The Eleventh of November,
As a Time of Blood and Death.
The AH Dismissal In All Its Ugliness
By David Atwell
Australian democracy died, it is probably fair to say in hindsight, at 11am on 11 November 1975. Although the Prime Minister at the time, Gough Whitlam, was still alive, he would not be for long, and that the Upheaval and its horrific aftermath had still to come, Whitlam’s dismissal by the Governor-General, Sir John Kerr, was the event which triggered off everything else. Of course, as is now the fashion, all blame for what came next in Australian history has been placed upon Kerr and the Leader of the Opposition, Malcolm Fraser. Yet Whitlam’s decision to reject his sacking, on Constitutional grounds, certainly set the stage for the terrible aftermath of the Upheaval and the infamous Blood Republic. As such Whitlam too must share some of the blame for all the blood and destruction which henceforth followed.
The event that sparked the horror, which was to follow, began as an ordinary political fight between the Whitlam government and that of the Opposition, a coalition between the Liberal and Country Parties led by Fraser. However, it soon became much more than that. The Whitlam government, or more to the point two of its Ministers, had been discovered negotiating for a $au4 billion loan through unorthodox channels. Although this activity had been originally authorised by the government, when rumours started to flourish in the media, not to mention questions raised in Parliament over the matter, Whitlam had withdrawn this authorisation and furthermore ordered the two Ministers involved, one REX Connor and one Jim Cairns, to cease such loan seeking immediately.
It came out, though, in Parliament in July that Cairns had, regardless of orders, continued behind the scenes in seeking the $4 billion loan. Needless to say, the government had a rough time of it as the Opposition hounded away. But, after a few weeks, Australia had moved on: even in the Parliament other matters of business would replace the Cairns Loan Affair, especially after Whitlam had sacked Cairns from his ministerial portfolio. It seemed that the scandal was over.
Yet it was not meant to be, because in October 1975 the Opposition accused REX Connor of continuing to do what Cairns had been recently sacked for: the continuation of negotiations for a $4 billion loan. Naturally the government rejected such allegations as baseless, wherein the Opposition, thanks to the involvement of the press, introduced to all and sundry the other party to these loans: one Tirth Khemlani. He was quick to confess that he had been commissioned, by both Cairns and Connor, to seek various characters throughout the Arab world in order to fulfil the requirements of filling the loan. Needless to say, this was dynamite stuff as political scandals go and the media, not to mention the Opposition, had a feeding frenzy.
If one was to think that nothing else was going on in Australian politics, at the same time as the Loans Affairs reached their peak, then one would be wrong. In fact the government tried to do its best to continue the everyday business of running the country which included the annual Budgetary Bills. Unfortunately, as luck would have it, these were being introduced at around the same time as the REX Connor part of the Loans Affairs broke the news and the Opposition decided to use this moment to cause the government no end of headaches.
Fraser, when it was he right to reply to the Budget speech made by the Treasurer, Bill Hayden, announced that the Budget would be deferred in the Senate by the Coalition Parties. As such, the Labor Party needed every vote which they could get, but a recent Senate replacement, made by the very anti-Labor premiere of Queensland, Joe Bjelke-Petersen, was hostile to anything Whitlam and was more than happy enough to side with the Coalition. Thus, at this moment in history, even though technically Labor had equal votes with the Coalition in the Senate, they instead found themselves one short and at the mercy of their opposites.
Henceforth the government was stuck in a bind. If they could not get the Budget to pass, the country would effectively run out of money by Christmas and the country, at least in regards to federal services, would shut down indefinitely. Yet this was not the real problem which faced Whitlam at this point in time, but the calls coming from Fraser and the various frontbenchers of the Opposition demanding that the Governor-General, Kerr, sack Whitlam’s government and announce new elections. It goes without saying that Whitlam rejected such demands and instead called for Kerr to call for a half-Senate election thereby giving Labor a chance to regain at least equal numbers in the Senate ensuring the passage of the Budget.
About three weeks would thus go by with both parties in a deadlock. Both leaders called upon various Constitutional experts demanding they were right. But what no-one really counted on was what Kerr would finally do in solving the political crisis. Having been a Supreme Court Justice from New South Wales, Whitlam assumed that Kerr would follow the Constitution without question, insofar as Whitlam assumed that Kerr completely understood the Westminster system’s doctrine of Ministerial Advice and hence would only act upon the advice given to him by Whitlam.
Unbeknownst to Whitlam, however, on the day before The Dismissal, Kerr had contacted the Chief Justice of the Australian High Court Garfield Barwick. Thus behind Whitlam’s back, and in violation of several Sections of the Constitution, the advice Kerr was then given was very different to that he got from his Prime Minister.
All seemed quiet on the morning of 11 November 1975 as the nation prepared itself for numerous Remembrance Day activities. Considering what was to come, that was either a bad omen or that no-one truly suspected what was coming. Certainly Whitlam never did. Fraser, ironically enough, was by now becoming pessimistic as to his chances to force an election. Indeed, he was not the only one as a couple of Liberal Party Senators had begun a revolt against the deferral business, in regards to the Budget, and were now willing to vote with Labor Senators in order to end the crisis. As it could so occur, the crossing of the floor, by a handful of Liberal Senators, may happen later the same day as the Budget once again would have been presented to the Senate.
At around 10am, though, Fraser got a phone call to present himself to the Governor-General. Half an hour later Whitlam also got a phone call to see the Governor-General at once. Although there is no substantial proof that Fraser actually saw Kerr first, it has been well documented that Fraser was at the Governor-General’s residence for some minutes before Whitlam arrived around 11am. What happened next would shatter Australian democracy for the next two decades.
Kerr did not wait long, after Whitlam’s arrival, to tell his Prime Minister that he was dismissed from office along with his government. Furthermore, instead of becoming the caretaker Prime Minister until the next election, Fraser would take that role instead. Needless to say, Whitlam was speechless. He then offered a protest, in regards to the situation, but Kerr would not accept anything which Whitlam had to say. Instead Whitlam was shown to the door. A few minutes later Fraser was sworn in as caretaker Prime Minister.
Whitlam, meanwhile, had just under two hours to decide what to do next. Oddly enough he actually kept to himself, for much of this time, obviously contemplating what to do next. After returning from his meeting with Kerr, he even ordered everyone out of the kitchen at The Lodge, the Prime Minister’s residence in Canberra, cooked himself a steak and commenced to eat it alone. Unfortunately, this period of solitude also meant that no-one else in the Labor government was informed of their sacking yet, as the official announcement was not to be made until 1pm. It was a mistake which would cost Labor and above all Australia dearly, whilst the Liberal and Country Party members were fully informed, of the situation, and made their plans accordingly.
Twilight in Canberra
At about ten minutes to 1pm the Secretary to the Governor-General, David Smith, arrived at Parliament to make Kerr’s official pronouncement known to the country. Whitlam, having finished his steak some thirty minutes earlier, had arrived not long before him. Whitlam finally, though, got into action and arranged some public address equipment to be placed upon the front steps of Parliament which immediately ensured that a large crowd had gathered. Although Smith was supposed to read out Kerr’s dismissal letter to Parliament, Whitlam forced him to read it out to the general public instead. It goes without saying that the contents of the letter were not greatly appreciated by the large crowd.
Needless to say Whitlam did not appreciate the contents of the letter either. Then he noticed that numerous Parliamentary security guards had gathered around the crowd, not that really worried him much, but then he saw numerous Federal police officers immediately pull up in numerous cars just before he was about to give a speech. The crowd, though, ignored the police and where chanting extremely loudly "We want Gough!" time and time again, as if it were some magical mantra designed to change what had just happened. After several minutes, the crowd quietened down to hear Whitlam make probably the most important speech of his life. It would, sadly, be his last.
It was clear that Whitlam was very angry. Whitlam was also electric. Being boosted by the support from the crowd, which must have been well over a few thousand by now, plus surrounded by the media, Whitlam thought his time had come. Even though he may have been dismissed, he went on about the Constitution, about an attempted coup, and above all he was not going to go without a fight, ending with the defiant words:
Well may we say, God Save the Queen, because nothing will save the Governor-General. The proclamation, which you have heard read here today, is nothing but a coup against your country and must be, instead, brought against Malcolm Fraser, who will inevitably go down in history, on Remembrance Day 1975, as Kerr’s Cur!
At this point the crowd were stirred to a level mostly unknown to Australians. And above all the crowd wanted instant revenge. There and now they were willing to march on the Governor-General’s residence and drag Kerr out screaming, if need be, and replace him with someone else. A visit to Fraser would have also been on their list, but before any of that could happen, the police moved in to stop their plans. Scuffles soon broke out between the crowd and the police, whilst the Parliamentary security guards did not quite know what to do. That, however, soon changed as some of the police moved on Whitlam. A couple of the Parliamentary guards tried to block their path, but were soon beaten aside instead. This action brought the other Parliamentary guards into the foray, which ensured that a few of the police officers drew their revolvers and warned that they would shoot.
In an instant Whitlam roared down at the police demanding them to re-holster their weapons. Alas, even before they had the chance to reply to Whitlam’s order, several members in the crowd had jumped on them trying to disarm them before they could carry out their threat. In many respects, it seemed like a brave thing to do, but inevitably, in the tussal, a shot rang out. And before anyone knew it, a few more shots were fired. At first it seemed no-one had been hit, that they were simply warning shots, but then everything seemed to stop in motion. Everyone, in an instant, turned to see Whitlam laying on the steps of Parliament bleeding from his chest. And all this scene had been captured by the media, by the press journalists, by TV cameras, and above all by the ABC live radio broadcast which had set itself up just as Smith began to read out Kerr’s letter. It goes without saying all Australians knew of Whitlam’s assassination within minutes of it taking place. Not everyone, however, were angry that he had been killed.
The Fall of Innocence
It did not take long, though, before thousands of university students and trade unionists took to the streets throughout Australia, even though ironically the brawl on the steps of Parliament in Canberra had stopped. Regardless of who they were, everyone just stared at Whitlam’s body as some medical personnel pushed their way through the stunned crowd. But they were too late. And so was Australia’s future. Fearing that things may have gotten out of hand, not only had Fraser, once he had heard that Whitlam was going to have his show on the steps of Parliament instead of in it, had order in the Federal police to ensure things remained calm. If not, they had orders to disperse the crowd and remove Whitlam to inside the building. They were even authorised to arrest him if he refused to go. No-one, however, knows whether these orders involved shooting anyone even though such allegations have always been denied by those involved.
Yet Fraser did not simply stop there. Fearing, that if things got nasty in Canberra, similar problems could take place throughout Australia. Considering it had only been a few years since the end of Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War, where enormous street marches took place involving over one million people, it was reasonable to expect that similar events could again take place. But Fraser went further in foreseeing what could take place: and that was rioting and violence. Where the Vietnam protest marches were usually peaceful, it could be different this time around. As such, Fraser had put the regular military on high alert should their deployment to the main cities be necessary.
Fraser and the military were not to be disappointed in this latter situation. As mentioned, within an hour of the death of Whitlam, thousands upon thousands of protesters soon took to the streets believing that a revolution was at hand. Instead of marching for peace, these people were out to fight. The various state police forces did what they could to settle them down, but the crowds would have none of it. Having said that, it is not as if the protesters were violent everywhere. In Hobart, hardly any came out, and a similar situation happened in Perth. Meanwhile, in Adelaide, the protest march was large, but remained peaceful. In Sydney, Melbourne, Newcastle, and Brisbane, however, it was ugly from the start, whilst things followed the same violent pattern in Canberra the next day.
The state police, however, were hardly in a position to combat the crowds. Soon, regardless of city, the police lines were simply overrun by angry rampaging mobs. In Brisbane, even when they were ordered to open fire on the crowds, which the police more or less did to a man, their six shot revolvers may have wounded scores, and a small number of protesters even died, but that did not stop the angry mob. If anything it got them even more furious ensuring many police officers were killed for having fired upon the crowd. In the other states, police used the baton to maximum effect, but they were greatly outnumbered. Thankfully, no other police service was issued orders to open fire with their weapons. But considering what came next, it hardly mattered.
Fear now gripped Fraser and Kerr. Even though hearing of street battles in numerous cities was bad enough, and both showed remorse when reports of deaths started coming in from Queensland, it was not until rioting began in the nearby streets in Canberra, did Fraser then gave the order for the army to move in. Having been on alert now, for a few days, meant to say that their deployment was rapid. And even though morale may not have been high, thanks to the aftermath of the Vietnam War, there seemed to be an unfortunate motive, held by the armed forces, one which was based upon animosity towards much of the Australian population. And if this was true towards the Australian population in general, then it was close to pure hatred against the people involved with the riots: that being university students and their trade unionist allies.
What was clear, however, was that the protesters had pretty well gained control of the major eastern coast cities within a week, regardless of what the police and state governments tried to do, and that the protesters were beginning to consolidate their positions. Furthermore, considering many of them were trade unionists, not to mention a lot of the Labor Party faithful had joined in by now, meant to say that they were getting an organisational structure together in order to, not only coordinate their activities, but they were also showing signs of a creditable governmental challenge to the one in Canberra.. And, although he was immediately against the protest business at the start, by the third day of The Upheaval, the Australian Council of Trade Unions headman, one Bob Hawke, had become the spokesman for the protesters and had the charisma and charm which made Fraser appear everything but the legitimate Prime Minister. Needless to say, it was a challenge which Fraser could not tolerate.
To be continued…
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