forever their new class role.

With the inevitability of a Greek tragedy, they performed it. As the crisis of 1975 deepened, Barwick, it is alleged, early advocated that Kerr should dismiss Whitlam. Kerr’s upper-class peers, especially those members of the Melbourne Establishment who were close to him, brought pressure to bear on the vulnerable, vainglorious boilermaker’s son who had taken to wearing a top hat as Governor-General – as a symbol of his social eminence. Finally Kerr, formally, turned to Barwick, the Old Grey Fox, for advice. Barwick, illegally, a former Liberal Party member of Cabinet, gave it – as Chief Justice he was prohibited, constitutionally, from intervening or giving advice separate from the High Court; Barwick, the printer’s son, ignored the prohibition) and advised Kerr, wrongly, that he had the power to dismiss Whitlam and appoint a caretaker prime minister. Whitlam was sacked, a motion of confidence in him ignored by Kerr, the parliament prorogued, and Malcolm Fraser – grazier, landowning millionaire, the quintessential representative of the ruling class – appointed as head of government.

Thus did two socially mobile, ex-working-class men, who had for most of their lives used their great power to deny everything their parents (and their like) had once stood for, combined to destroy the first Australian government in a quarter of a century which in any way represented the class from which they themselves had come. The symmetry of the metaphor is perfect.


This is an edited extract from Left Hand Drive by Craig McGregor (Affirm Press, 2012).


From Griffith Review Edition : © Copyright Griffith University & the author.

Griffith Review