Remembering the Dismissal: Two Perspectives

Joe Riordan and Suzanne Jamieson

Saturday, 11 November, 1995, marked the twentieth anniversary of ‘The Dismissal’, the sacking of the Whitlam Labor government by the then Governor-General, Sir John Kerr. To remember the occasion, the Sydney Branch organised a well-attended one-day conference at Sydney’s Graphic Arts Club. The conference involved three sessions, one on the ‘Cabinet Perspective’, a second on the ‘Backbench perspective’ and a third on the ‘Sydney Perspective’. Speakers included Lionel Bowen, Jim McClelland and Joe Riordan (Whittam Cabinet); John Armitage (Labor Backbench); David McKnight and Suzanne Jamieson (both then student activists), Vince Higgins (Clerks’ Union), Tom McDonald (Building Workers’) and Trevor Thorpe (Chullora Area Union Stewards’ Committee). The day’s proceedings have now been fully transcribed and copies have been lodged in the Labour History Library, Institute Building, Sydney University, for members’ use.

To enable readers to gain a greater sense of both occasions – 1975 and 1995 –

The Hummer reproduces below edited versions of the talks given by two of the conference contributors – cabinet minister Joe Riordan and student and ALP Branch activist, Suzanne Jamieson.

The Cabinet Minister: Joe Riordan
At the time of the Dismissal, Joe Riordan was Minister for Housing and Construction in the Whitlam government, having been appointed to the post just months before. He enteredfederal parliament in 1972 as the member for the Sydney seat of Phillip, having previously held the post of federal secretary of the Federated Clerks’ Union from 1958. He retired from the post of Senior Deputy President of the Australian Industrial Relations Commission in March 1995, after eight momentous years on the Commission. Here, he offers us a Cabinet insider’s perspective on the Dismissal and its consequences.

Madam Chair, my former distinguished colleagues, Lionel Bowen, Jim McClelland and John Armitage, and students of labour history, all. This is a most important occasion because somebody once said to me, “He who wishes to forecast the future must first learn history”. And as my two former colleagues have indicated, what happened in 1975 can, and may well, occur again. My father told me it would never occur again. He said that when Sir Philip Game sacked J. 1. Lang, there was such revulsion that it would never happen again. That was a one-off. It was such an outrageous act by an English gentlemen appointed by a foreign head of state to the position of governor and it was a gross usurpation of power that nobody would ever dare use again. Well, they did. A little over forty years later, Kerr did it.

Let me go back to the day. What a day! The atmosphere was electric. The tension was building. The pressure was being applied in a systematic manner on the Opposition. We knew that there were wellmeaning Liberal senators who were concerned over the ethics of the Senate denying supply; of the Senate refusing to pass the Appropriation Bills. We knew that. Some of us served on committees at the time, or close to the time, with members of the Opposition. We knew the disquiet and the concern. We knew 01 the pressure on Fraser. We knew the weaknesses were showing. All of a sudden the weaknesses in Fraser became strength. Bjelke Petersen says it was because of him and Tom Lewis who attended a meeting and put some stiffener into Fraser who was about to give in, according to Mr Bjelke Petersen. We knew of the Senators and we knew Fraser couldn’t hold out much longer. In fact, I have no doubt that the budget would have passed that week. No doubt in my mind at all that that would have occurred but the pressure was mounting, the money was running out; two weeks to go and the Liberals were starting to crack.

Now Kerr struck. Lionel points very clearly to evidence that Fraser knew. He probably knew well before the 11 th of November because the attitude changed. The weakness, the vacillation suddenly altered. 1 found out after lunch. I’d lunched well on my corned beef sandwich as 1 worked away during those hectic times because, you see, we were putting pressure on them by indicating what the effects of blockage of supply would mean. Particularly in the construction area, the ramifications were absolutely enonnous and they would have touched every comer of this country and there’d be few regional economies of Australia that would not have been affected because of the denial of supply, with the delay in passing the supply. And I went into the House of Representatives. Frank Crean was there speaking. I thought I’d go in and just sit behind him. I took a bundle of letters waiting to be signed and 1 was signing the letters listening to Frank making his speech to the Parliament. And there was a thump on the seat beside me and ‘Himself’ appears and he said, “Don’t sign any more letters. You’re no longer a minister”. And I thought he was having some practical joke. I thought this was Whitlam’s idea of humour and I thought I’d respond in kind, being a very ‘Smart Alec’ sort of a person. I said, “I’m O.K., my name doesn’t start with ‘C”‘. And he said to me, “Kerr has done a Game”. And I said to him, “I don’t believe you”, and he thrust the letter of dismissal at me. He said, “Read the thing for yourself’. And I did.

And I would not believe [it] until I’d read it because I’m not like Jim who would have advised against the appointment. I thought it was a great appointment and I wrote to him [Kerr] and told him it was a great appointment and congratulated him on it. I still have the reply somewhere or other. 1 had the highest regard for Kerr and that makes the disappointment all the greater. 1 thought Kerr was a great mind and a great person. And 1 must say this to you, as I told Paul Kelly when he was doing the interview for his book, that I have had many arguments with 1 don’t know how many people, some of them about very deep and ideological questions. And they’ve been bitter at times over the last forty years but 1 cannot recall an occasion when I have been able to, to coin a phrase, ‘Maintain the rage’ against a person after the event but, in Kerr’s case, it was different. I could never speak to that man again, and 1 never did. And when he was at the end, and I knew he was getting close to the end, and I thought the decent thing would be to go and speak to him because of the relationship which existed earlier, and I’m not proud to say, but I have to admit, that I couldn’t do it. And I didn’t.

Now I have no bitterness about losing the position in Parliament. I am quite satisfied with what has occurred in my lifetime. 1 have done things that I don’t believe I could have done had I remained in Parliament so I have no bitterness in that regard. But I had this feeling of gross treachery of a kind that I find impossible to describe. I find it as a gross personal affront. Why? Had I known that Barwick was advising Kerr then 1 would have immediately been concerned because I knew that John Kerr had this feeling of awe in respect to Barwick and I don’t know why; never did know why. But he had the reputation and Kerr almost cowered in his presence. He was subservient to the intellect of Barwick. And Barwick was up to no good in my view.

Now [in] the House then, people started coming in bewildered, asking questions: “Is it right?”. Nobody could believe it. We found it was true but nobody knew. This was at quarter past, half past two and then the machine started to roll and we started to do things that we should have been doing at two o’clock. And when Fraser announced that he had a commission from the Governor-General to form a government, we moved a vote of no confidence in him and effectively, for all the conventional reasons, dismissed him from office on the spot, but after giving him a right to be heard, of course. And he answered. The motion was carried.

Now at that stage (I make no apology for saying this) we made a fundamental error, 1 think. Perhaps not. I’m not sure about this. I advocated to Gough Whittam and Fred Daly – he’s just a walk from the front bench to the ITont table – “Keep the House in session until Kerr meets the speaker”. Gough wouldn’t have a bar of it. He wouldn’t have a bar of it because he said, “Look, he’s on his way. The secretary’s coming here. He’s on the way. He’s probably out there now to dissolve the parliament”. And he wouldn’t confront [him]. Now I had the view that if Kerr were confronted on the basis, “Well, you’ve dismissed us. Now we’ve dismissed him. We’re back in. Form another government”. That would have created a most interesting situation indeed. Gough wouldn’t do it because, Gough to his credit, wanted to maintain the democratic state. Was it at risk?

Well, months and months later I ascertained that something quite untoward occurred over the weekend prior to the dismissal. Because of the shortage of funds the Cabinet had decided there would be no overtime work by any person in government without the express approval of the minister concerned. I say now that as far as I was concerned no such authority was given, but work was done on overtime over the weekend preceding the I I th Novemher at Yarralumla and Government House, where certain electrical work was done, certain communications work was done, soundproofing done, carried out and nobody knows why. … A carpenter told Gough Whittam. He thought it might have been a bit far-fetched. He asked me. I didn’t know anything about it so I started to check. I then wrote to the [new] Minister for Construction, Mr Groom from Tasmania, for access to the files, which was my right on the convention of a minister having access to his files. It was refused. No Freedom of Information legislation covering this period, I hasten to add. So when the government changed [again] I wrote to the minister, Mr Stewart West. I thought, “Well, this should be all right with him”. Request refused! Couldn’t work out why. At the time I was doing some work advocating a case for the Commonwealth Work Supervisors’ Association. No work is done without one of their members present so I started to do my own checking and I found out why they were refusing. The files had been removed. Nobody knew where they were but there’s one thing they forgot to do. It’s recorded in that supervisor’s diary that the work occurred over that weekend.

The Whitlam government was beset by economic problems which proved, so the wise people would assert, that they were poor economic managers. Well, it was beset by economic problems and there were mistakes. There’s no question about t1at. I know of no government that’s been in power ever that hasn’t made mistakes. The poor economic management. The world was run at that stage by governments with poor economic records because what occurred were two oil price shocks where there was a massive transfer of resources from one part of the world to another, and the Vietnam War being financed by the United States by a bigger and bigger deficit and we were getting the run-off from that. The inflation rate in Australia was not out of kilter with countries like Italy and England and the United States and so on. … And unemployment started to rise with the same effects, because of the same basic causes. Now one can rationalise all these things, I suppose, but they’re the facts. And sure there was a wages explosion, as there was everywhere and sure there was inflation rising, as there was everywhere. And how did that change with the Liberal government. Well, of course, it didn’t.

And, of course, the other criticism is, it was “far too much, too soon”. And I was asked by a visiting professor of history some years ago, “I’ve been told,” she said to me, “that that government just did too much, too soon. Is that right?”. I said,

I think it must be. I wouldn’t have thought so myself but it must be right because so many intelligent people like yourself assert it, so it must be right. What I can’t work out is what it was that was too much or too soon. But that’s me, not you. And I’ll give you an example. Perhaps it was that conscription for military service should have been left in a little longer, perhaps a week or a month or a year or two. Or perhaps we shouldn’t have taken the forces out of Vietnam quite so soon. Perhaps they should have been left there for a little longer. Maybe. Perhaps we shouldn’t have introduced Medibank quite so soon. We should have let a few more die or go without treatment. Perhaps that was what they mean. I’m not sure. Or perhaps we shouldn’t have moved the pensions up so quickly to twenty five per cent of average weekly earnings. Perhaps that was the problem or was it perhaps in your area. … Perhaps it was too soon to abolish fees in universities and colleges of advanced education or to make sure that every child going to a school, no matter where they went to school – had an equal opportunity to receive a decent education.

What is it that was so wrong? Well, I’ll tell you what it was that was so wrong and why that government had to fall. It dared to challenge, it dared to challenge in an effective way the ruling establishment in Australia and it had to be brought down. And any excuse would have been sufficient. That’s the reason the Whitlam government had to fall and the terror in the hearts of the money shifters, the financial institutions.

Our naivety, of course, collectively, our naivety had to be seen to be believed. Here was a gentlemen from Pakistan running around Canberra in sandshoes and a knapsack on his back, and we thought we were going to get two billion dollars off him! I mean, anyway, be that as it may, they thought so too! They thought so too. Somebody was going to do it. If it wasn’t Khemlani, who may well have been a plant by Philip Lynch. He may have been. [He was] very close to him. Anyway, whoever it was, they were concerned that large sums of capital might be raised outside the financial system. That was a real worry because anyone who’s had anything to do with raising large sums of money through the capital system will know that the rake-off, the commissions and the fees, are absolutely enonnous and that’s very, very nice pickings, thanks, and they don’t want it interfered with. These are the real reasons why the Whitlam government had to fall. And, of course, also in that period there was a substantial shift in the economic share from profit to wages and salaries and that was also unacceptable….

Now Kerr in my view acted in a way that was deceitful, dishonourable and, I think, unlawful. He is a man whose name will live forever in this country and will be regarded with shame and dishonour because he decided to back the establishment and to bring down a government which had been democratically elected by the people of Australia and should have stayed a lot longer.

The Student Activist: Suzanne Jamieson
Suzanne Jamieson is a senior lecturer in the Department of Industrial Relations at Sydney University. At the time of the dismissal, she was member of the Labor Party’s North Bankstown Branch, an activist in the Young Labor organisation, a law student at university and, when time permitted, a dedicated diarist. As the following excerpts from her conference presentation demonstrate, her diarised thoughts reveal the drama and emotion of 1975 as experienced by a young and committed Labor activist and feminist.

My own history teacher – I’m very proud of this – my history teacher had left Bankstown Girls High School at about the same time I did after the HSC and went into the Teachers’ Federation to became the administration manager and she went onto a few other jobs. I hear she’s now going to be the president of the ACTU but at the time she was merely the administration manager of the Teachers’ Federation and I ran into her on that fateful afternoon. There were certainly no women Labor members from New South Wales in the House of Representatives. That was not to occur until Jeanette McHugh was elected some time later when she re-won Joe Riordan’s seat of Phillip. So it was a very sad sight. That doesn’t mean of course that women weren’t terribly active in the campaign at the time because lots of women were, and like me, they were doing all kinds of boring things. They were answering phones in politician’s offices. They were getting out on Friday mornings and selling the National Citizen and stuffing envelopes and stuffing letterboxes around the suburbs, doing those sorts of things. So we were there but we certainly weren’t the leaders.

In 1975 I was a first year law student after a very unfortunate start at university in another faculty in a galaxy far, far away. I’d had a terrible time in 1975 because one of my subjects was a constitutional law subject and every day during the crisis all these little North Shore private school types insisted on discussing the crisis as if it had nothing to do with real politics. And law students must be the nerdiest bunch of kids on any campus but they insisted on talking about constitutional conventions and how this might be possible and that might be possible in a quite divorced way from real politics, which I found really galling. I suppose that I also found it a bit difficult coming from Bankstown, being the child of a boilermaker as, indeed, the then governor general was the child of a boilermaker. But people actually asked me at law school, “How did you get here?”, and they didn’t mean on the bus 691 either. ….

I devoted most of my spare tin:e to the Young Labor movement. I joined Young Labor at the time Bob Carr was still an activIst and I spent much of the rest of my time in activities surrounding the Blaxland FEC. It was a very odd FEC at that time. Our member was Paul John Keating who had won the preselection in 1968, before I joined the Party, in rather remarkable circumstances that you can read about somewhere else. But he actually worked quite well with the remnants of the machine he had defeated in 1968. The relatives and friends of Bill Junor who had been defeated in that rorted preselection were still very much in evidence in the FEC at the time and strangely we all worked quite well together during that campaign. Of course that wasn’t the only thing that had happened in 1975 and going through my little narrative diary which I carefully kept the things that stand out of course were 30th April when the Vietnam War ended and we celebrated with a Chinese lunch in Dixon Street and then 27th September which was the last entry in my diary before the dismissal. This was on the day that J.T. Lang had died and, in the typical way I faced every great crisis in my life at that time, I burst into tears. J. T. Lang had been one of these great icons in my formative years and it seemed to me [that] in the crisis that was developing by late September there seemed to be an incredible circularity in history. I’m feeling a bit wobbly about it now but my own grandparents at the time were enormously overcome that history was being repeated in their lifetime.

I might skip now to what actually happened on 11th November…. This is page 860 of the diary:

I first heard the news when I was working through the last question on my history exam paper outside the halls at the University of New South Wales. Outside the hall I could hear Colin Charlton on a loudhailer saying “Gough Whittam has been sacked by the Governor-General. Assemble at Chifley Square at 5.30pm for a demonstration”. At first I thought that I had misheard what he had said but he kept repeating it, and again I burst into tears when I realised I had heard correctly. Somehow I managed to finish the exam. My sister, Gail… had been sitting behind me in the exam and somehow she hadn’t caught what Colin was saying. She was stunned when I told her. Outside the exam a friend was handing out quickly roneoed leaflets, urging everyone to attend the demonstration. He seemed pretty confused as well and didn’t really know exactly how it had all happened.

Gail and I jumped on the first bus heading into the city. By then it was peak hour, about 5.20pm, and it seemed that the bus would take forever in the heavy traffic. Soon after the bus turned into Oxford Street I saw placards outside a newsagent. One said “Gough Sacked” and another said “Fraser P.M.”. The second poster gave me one of the sickest feelings I hope I’ll ever feel. When the bus approached Chifley Square along Elizabeth Street we could see a lot of news vans from the TV stations parked in front of the QANT AS offices and a large crowd on the Square itself. There were lots of posters, red flags and banners from the small socialist and communist groups. I could see the blue and white flags of the Maoists. … Everyone looked very excited and several people were attempting to make speeches over a very inadequate sound system. As we crossed the road to the Square we met John and Margaret Birch and David Griffin. [Friends of mine from the Labor Party]. Margaret was as upset as I was and she said she had cried when John first rang her with the news. There were a lot oftears shed that day.

The people gathered in the Square all looked very confused and everyone was rushing around trying to locate their friends. People were selling The Socialist and Direct Action. Pretty soon the organisers, who turned out to be the Australian Union of Students, said we’d all march down to the Liberal Party offices in Ash Street. We set off down Hunter Street. The leaders warned us of meeting police opposition. I became pretty scared but I needn’t have as the whole thing remained very peaceful. The march turned into Pitt Street. All the time the marchers chanted “We want Gough. Fraser out. We want democracy” … and “Stop Fraser, join the march”. Some people did. The police were in George Street and so we marched up as far as Market Street and along George to King and then along to Martin Place and back to George. Hardly anyone could fit into the little lane that led into Ash Street. We stopped on George Street for ages and there was a lot of cheering and shouting. Some people had transistor radios and they gave very confused reports of what was happening elsewhere. After quite a while the march moved off down George Street, heading for the Trades Hall.,…

Sunday, 16th November:

The initial shock is subsiding a little. Our disgust hasn’t. My father rang on Friday night, just as he always does when he’s in Melbourne. I’ve never heard him so excited about politics before. He’s stationed in Melbourne with George Reagan who was previously Les Haylen’s campaign director. On Friday afternoon most of Victoria stopped work and a massive demonstration was held in Melbourne. Dad thinks everything is looking really good and told us not to worry too much. Last night Mr Whitlam attended a ball at the Germania Club in Wollongong along with Rex Connor and others. He got a wildly enthusiastic reception. Certainly Wollongong is a very Labor-oriented area but it’s very important to see so many people involved.

Before I move onto the campaign I’ll leap back in time to two days after my twenty first birthday…… This is 25th June, 1974:

I have been more and more disturbed lately that the ALP hardly seems like a socialist party at all and especially so in its current federal leadership. I hardly believe that it is the impatience of youth that makes me keen to see a genuinely socialist Australia. I do hope that in his attempts to provide a more respectable Party image to the electorate, that Mr Whittam does not lose sight of the original composition and aims of the Australian Labor Party. I suppose, for someone like me raised on stories of Lang and Curtin, it’s easy to look back to our golden age in the forties I recently read where Dr Cairns said that no living Labor leader can ever approach a dead one. I suppose that’s true of most political parties. I realise that the day of the “engine-driver Prime Minister” will never be seen again but I do not believe that we should ignore our origins to win votes. There is hardly ever any talk of socialism. Mr Keating, Paul’s father, told me at Blacktown on April 29th that he was distressed that nowhere in the hall was the word “Labor” visible and he was right.

So it’s not as if we were all perfectly happy at the time with the way that the Labor government was going and, of course, that was to be exacerbated in the following year. Monday 14th July, 1975:

Bastille Day. Today Frank Crean was elected deputy leader of the federal parliamentary Labor Party. Tonight at our branch meeting I plan to move the following motion: “That the North Bankstown branch of the ALP reiterates its support for the Australian Labor government. We feel, however, that in the best interests of our national Labor government there should be a return to broadly based decision-making within the government. We believe that with increased participation in the decision making process by the federal Labor caucus, the national executive of the ALP and the industrial wing of the labour movement, debacles such as those recently experienced in the Bass by-election, the subsequent ministerial reshuffle and the overseas loans question could be avoided in the future. We believe the cause of unity can only be promoted within the Australian Labor Party by close consultation between all sections of the Party at every level of decision making including the very highest”.

Of course, this must be seen in the light that I belonged to a very conservative branch of the Labor Party and I thought this was the best I could get past the members. My diary doesn’t actually record what happened to that motion.

I’ll leap forward now to the campaign and this, of course, is written in retrospect because during the campaign I was so busy I didn’t get a chance to write anything. Reminds me a little of those fabulous words of Lenin’s: “It was so much more enjoyable to engage in the revolution, than to write about it.” This is Wednesday 17th December and by then, of course, I am absolutely devastated:

I haven’t written for a month as I’ve been completely absorbed in the organisation of the campaign here in Blaxland. It’s a pity that I don’t have a day to day description of the petty activity which kept my mind from any rational analysis of the situation as it really was. Most of us in the Labor movement fortified each other with reassurances that the opinion polls published in the papers couldn’t be accurate. When people working in the campaign became depressed with our prospects, I countered with arguments that we within a campaign had no perspective and could offer no analysis of how we were going. All of this had a short term plausibility. For about a fortnight before the election I thought we would lose. I had no idea that we would be so crushingly defeated. My mother continually declared her confidence in our ability to win. We all told each other what amounts to horrible lies in retrospect but we had to keep ourselves going some way or other.

About two weeks before the election, that is halfway through the campaign, our local member came back from northern Australia where he’d been campaigning in the Northern Territory and in Queensland in an attempt to save some of those Queensland seats and we were at one of these great big Labor Party bashes where you’re fed awful food and have to buy lots of raffle tickets at the Bankstown Sports Club and he sat down at the table with my mother and my sister and I and he said “Well, we’ve lost and now it’s a question of how big we’ve lost.” And my mother screamed at him: “What do you mean, we’ve lost? Of course, we haven’t lost.” And he realised then, of course, that he couldn’t speak to anyone else in the room in terms that we were going to lose. He had to keep pretending that we were going to win.

I spent all the weeks after my exams in Paul Keating’s office, although I wasn’t actually the local campaign director. Roger Bowman was the secretary of the FEC and he held that position but it was more convenient for me to work through the day straightening out all the little details. With Paul Keating’s electoral secretary, we organised postal votes, the “manning” of a table at the electoral office, the direction of the branch campaign directors and the general management of the campaign. I was saved the necessity of several trips into town by the collection of election material by Kerry O’Brien who worked for the Miscellaneous Workers’ Union at the time here in NSW and Ray Wheeler who, of course, was an official of the BWIU. On Friday mornings I sold the National Citizen at Bankstown Station which did nothing to improve the condition of my already sore throat. The paper was produced by a group of unionists with union financial backing in an attempt to counter the anti-Labor bias of the commercial papers. On Saturday mornings we held little street meetings in Bankstown, Greenacre, Yagoona and Chester Hill. As at all major rallies in the city, these meetings were mainly attended by committed Labor voters, if not actual members of the Labor Party itself.

Gail and I attended a huge rally in the Domain on November 24th which was attended by about 30-40,000 people. It was addressed by Bob Hawke and Gough Whitlam who kept to the theme of ‘we was robbed. ‘

You may be interested in some pictures I took at the time which I’ve had blown up for the conference. One shows a flat top table in Bankstown, this is during the crisis .of October and there are two soon-to-be Labor Premiers on the flat top and two potential Labor Prime Ministers. The one who looks like mafioso, of course, is B. J. Unsworth. This picture was taken the day before the election at one of those huge rallies in Hyde Park.

There’s one little anecdote I might read you about the Prime Minister [Paul Keating]:

On 21st November a meeting of candidates and campaign directors convened in head office, was told that we were on safest ground when we pushed the constitutional issue. We were warned to avoid mentioning the economy – “Don’t mention the war…!” if we could help it. All of this advice was based on supposably reliable market research. Geoff Cahill, the secretary of the Party, chaired the meeting and he looked angry when people asked questions. Perhaps the whole meeting was only designed as an exercise in appeasing our growing fears. Obviously several people attending the meeting were worried that “Shame, Fraser, shame” and associated rhetoric was not going to keep us going until the end of the campaign. Paul Keating professes a dislike for the North Shore Left but during that meeting many of his reactions were very similar to theirs. The greatest difference between them, I often think, rests in style and approach. The ad man played a ‘Shame, Fraser, shame’ jingle on a little cassette recorder. It sounded a little corny. It appealed to nationalism, Gallipoli, etc. Arthur Gietzelt winced.