The Whitlam Dismissal: A New Perspective

It is not enough to simply understand the past, but it is crucial that we evaluate it. The publication of former High Court judge Sir Anthony Mason’s statement on August the 27th 2012 provides a fresh insight into arguably the most contentious event in Australia’s political history; the dismissal of the Whitlam government on the 11th of November, 1975. The statement essentially details the extent of Mason’s involvement in the controversial dismissal of former Prime Minister Gough Whitlam. Ultimately, the shocking revelations in the statement encourage us to consider how Mason’s account alters our perspective of the Whitlam dismissal.

The Statement

After thirty years of obstinate silence in which he insisted he owed history nothing, Sir Anthony Mason’s voice was finally heard. The statement by Mason in 2012 was written in response to the uncovering of documents in the National Archives of Australia that detailed extensive conversations that took place between himself and former Governor-General Sir John Kerr in the lead up to the dismissal of the Whitlam government. Essentially, Mason stipulates that he acted as an informal advisor to Sir John Kerr over a period of months before the political crisis in November 1975, yet he denies any role in influencing or encouraging the Governor General to terminate Whitlam’s commission. The most significant aspect of Mason’s statement, however, is his assertion that he advised Kerr to warn Whitlam of his intentions to dismiss the government, a warning which was not heeded.

Former High Court Judge Sir Anthony Mason

”I said to Sir John that he should warn the prime minister that he would terminate his commission if he did not agree to hold a general election. The warning was not heeded.” Sir Anthony Mason

How does the statement alter our perspective of the Whitlam dismissal?

Mason’s statement alters our perspective regarding Sir John Kerr’s motives behind the dismissal. Kerr strongly based his decision to dismiss the Whitlam government on one of illegality. In his autobiography Matters for Judgement, Kerr underlines that since the Senate had denied the Supply Appropriation Bills three times, he was not willing to risk ‘gambling with the financial security of the nation’ as a result of the Whitlam government governing with no operating capital’ in 1975. [1] However, Mason’s statement highlights that the pair’s first conversation regarding exercising the reserve powers to dismiss the Whitlam government occurred in August, a significant three months before the dismissal in November. This new revelation highlights that Kerr’s motives were calculated, premeditated and thought-out over a significant period of time, which casts a dubious question mark over Kerr’s ‘impulsive’ justification for the dismissal. The new revelations are astonishing as much as they are disturbing; essentially, they highlight that Sir John Kerr was receiving support and advice regarding the possibility of dismissing the Whitlam government well before there was even the prospect of a constitutional crisis.

Former Governor General Sir John Kerr (left) and Former Prime Minister Gough Whitlam (right)

Furthermore, Mason’s statement highlights that Kerr received advice from various sources and brings into question the legitimacy of the advice he sought. Mason’s statement highlights that Kerr not only obtained informal, private advice from former Chief Justice of the High Court Sir Garfield Barwick but also from himself as a Justice of the High Court, two arguably inappropriate sources. The extent to which the High Court became involved in the political matters of 1975 is astounding and alters our perspective of the dismissal by encouraging us to consider whether Barwick and Mason were in breach of their responsibilities and duties to their office.

Mason’s account of the events leading up to November the 11th 1975 encourages us to retrospectively re-consider the Whitlam dismissal and question ‘what if’. What if Kerr had heeded Mason’s advice and decided to warn Whitlam of his intentions to dismiss the government? What if Mason had decided to warn Whitlam himself? Although speculative and hypothetical history doesn’t change the past, it allows us to assess the effect that certain events and/or decisions had on the course of history.

Conclusions

Many highlight that it was Whitlam’s unyielding idealistic commitment to human progress, optimism and reform that was the driving catalyst behind his own downfall. However, Mason’s statement suggests that Whitlam did not necessarily fall on his own sword, but rather that his government was arguably thwarted and undermined deliberately by members of the High Court and by the Governor-General himself.

Ultimately, Mason’s account illuminates the power of history and its omnipotent ability to revise the past. The Mason statement is indeed significant in altering our perception of the Whitlam dismissal, but it is equally as important in allowing us to continue to re-evaluate and re-shape history.

[1] John Kerr, Matters for Judgement (Melbourne: Aprolon Limited, 1978), p. 335.

Further Reading

Hearn, Mark. ”Whitlam is a mere mortal to Mason.” The Canberra Times, 30 August 2012. http://www.canberratimes.com.au/opinion/whitlam-is-a-mere-mortal-to-mason-20120829-250qn.html.

Hocking, Jenny. Gough Whitlam: His Time. Melbourne: Melbourne University Publishing, 2012.

Kerr, John. Matters for Judgement. Melbourne: Aprolon Limited, 1978.

Whitlam, Gough. The Truth of the Matter. Melbourne: Penguin Books, 1979.

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