Shaking the Hornets' Nest: The Forces of Reaction in ‘Australia’s Greatest Crisis’

There is one particular case study which may benefit the UK left the most: the turbulent Premiership of Gough Whitlam, Australia’s Great Reformer.

With our government falling apart at the seams, operating on a notional one-seat majority, it is clear that the British Left finds itself in an unprecedented position. Assuming that the collapse of this government is inevitable, we are faced with the tantalising prospect of state control, and the opportunity to implement the most radical manifesto in British political history. Winning power, however, is half the battle. The ineptitude of the bumbling, fetid Conservative Party will make electoral success a cakewalk for our purposeful and popular platform. The real unchartered territory will be the practice of government, and the titanic opposition we will only encounter as we attempt to reshape the political economy of the UK. So far, the Corbyn project has successfully evaded the so-called ‘lessons of history’: he is no George Lansbury, he is no Michael Foot, and this movement is neither militant nor insurrectionary. The case remains that, on account of this remarkable success, we have little to draw upon in order to prepare ourselves for government – the task we must all charge ourselves with in the coming months. There is, I believe, one particular case study which may benefit us most: the turbulent Premiership of Gough Whitlam, Australia’s Great Reformer, and its denouement on Remembrance Day 1975. Elucidated by the passage of time, the scale of collusion behind Whitlam’s fall from office grows ever starker; with the expansion of Western hegemony over the last four decades, there is no reason to believe that such collusion not occur if Corbyn was to enter Number 10.

There are few figures from history admired by both myself and John McTernan: Gough Whitlam is one of them. Never allied to the left of the Australian Labor Party (ALP), Whitlam has long been idolised by centrists and social democrats for his coalition-building and electoral success. He fits the mould of the ‘Great Statesman’ with aplomb: a steel-jawed, statuesque classicist; an orator, a debater and a jurist; a party man, and yet a Presidential leader. But to call him a centrist, or to argue that he fought elections on the ‘centre-ground’, would be a fatal misunderstanding of the man and his time in office. Further still, it would be a degradation of his considerable achievements – achievements which advanced Australia far more than any Prime Minister had done so since Federation, and have not been matched since by any succeeding Prime Minister. Whitlam was a radical, and there is lots for us to recognise in the platform he put forward to the Australian people: universal healthcare; universal education; universal legal aid; an end to overseas intervention; funding for the arts, for wages, for pensions, for benefits, for diverse media and community integration. Much like Corbyn, he was a republican who had no time for the pomp & ceremony of the fading Commonwealth. Much like Corbyn, he opposed American imperialism, and welcomed in refugees from Indonesia and Chile after their governments had been overthrown by CIA operatives. In thought and word, he drew more from Heraclitus and Thucydides than Marx and Engels; in deed, he pushed through transformative measures like few politicians have managed in the Western world.

Confronting the CIA

Since the time of Robert Menzies, Australia had long been obsequious to the strategic interests of America, providing soldiers for CIA ‘Black Squads’ in Vietnam, and three naval bases at Pine Gap, Exmouth and Nurrungar which were built and maintained in total secrecy. Whitlam’s greatest error – in terms of maintaining his office – was using his position to challenge those interests. In his first few days in power, whereupon he and his deputy Lance Barnard assumed all 27 portfolios in the Australian Cabinet, Whitlam ordered the immediate withdrawal of all Australian troops from Vietnam, and the unconditional release of all conscripts who had been imprisoned for their refusal to serve.

Furthermore, Whitlam made clear to Richard Nixon his feelings toward the bombing of Hanoi, signalling his intention to unite East Asia behind him in opposition to America’s activities. This letter, which Whitlam described as “moderately worded”, made him a persona non grata in the White House, with Nixon – in customary fashion – becoming consumed with hatred for him. Whitlam also became appalled with the continuation of US military bases, which had been used to target bombing raids in Cambodia, and had been placed on ‘Level Three alert’ in anticipation of a nuclear weapon being used against it – all without the knowledge or approval of the Australian government. To Nixon and Kissinger, such a government could not remain if it was so retrograde in regard to America’s ambitions. According to ex-CIA officer Victor Marchetti:

The CIA’s aim in Australia was to get rid of a government they did not like and was not co-operative… it’s a Chile, but [in] a much more sophisticated and subtle form.1

America’s first initiative was to appoint Marshall Green as their Ambassador in Canberra; a wily senior diplomat with a guiding hand in US-South East Asian policy, who had also suffered the misfortune of being Ambassador to four countries which had deposed their governments. Green’s direct manner prompted concern amongst two of Whitlam’s ministers – Clyde Cameron and Kep Enderby – who both reported the menacing tone of his language. Cameron, in recalling a conversation with Green at his Ministry of Labour to John Pilger, claimed that the Ambassador had threatened “to move in” if the Whitlam government took ownership of multinational subsidiaries. Enderby, similarly reporting to Pilger, highlighted a speech Green made to the Australian Institute of Directors, in which he pledged US support for any action Australian businessmen may take against the Government similar to that “given to South America”.2

Nixon called me up and asked me to be Ambassador to Australia. He said, “Normally, Marshall, I wouldn’t send you to a place like Australia, but right now it is critically important. I think that you’re the man for it.” […] When I was about to go to Australia, I happened to be walking with the President from a White House luncheon toward his oval office. President Nixon suddenly expostulated: “Marshall, I can’t stand that....” And he used some expletives to describe Prime Minister Whitlam, which was a strange kind of parting instruction to get from your President.
Marshall Green, speaking to Charles Stuart Kennedy in 1995

Although overt nationalisation was deemed unconstitutional in the Australian Supreme Court – the matter which saw the demise of the ALP’s last Prime Minister, Ben Chifley – Whitlam had maintained a policy of ‘buying back the farm’, and returning Australia’s oil fields and refineries to public ownership so that their spoils could be diverted into the ALP’s social reform. To America, this was the land grab which signalled Whitlam’s dangerous intent, and with prominent anti-war left-wingers like Jim Cairns rising through the ranks of the Parliamentary party, the fear in Washington was that Australia ran the risk of turning insuperably to full-blooded socialism, depriving America of a vital strategic ally in the Southern Hemisphere.

The End of ‘British Australia’

It was not merely the Americans who Gough Whitlam managed to antagonize upon coming to power. Ever the moderniser, Whitlam sought to affirm the caesura between Britain and Australia for good on fraternal but not deferential terms; indeed, Whitlam’s love of British literature and parliamentary custom was perhaps only matched by Michael Foot, yet he held no desire to see ‘British Australia’ maintained. On superficial terms, this meant doing away with the term ‘Commonwealth Government’; shedding the Imperial honours system; and replacing ‘God Save The Queen’ with ‘Advance Australia Fair’ – all fairly innocuous moves which could not be imagined to have been keeping the British establishment up at night. Whitlam also looked to the arts industry to spearhead the revitalisation of Australia’s self-image, appearing in Barry McKenzie Holds His Own (1974) alongside Barry Humphries, and allowing the residual influence of the satire boom – itself a commentary on British Imperial decline – to shape a new, self-effacing nationalism befitting of the nation’s character. In contrast to the patrician, Gladstonian aura of Sir Robert Menzies and his affected British manner, Whitlam’s eastward turn from the former metropole to more immediate local allies chimed with the ALP’s message of overdue nation-building and an independent Australia.

Beyond mere titular alterations and rhetoric, however, lay an uncomfortable truth understood by Whitlam and the ALP: Australia was still a postcolony, and still in its primitive phase of being so. They were bound to Britain, having fought in every British expedition since the Boxer Rebellion which all-but-coincided with their federation; they had paid inordinate human sacrifices at Gallipoli; they had buried their colonial past under the auspices of the Liberal-Country Coalition, who had governed for 23 of the 27 years after the Second World War. So whilst Whitlam’s rejection of the honours system may not have caused a stir in Westminster, his recognition of aboriginal rights and condemnation of British penal colonies illustrated that something was stirring in their formerly dependable ally. Britain still maintained close control of the situation, owing to their grip on the Australian Secret Intelligence Office/Service (ASIO/ASIS), and the UKUSA Agreement, which bound Australia, Canada, and New Zealand to MI6 and the CIA – an agreement so covert that Whitlam himself did not learn of its existence until a year into his Premiership. 3

London’s pervasion into Canberra’s affairs was well understood on the ground level. Ministers from the Whitlam Government noted the tendency of ASIS to defer to MI6, or as they were known in Canberra, ‘head office’, and in Clyde Cameron’s case, claimed that MI6 had taken part in bugging office rooms for the CIA. According to David Leigh in The Wilson Plot, Peter Wright - the infamous author of Spycatcher, which, incidentally, he would launch alongside Whitlam - co-ordinated a ‘target list’ of rogue governments with his friend and mentor, James Jesus Angleton: the Australian government, the Wilson government, and the Chancellorship of Willy Brandt in West Germany. 4 All three would fall in ignominy and disgrace by 1976, shifting political discourse in their respective nations decidedly to the right. With the forces aligned against him, Whitlam’s demise was all but sealed by early 1975. What would follow stands as a model for the ideal bloodless coup; navigating Australia’s constitutional complexity, the deposition skirted the fringes of acceptability whilst suppressing public revolt, making a deeply anti-democratic turn appear sensible and well-considered. It was a coming of age moment for the Western deep state, which no doubt will have grown in fortitude over the last forty years, and embedded itself deeper into the democratic apparatuses of strategically relevant states.

The Hostile Press

No effort to destabilise a sitting government can be entirely covert. A shadowy secret service operation cannot merely dispose of a Prime Minister and replace him with a successor; there is nothing strategic about a heavy-handed mission which de-legitimises everyone involved. Put simply, people would notice, and the broad morass of the Australian people could not be moulded to fit the agenda of the deep state. There is, however, one particularly pliable segment of culture which can be brought to heel: the conglomerated media, and the two people at its head at the time whose interests were better served at the top table. These men came from eerily similar origins. Born the sons of journalists, both had joined in the family trade, ascending the ranks before inheriting their fathers’ media interests at a tender age. From humble beginnings, both men expanded their media empires deep into the national state of play, throwing themselves into games of politics and influence in a manner only comparable to the megalomania of Max Beaverbrook. Both warred with one another to wholly dominate the Australian press, but in the Whitlam Government, both found a common cause to exert their influence upon, setting about to shift the discourse against Canberra.

The first of these men was Sir Frank Packer, managing director of the Australian Consolidated Press and a fervent backer of the Menzies administration. He was the first magnate to move against Whitlam, when in 1973 he threw himself at Richard Nixon, offering - in the words of Nixon’s Communications Director, Herbert G. Klein - “any use [he] may like of his magazines and network” in order to advance America’s ends. Packer’s distaste for Whitlam was entirely typical of his character as a staunch conservative with vested interests in the maintenance of the Australian social order. The antagonism of his rival Rupert Murdoch, however, appeared notably more opportunist. Despite backing Whitlam to the hilt in the 1972 election - acting as a de facto Head of Press for the ALP campaign entirely of his own volition - Murdoch revelled in causing trouble for Whitlam, meeting frequently with Marshall Green to discuss his perspectives on the political climate of the time. Murdoch and Packer were keen to ingratiate themselves with the Americans, whilst also being more than happy to stick the boot into the government for reasons of personal preservation and political persuasion. America could trust that with the support of Australia’s two titans of media, every error of the government’s would be scrutinised to the highest level. With this in place, all that would be required to shift public opinion would be the forcing of these errors, and very shortly, Whitlam would find himself mired in scandal after scandal after scandal.

Chasing Shadows

The sharpest mind in Australian politics had been cornered; he was a mouse in a maze. His government looked paranoid and shambolic every time it moved against the intelligence services, with Secretary-General Lionel Murphy’s raids on the ASIO offices - who had neglected to give him adequate security information for a visit from Yugoslav Prime Minister Dzemal Bijedic - causing consternation in the press. Along with paranoid and incompetent, the Whitlam government was painted as profligate with the public purse; again, a trope that was supported with its own manufactured scandal, the Loans Affair, where ALP officials were duped into agreeing to an improbable loan with a Pakistani con artist backed by the CIA shell corporation Nugan Hand. Murdoch gave the order to his editors to “kill Whitlam”, and was eerily prescient in his prediction of the government’s future fortunes during a lunch with Marshall Green. According to released diplomatic cables, Murdoch claimed that:

”Australian elections are likely to take place in about one year, sparked by refusal of appropriations in the Senate. All signs point to a Liberal-Country victory, since the economy is in disturbingly bad condition and will probably not improve much of that time.”

Whitlam moved harder against ASIO and ASIS, dismissing the heads of both organisations on account of their ties to the CIA’s interests in East Asia, and rejecting the 10-year renewal treaty of Pine Gap intelligence base - America’s primary strategic interest. This determination to bat away the CIA, however, achieved nothing, save for compelling them to act.

Whitlam’s pick for Governor-General, Sir John Kerr, would be the man to deliver the blow. A buffoonish, lickspittle caricature of a man, Kerr was the perfect patsy for the deposition of Whitlam, as it allowed him to indulge his bizarre predilection for testing his constitutional powers. He had been obsessed with reviving the viceregal powers technically afforded to his largely-ceremonial post, even discussing the idea with Prince Charles months before the dismissal finally came about. He had been in the pocket of the CIA for decades, enjoying a convivial lifestyle funded through various salubrious institutes - such as the Australian Association for Cultural Freedom, the Law Association for Asia and the Western Pacific, and the Asia Foundation - and was known to the security services as “our man Kerr”. Corrupt, venal, calculating in the extreme: Kerr “did what he was told to do”, according to an unnamed CIA Deputy-Director 5, and informed the Leader of the Opposition, Malcolm Fraser, that he would dismiss Whitlam and ask him to take over.

As a result of the Loans Affair, the Senate - which had been tilted against Whitlam by the appointment of the ultra-conservative Joh Bjelke-Petersen - blocked the budget and denied supply to the government. Fraser played his dutiful role, issuing Votes of Confidence daily against Whitlam as the stalemate began. The press whipped up a frenzy, accusing the government of “squatting in Canberra” and matching Fraser’s calls for Whitlam’s head. Whitlam sought to live up to his own adage, “crash or crash through”, and kept pushing for the Senate to pass his budget and allow government to resume. As he held out, waiting for Senators to buckle as they very nearly did, he deigned to gamble, asking the Governor-General for a half-Senate election so that his government could command bicameral support once more. As he met with Kerr with the formal letter in his hand, he was dismissed under Section 64 of the Australian Constitution. 6

What followed was farcical. The ALP, prior to Whitlam’s dismissal, had drawn up another appropriation bill to gain supply. Liberal Senate leader Reg Withers was informed of Fraser’s appointment prior to entering the House, but the ALP Senators were already sitting for the debate. Some had no idea about the dismissal; others, like ALP Senate Leader Ken Wriedt, didn’t believe the rumour. 7 The bill passed, providing supply to the Fraser government 10 minutes before his appointment had been confirmed. Meanwhile, as Whitlam was dismissed, Fraser had been hidden in another room by Kerr in the Governor-General’s Yarralumla residence, with his official car hidden so that nobody could know of his presence. 8 The second Whitlam left the premises, Kerr proclaimed Fraser to be Prime Minister. As this news hit the two Houses of Government, bills were passed condemning Fraser, passing Votes of No Confidence against him, and urging that the Governor-General immediately repeal the dismissal. Kerr, acting with the emboldened vigour of an autocrat, rejected the entirety of these bills apart from the supply bill, 9 which had been voted on under false pretences. Fraser assumed office, called a double-dissolution election, and defeated Whitlam with the unequivocal backing of the Australian media. Whitlam and the ALP had been dashed against the rocks, whilst Kerr enjoyed a 170% pay rise, and Fraser pledged ten more years of American cooperation. America retains a significant military and intelligence presence in Australia, with Pine Gap a key part of the PRISM global surveillance program.

Lessons to be Learned

The fall of Gough Whitlam is a fantastical story, still ardently disputed and masked some four decades on as the tale is made richer with cables, letters and archival material. Its relevancy to our challenges, however, is pertinent. On a surface level, the issue is clear, as well as abundantly obvious: when we win power, moves will be made against us that we can barely conceive of. We will see improbable scandals, hatchet jobs, anti-democratic sentiment, and a backlash of the forces of reaction like nothing we have ever experienced before. We may be used to some of this already, but in the event of a Commons majority, we will stand alone - as a rump of, say, 100 co-operative MPs if we’re especially lucky, and a broadly supportive membership - against the totality of the Western ruling class. Intonations of anti-democratic moves have already been hinted in theory by Andrew Lilico, and very nearly in practice by the French establishment in their Le Pen contingency plan. Democracy is not an article of faith to the ruling class; they will dispose of it if necessary, and we will be required to lead the fight to preserve and extend it.

As easy as it is to be disheartened by Whitlam’s defeat, we must not let it scare us. Although the deep state around us has grown outwards, wholly unlimited in its power and potential, we have to be bold. For one, we must allow no constraint to our political agenda. There will be no success in compromise; there will be no situation where we are allowed a free hand in return for moderating our policy agenda. It is uncomfortable to combine an open, inclusive socialist vision and an oppositional, antagonistic socialist strategy, but it is necessary. Much as Whitlam aimed and yet failed to do, we must be unafraid to call for constitutional reform: an elected second chamber, a representative electoral system, and a head of state beholden to the people. Likewise, we must seek total transparency and fairness: an end to media monopolies, an end to the pervasion of the security services, and an end to corporate influence in local and national government. We must “crash or crash through”, as there will never be a greater fight or a greater reward.

  1. John Pilger, A Secret Country: The Hidden Australia, Vintage: London, p. 225. 

  2. Pilger, A Secret Country, p. 205. 

  3. Pilger, A Secret Country, p. 194. 

  4. David Leigh, The Wilson Plot: How the Spycatchers and their American Allies tried to overthrow the British Government, Pantheon Books: New York 

  5. Pilger, A Secret Country, p. 226. 

  6. Paul Kelly, November 1975: The Inside Story of Australia’s Greatest Political Crisis, Allen & Unwin: Sydney, p. 256. 

  7. Kelly, November 1975, p. 267. 

  8. Philip Ayres, Malcolm Fraser: a Biography, William Heinemann: Sydney, p. 295. 

  9. Pilger, A Secret Country, p. 224.