THE KERR COUP AGAINST WHITLAM – 40 YEARS ON, STILL A MYTH

Originally published in Strange Times, no.10 April 1991. (This article was written well before Keating launched his ‘republican debate’.) On 11 November 1975 the Australian Governor General, Sir John Kerr, dismissed the Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam, on the grounds that he was unable to get the budget through the Opposition dominated upper house (the Senate). Kerr then appointed the opposition leader Malcom Fraser caretaker Prime Minister and called an election. Fraser subsequently won the election in a landslide.

I am republishing the discussion about the article as well, including my own which is the last comment below. I sum up my position thus: I look back on the semi-fascist coup analysis now with a sense of bewilderment. The writ by which Whitlam was sacked specified that a caretaker government be appointed and that an election be held. There’s nothing fascistic about that. Why then did people who had good leftwing credentials pursue that line?

****

THE KERR COUP – ANOTHER MYTH

The recent death of former Governor-General John Kerr is a good excuse to look back over the way the left reacted to his sacking of Whitlam. It is a remarkable example of how people who claimed to be radical leftists could tie themselves to the coat tails of the Laborites. They convinced themselves of all sorts of conspiracy theories about CIA involvement and described the sacking as a semi-fascist coup – a case of the ruling class abandoning parliamentary institutions. The left’s analysis of the Whitlam sacking is second only to its stance on the Gulf War as an example of its cretinism.

Essentially all Kerr did was to force the most unpopular government in Australian history to face the electorate. According to the left this was all terribly fascist because the government’s unpopularity was due to a malicious media campaign engineered by the media barons and multinationals. However, given the ability of the Whitlam government to shoot itself in the foot every other week, it would have required the media to be actively biased in its favour for it not to show the government in a bad light. It was also the time of the worst world economic downturn since the depression of the 1930s and for that reason alone very few elected governments anywhere in the world survived the mid 1970s.

The left was also outraged at the Liberal’s blocking supply in the Senate. The Labor Government liked to describe the House of Representatives as the ‘people’s house’ and to claim that it was being de_ed by the Senate which is elected on a less representative basis. This is a funny argument given that Fraser’s main interest was in getting an election for the lower house, so that ‘the people could decide’. It was Labour that was keen to avoid that at all costs. They had schemes for calling half senate elections, anything but an election over who was to govern.

Certainly the royalist institution of Governor-General should be replaced by a president, but that is another issue. Hopefully the appointment to the position of a republican and atheist in the person of Bill Hayden will do much to hasten its demise.

________________

• Re: The Kerr “coup” – Another myth
Posted by keza at 2005-11-24 10:01 PM

There’s a detailed account of the events referred to in the article above in the the Wikipedia entry for Sir John Kerr…

I notice that the “left” is still referring to what happened as a “coup” eg the following was posted on the GreenLeft website Just recently (November 11):

The enduring political significance of the coup lies in the fact that it demonstrated, in a particularly dramatic form, how ruthlessly the ruling class is prepared to defend its interests. Behind the assiduously cultivated façade of parliamentary democracy lies the organised violence of the capitalist state, ready to be called upon when needed.

Never mind that all John Kerr really did was to insist that an immediate general election be held.

Never mind that prior to this he had given Whitlam the opportunity to call a general election himself – and Whitlam had refused.

And never mind that when the election happened the Labour Party suffered a landslide defeat.

The pseudo- left dismissal of the recent Iraqi elections is a continuation of the same style of thinking. It indicates a deep misunderstanding of the meanings of words like “fascist”, “coup” and “democracy” as well a contempt for people as gullible victims of manipulation.

The genuine left always defends hard won democratic rights while pushing for more of them. Governments should have to face the electorate more often, not less often.

_________________

• government or referendum?
Posted by kerrb at 2005-11-25 08:38 PM
keza wrote:
Governments should have to face the electorate more often, not less often

Why? I think that needs more explanation.

Should governments be allowed to get on with the job or should policy be decided by a series of referendums? Don’t we already have enough populism and governments afraid to bite the bullet? What government today would introduce a measure that would have long term benefits 20 years down the track but few short term benefits – for example an intensive preschool program in disadvantaged areas?

If there were elections in USA right now then Bush would probably lose and I don’t think that would be a good thing. Should we get behind the Unions populism and demand that Howard’s IR reforms be decided by a new election? They are unpopular despite an expensive and phoney government advertising campaign.

From a broader perspective many correct ideas lack popular support: atheism, communism, the idea that we are not on the verge of environmental catastrophe. Democracy is a good idea too, far superior to fascism, but the concept of deciding everything by 51% vote has its limitations IMO. I’m not clear about the solutions.

The Whitlam government was elected in December 1972 and initiated a lot of reforms many of which were blocked by the hostile Senate. Because of this Whitlam called another election in May 1974 but that backfired, he was re-elected with a reduced majority. Obstruction from the Senate continued leading to the blocking of supply.

After the Queen’s representative intervened and sacked the Whitlam government there was another election in December 1975 which Whitlam this time lost. Three elections in three years, was that good?

Given that the Whitlam government was the first labour government since 1946 then it was easy to get the impression that the Liberals believed they were born to rule.

I take the point that what happened then wasn’t fascism, that that was bad analysis. But the combination of the Liberals born to rule attitude and the colonial relics in our constitution (Queens representative) were sound reasons to oppose The Dismissal.

And I still like Whitlam’s anger and speech on parliament house steps: “Well may we sing God Save the Queen… Because nothing will save the Governor-General”. Guess I’m a sucker for a nice piece of rhetoric.

_________________________

Bill Kerr
• Re: government or referendum?
Posted by keza at 2005-11-25 11:13 PM
Well of course populism can be a problem. The majority isn’t always right, people embrace all sorts of backward ideas etc etc. But the solution can’t be to support having restrictions on the democratic process. If there is popular support for backward or reactionary policies then it’s up to progressive people to fight for better ideas. The way I see it, the more opportunities for people to have their say, the more opportunities are provided for genuine struggle and the overall lifting of the general level of debate and understanding.

I remember this happening on a small scale in the Melbourne Moratorium debates in Richmond Town Hall (1970’s). As far as I know, the Melbourne Moratorium was run differently from the Moratoriums in other Australian cities because rather than being organised from on high by a committee, the major decisions were taken by open public meetings where policy issues were subject to a debate followed by a vote.

As a consequence the Melbourne moratorium policies were far to the left of anywhere else in Australia – eg here the USwas clearly labeled as an imperialist aggressor whereas in other places the policies were mainly pacifist. When there is genuine debate about things, the better ideas do tend to win out. It is lack of discussion and lack of opportunity to engage in any sort of democratic process which leads to the persistence of reactionary ideas.
If the voting system here in Australia was based on proportional representation this would break the current two party system but it would also have the effect of giving representation to all sorts of smallish groups – many of them with more reactionary policies than either Labour or Liberal. It would also lead to more unstable government. But I’d see both these things as good relative to the situation we have now. Anything which opens things up and gives people more of a chance to engage with the issues of the day has to be a good thing from a progressive perspective.

I think this has been happening in Iraq. Opponents of regime change have talked endlessly of the dangers of democracy in Iraq claiming that the result would be an Islamic state. the Iraqis aren’t ready for democracy, there’s no chance of the Shia, Kurds and Sunnis working things out, what they need is a strong leader etc etc.

If there was to be an election in the US aimed at trying to bring down Bush and his policies then the issues wouod have to be fought out. I think that would be a good thing.

________________________

• Re: government or referendum?
Posted by tomb at 2005-11-26 12:12 AM
perhaps not a fear of elections but a fear of losing. (whitlam would relate to this given his close relationship with the fascist indonesian government and support for the annexation of east timor)

________________________

• Re: government or referendum?
Posted by kerrb at 2005-11-26 01:27 AM
keza,

You have cited some good examples where more democracy / extended democracy is a very good thing – Melbourne Moratorium, proportional representation, Iraq elections …

It’s a fundamental point and as a general principle I agree … extended democracy combined with real discussion does work in favour of the best ideas winning through and there are precious few examples of discussion of this sort in Australian politics.

However, I can also think of examples where not following established democratic procedures was a good thing too … the US / Coalition of the Willing invasion of Iraq for example, not supported by the United Nations … I think the argument here is that fighting fascism is a more urgent principle

As for holding regular referendums in the USA about whether to continue the Iraq war, that strikes me as impractical – pull the troops out, a few months later send ’em back in – you can’t fight a war like that.

_________________________

Bill Kerr
• Re: government or referendum?
Posted by anita at 2005-11-26 05:35 AM

Thanks for following up my post, and apologies for the obtuseness of my original post.

What is highlighted is the paradoxical nature of democracy. (Take it away AL) I think it was courageous of Gough Whitlam to try and stand for his policies via election, but he didnot read the writing on the wall after they were soundly rejected and his majority was reduced. We know the outcome of his failure to take account of the mood of the electorate.

Politics is about brinkmanship and government’s can fall. My gut feeling is that a smart politician probably says yes to elections when out of office, and No when in office. I take the points Bill, but don’t think the example really works because the coalition did follow established democratic procedures, but broke from the outcome of those procedures muttering something about the numbers.

There is something to be said for a binding caucus type of principle but there comes a time when you might have to walk as the coalition did over failure to reach a necessary or desired outcome.

I support Proportional Representation with four year terms, but think that it is probably ok to maintain the Australian custom of the govt choosing the election time. I also think that the Australian practice of no limit on the number of terms in office is preferable to the American provision for 2 terms only. IMO it is about accountability, and George Bush for instance would be much more accountable and useful if he was facing the prospect of a third term in office.

Back to the so-called Kerr ‘coup’ which we find is not a coup. It was not, as happened in my own sphere of involvement, (Flinders uni in Sth Australia, mid 90’s) where democracy was about Annual elections; General Student Meetings; and Action Groups – there was a referendum policy measure that worked quite well in the circumstances – but I too would not recommend governing a country by referenda on policy questions) a matter of being hit with an unconstitutional referendum and having to wear the disastrous consequences of ‘boycotting’ said referendum, once the uni administration was convinced that pushing through an unconstitutional was in their political intrerests.

This resulted in… I’m losing count… maybe 4 or 5 full elections at Flinders in 1995.

Anyway in the example of Whitlam’s sacking, it was brought upon himself. So I don’t think his sacking – or more recently the decision to go to war in Iraq, strayed far from accepted democratic and legal conventions at all.

Bugger, I replied to the response and not the main topic,,, and now have only the last message to re-read before concluding these late-at-night, hastily written words. For better, or worse, and before i drag up anymore of my Flinders uni. memories.

c’est la vie

c’est la guerre

Que sera sera

Fare-the-well the ALP* student movement. (To the tune of Polly Wolly Doodle all the day)

Best of all RIP NUS** (I could not help myself) (

Anita

* ALP = Australian Labour Party

** NUS = National Union of Students)

• Re: The Kerr “coup” – Another myth
Posted by arthur at 2005-11-26 10:41 AM
Great to see Anita republishing stuff from “Red Politics”. Already seems to have raised the level of discussion by provoking deeper thought on both imperialism and “The Dismissal”. Hope this stuff gets properly integrated into the folder navigation structure of the site for permanent reference rather than lost in more ephemeral forum discussions. Also hope to see us starting to write articles like that from a current perspective (and David, who wrote both of those and many other excellent articles more than a decade ago, adding some more).

This topic has already branched into two additional issues of more contemporary and global (non-Australian) significance – “Revolutionary Democracy” (including the dialectics of leadership and mass line in broad struggles we have had experience of such as the student movement and Vietnam solidarity movement and “Constitutional Reform” (including electoral systems).

I’d like to see both of those separated out into topics of their own (and will do so myself if not beaten to it). Bill’s points about populism, majoritarianism, biting the bullet and not being limited by process is of even deeper relevance to how revolutionary democrats build mass movements (and how they organize themselves) than it is to how governments should be organized in modern western societies. We didn’t achieve the wider extended democracy favourable to left politics that keza refers to in either the student movement or the Vietnam war protests by accepting majority rule – we were a very small minority and loudly denounced as undemocratic by our opponents – but we avoided isolation by tight leadership following a mass line.

On “The Dismissal” itself, that’s precisely what the ALP did not do. Looking through the wikipedia article, their “radical” reforms – hysterically opposed by the conservative opposition at the time – were pretty tame then and are conventional wisdom now. When Harold Holt was denouncing Whitlam for betraying the American alliance by proposing to recognize China, Kissinger was already in secret negotiations with Peking.

The ALP government tore itself apart with no tight leadership and made no serious effort to mobilize the masses for its reform program. Instead they absorbed much of what had previously been anti-government and anti-system activism into a new caste of do gooders funded by government – completely gutting the activist movement that had been developing against their more conservative predecessors.

The sordid constitutional maneuverings on all sides were pathetic – bribing an opposition senator with an ambassadorial post to Ireland to gain a vote for the government, state governments appointing replacement senators opposed to the party of deceased senators to gain a vote for the opposition, the governor-general not warning the Prime Minister of his intention to dismiss him etc etc.

But on the fundamental issue, Fraser was open and above board in declaring his intention to bring down the government by blocking supply and mobilized the people in opposition to government policies, while Whitlam made no attempt to mobilize the people in defence of his policies but instead tried to minimize the landslide against his government by demagogic attempts to deflect popular anger through making the decision to call an election the central issue.

In the USA the Executive government with a fixed term in office is often dominated by one party while Congress is dominated by another and conflicts between the two occasionally result in the Federal Government grinding to a halt due to supply being cut by Congress.

Australia (wisely or not) deliberately chose the Westminster system of the executive being responsible to Parliament instead of fixed term governments. Whitlam tried to “crash through” in a system where the ultimate result of the opposition refusing to back down could only be a crash (before or after supply ran out, depending on the Governor-General).

Instead of defending his program, Whitlam tried to deflect attention of ALP supporters from his leadership failure by demagoguery against “colonial relics”. This worked and there is still deep anger among ALP supporters about this “betrayal of democracy” by holding an election, while Whitlam remains a party hero.

Its complete and utter phoniness was highlighted by the “Republican” fiasco in which the ALP proposed to remove the colonial relic while retaining EXACTLY the same system that led to the Dismissal.

In reality the only “colonial relic” involved was the ALP which, for the first time in Australian history actually appealed to the British (Labor) government to directly intervene in Australian affairs when the Speaker of the House asked the Queen to act on the advice of her imperial British Ministers rather than her Australian Ministers to refuse to hold the election advised by her Australian Ministers. Naturally the British government and the Queen did no such thing (and in fairness the ALP could not have imagined that they would but was just engaged in more demagoguery in appealing to the Queen).

I was outside Australia during the whole period leading up to The Dismissal and so missed out on the developing atmosphere. But it was quite stunning on coming back to find so much latent support for the ALP among leftists who had previously been completely contemptuous of it – with genuine anger about how “our” party had been viciously deposed by such undemocratic means as holding a (CIA inspired, fascist, etc etc) election at which it had been undemocratically rejected by a landslide due to the ignorance of the unwashed masses about the importance of governmental stability!

This really was an early warning about the tendencies that have now shown themselves more fully in the current collapse of the left in the face of the pseudo-left. Perhaps that historical event, as well as the Red Eureka Movement discussion about international questions was a factor in why there seems to be greater clarity about the pseudos in Australia than elsewhere.
• Re: The Kerr “coup” – Another myth
Posted by kerrb at 2005-11-26 05:29 PM
arthur wrote:
I was outside Australia during the whole period leading up to The Dismissal and so missed out on the developing atmosphere. But it was quite stunning on coming back to find so much latent support for the ALP among leftists who had previously been completely contemptuous of it – with genuine anger about how “our” party had been viciously deposed by such undemocratic means as holding a (CIA inspired, fascist, etc etc) election at which it had been undemocratically rejected by a landslide due to the ignorance of the unwashed masses about the importance of governmental stability!
I think there was evidence of CIA displeasure at the Whitlam government to do with two issues of substance – the raid on ASIO by Murphy and nervousness that Whitlam might kick out US military bases (Pine Gap) in Australia. The ASIO raid perhaps arose from the practice of ASIO keeping dossiers on some ALP politicians who were active in the anti-Vietnam war movement. Murphy believed that ASIO was withholding information about Ustasha involvement in Australia. This had an echo later in SA when Don Dunstan sacked the police commisioner Salisbury, I think for similar sorts of reasons (dirt files on ALP politicians).

Significant reforms by the Whitlam government included the medicare health reform, increased access to University education by students from working class backgrounds and some ongling support students from disadvantaged backgrounds. These reforms have been incrementally whittled away by the current Liberal / National Coalition, illustrating the point that more than reform is needed.

I agree with tomb’s point that Whitlam did a dirty deal with the Indonesian government on East Timor.

In the final analysis the people did vote out Whitlam, so no argument there.

Two Australian labour governments have been dismissed (Whitlam and Jack Lang in NSW) in this way – intervention by the Queens representative – and no Conservative governments. This contributes to the sense of foul play.
_________________________

Bill Kerr
• Re: The Kerr “coup” – Another myth
Posted by byork at 2005-11-28 01:56 AM
I was a member of the CPA(ML) at the time, in 1975, and the party line was that it was indeed a semi-fascist coup. But this was not seen, as I recall it, only in terms of CIA involvement but in terms of superpower contention. Whitlam had recognized Soviet domination of the Baltic states and had been friendly to the Australia-Soviet Friendship Society. There was also some minor stuff happening with the Moscow Narodny bank in Australia which was also meant to clinch the argument. I don’t think Whitlam ever threatened the US bases in Australia but rather sought joint US-Australia control over Pine Gap. The CIA didn’t need to do much, as world events such as the oil crisis, plus the Labor government’s own incompetence as a manager of capitalism, brought it down. Whitlam lost the plot, even in his own social democratic terms, and turned to the fascist regime in Iraq to raise election funds which he could never raise from the Australian working people.

I look back on the semi-fascist coup analysis now with a sense of bewilderment. The writ by which Whitlam was sacked specified that a caretaker government be appointed and that an election be held. There’s nothing fascistic about that. Why then did people who had good leftwing credentials pursue that line?

I think part of the reason relates to the fact that the struggles over the big issues like Vietnam, censorship, White Australia Policy, and apartheid, in which the Left did win ground, had been more or less successful. The resultant absence of issues, or vacuum, led to frustration and recrimination within the Left and a desire, by some of us, including me, to try to keep something alive that was really gone.

The religious type of analysis that saw dialectics in terms of constant progress with people’s struggles intensifying and going from victory to victory with every new year’s issue of Vanguard led those who accepted it into a dead end. When people close their minds, as I did, to debate and exchange of ideas, and instead conglomerate within a very small sect (within a sect), then they can’t possibly understand revolutionary theory and they have lost touch with reality. (“All that is real is rational”). They become self-satisfied opponents of everyone else, praised and egged on by respected veterans.

People like me applied themselves to the ‘semi-fascist coup’ issue with similar dedication as we applied ourselves to supporting the Vietnamese liberation struggle, the struggle against apartheid, etc. Being militantly active was part of the religious ritual, evidence of our ‘superiority’ – ie, we were making real sacrifices on demonstrations – and a substitute for critical thinking. I look back on it with regret and embarrassment but also think it a big pity as there were some astute minds zombified by that sect. Very few of them today take a progressive line on things like Iraq and globalisation.

Yes, there were people saying good things and the republication of the ‘Red Eureka’ material on this site shows that its analysis was pretty good and stands up well to this day.

On Whitlam, it interests me that the reforms that are applauded and held up by his supporters generally do not include those that were most significant. Sometimes, the claims made for him are not even accurate. I have written a few times over the years to the ABC to get them to correct the oft-quoted claim that Whitlam withdrew Australian troops from Vietnam. This is a nonsense, as the ground troops were withdrawn by Gorton by Christmas 1971 – a tribute to the effectiveness of the Vietnamese struggle and that of its Australian supporters, and also indicative of Australian governmental subservience to US policy changes. There was only a small Australian military group left in South Vietnam in 1972). Even the claim that Whitlam abolished conscription is wrong – he merely suspended the National Service Act by regulation (which was a good thing, as it freed the few remaining imprisoned draft resisters). (It was rescinded many years later).

The recognition of China would have happened anyway – my old friend Joe Forace, late lamented, was Malta’s High Commisisoner to Australia and Ambassador to China and was the go-between for Liberal Prime Minister McMahon with Chou En Lai. The McMahon Government did much groundwork – Joe used to say that Whitlam merely signed on the line.

Similarly the White Australia Policy had been gradually ‘liberalised’ allowing for categories of Asians to settle here permanently. McMahon would also have done what Whitlam did in abolishing al racial criteria – maybe he would have been slower. Who knows?

Even the multicultural thing is not entirely a Whitlam era acheivement. Grants had been given to migrant/ethnic community organisations prior to Whitlam. Fraser did much more than Whitlam to institutionalise multiculturalism.

The most significant Whitlam reform – the one that his fans seem to want to ignore – was his government’s reversal of nearly 75 years of national protectionist policy. Whitlam was nearly roasted alive by the reactionary unions when he slashed tariffs by 25 percent. And his government was the first to tell the rural sector that they had to get real and could no longer expect to be propped up by government funding regardless of competitiveness. Remember the good ole days when margarine was controversial and the Country Party was warning everyone that it was produced by soap manufacturers?

So, in sum, I think Whitlam’s acheivements tend to be overblown and his real ones overlooked.

The Australian people voted against him, in an election that had to happen because of the nature of the writs creating the dismissal. Lots of former revoultionary leftists joined the ALP at the time, which probably made more sense than remaining in the CPA(ML).

Barry

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