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In the 1970s, a Soft Coup Removed Australia’s Left-Wing Prime Minister

The 1975 “dismissal” of Gough Whitlam by the Queen’s representative, Sir John Kerr, is one of the defining moments in Australia’s modern history. It also forms part of a Cold War history that saw left-wing governments around the globe punished for daring to break with US hegemony.

Gough Whitlam after his dismissal as prime minister of Australia. News Corp Australia

Forty-five years ago, on November 11, 1975, the Labor prime minister of Australia, Gough Whitlam, was removed from office by the governor-general, Sir John Kerr. With Whitlam gone, Kerr then “prorogued” — dissolved — parliament and appointed the conservative opposition leader, Malcolm Fraser, in his place. When new elections came around six weeks later, the caretaker Liberal government won in a landslide. The event, known as “the Dismissal” in Australia, was a soft coup.

A defining moment in Australia’s modern history, it is also part of Cold War history — the final event in a series of US interventions that began in earnest in 1953–4, with coups against the reformist Jacobo Árbenz government of Guatemala and the elected Mohammad Mosaddegh government of Iran. The bloodiness of such events varied with the terrain — from political mass murder in Indonesia in 1965 to genocide in Guatemala over decades — and the place of the Dismissal in this sequence is easy to miss because of its bloodlessness. But its significance cannot be overstated, for it is the moment in Cold War history when the US government schemed, prodded, and nudged its way to removing a mildly inconvenient government.

Dismissal Redux

Australians are talking about the Dismissal again, because the national archives have just released 1,200 pages of letters and documents exchanged between Sir John Kerr and Queen Elizabeth II, or, more accurately, her private secretary Sir Martin Charteris, between Kerr’s appointment in 1974 and his resignation in 1977. Both the British Crown and the National Archives have spent four years trying to block the release of these documents, and only a High (i.e., Supreme) Court decision on a case brought by the historian Jenny Hocking has made them available, as government documents. (It’s a case with vast ramifications for holdings in many Commonwealth countries.)

So what was the Dismissal, and how has it been able to make a cache of two hundred letters — flattering, sycophantic, needy, and pompous by turn — spark off a whole history war again? In 1972, Gough Whitlam, leader of the Australian Labor Party (ALP), was elected to power after twenty-three years in opposition. The party had suffered a grievous split in 1954, when the Catholic section had broken away to form the Democratic Labour Party (DLP), accusing ALP leader Herbert Vere Evatt of allowing communist entryists and sympathizers to occupy power in the party.

In Australia’s “preferential” (ranked choice) voting system, the DLP supported the Liberal party, ensuring their continued power. Until the 1960s, the ALP had been a socially conservative workers’ party, but it was beginning to open up to new tertiary-educated progressive groups — and many of them were attracted by its new deputy leader, Gough Whitlam.

A child of the elite (his father was a senior public servant), Whitlam was a foppish young man-about-town, a poet and editor until World War II, when he became a bomber plane navigator, which helped turn his view outward, toward the world. In 1944, the John Curtin Labor government attached a referendum to the election, which would have transferred power over social services from the state to the federal level, to create an Australian “New Deal”. It was the public’s rejection of such a shift that turned Whitlam and many others to politics, determined to modernize a backward country.

“It’s Time”

Whitlam became leader of the Labor Party in 1967, and he was narrowly and surprisingly defeated in the 1969 election. The later victory, in 1972, gave Whitlam and his team a sense of urgency; the ’60s had already happened, and Australia — which had a powerful union base, a state arbitration system, and substantial public ownership of utilities — had to be turned into a comprehensive European social democracy. In 1972, in a victory that nonetheless left several seats still in doubt, the first Whitlam government formed.

Across twenty-seven separate ministries, Whitlam and his cabinet enacted a raft of progressive legislation that ranged from abolishing university fees to fully withdrawing Australia from the Vietnam War. Over the next months, the Whitlam government rolled out inquiries leading to reform programs for education, the health system, a more independent foreign policy, urban reconstructions, expansive arts funding, and much more.

Whitlam had been seen as a centrist figure — he had led a crushing of the party’s left groupings in the state of Victoria in 1970 — so the vigor of proposed reconstruction took many on the Right by surprise, and it stirred a furious reaction. This was particularly the case in the matter of foreign affairs, and it was here that the new government quickly earned the enmity of the Nixon administration in the United States.

At the end of 1972, Whitlam had privately condemned the “Christmas bombings” of Hanoi; the party’s left had condemned them publicly as a war crime. Nixon was enraged by Whitlam’s private condemnation; he was now on the famed “shit list.” Worse was to come.

In 1973, Whitlam’s government sought to make links with the global Non-Aligned Movement by hosting a visit from the president of Yugoslavia (not Tito; a ceremonial figure). But Australia’s European migrant wave from 1948 had brought a few fascists in with it, and there were violent Croatian Ustaše groups operating in the community. When ASIO, Australia’s domestic intelligence agency, deliberately dragged its feet on investigating them, so as to make the Yugoslav visit impossible, Whitlam’s attorney-general, Lionel Murphy, staged a raid on ASIO headquarters to see if they were hiding files on the Ustaše.

As CIA counterintelligence guru James Jesus Angleton would later tell the Australian journalist Phillip Frazer, that was the end of something, a raid on “the crown jewels” of intelligence sharing. The Whitlam government had already put a stop to cooperation by ASIS (Australia’s foreign intelligence agency) with the CIA in its efforts to overturn Chile’s Salvador Allende government — an act that caused supreme annoyance, since the CIA relied on intelligence agencies from the other “Five Eyes” nations to do deep cover work.

Blocked Supply

Numerous sources, from Victor Marchetti to Christopher Boyce, have attested to the US permanent security establishment’s desire to undermine the Whitlam government, and in 1974, they got their chance. The government had authorized its dynamic resources minister Rex Connor to seek $2–4 billion AUD ($50–100 billion in today’s money, or 5-10 percent of Australia’s GDP) of loans in petrodollars, which were sloshing around the world market following OPEC’s quadrupling of the crude-oil price.

Connor was something of a visionary, and he had a plan to buy back foreign-owned mining leases, nationalize the resources sector, and use the money to develop a full uranium sector, creating virtually free electric power. The plan was to bypass London capital markets altogether — which limited capital supply to Australia — and, in doing so, he sought tenders from money agents. Out of the woodwork came a dozen or so capital agents, most of them based in East Asia, and at least half of them CIA fronts, created in the long battle for Indochina.

The figure Connor put most hope in was a Pakistani freebooter named Tirath Khemlani, who bounced around the world sending back hopeful telexes about an imminent tidal wave of cash. But by March 1975, the Treasury was objecting forcefully to this process and proposing alternatives, and Connor’s authorization was withdrawn.

But Connor, a driven man, allowed Khemlani to continue seeking funds, then misled parliament and Whitlam, denying that he was doing so. When this was revealed — most likely by defense-force leaks of surveillance audio — the opposition Liberal Party demanded immediate elections. It had a new leader, Malcolm Fraser, an arrogant scion of the agricultural elite and former defense minister. The Whitlam government had lost control of the Senate (because right-wing state governors had appointed non-Labor figures to fill Labor vacancies), and Fraser now “blocked supply,” meaning he refused to vote through the government’s budget bills (something the Senate, by previous convention, had never done).

In the United States, this would simply be a government shutdown, part of rough tactics, to be dealt with by “continuing resolutions.” But in Australia, it created a constitutional crisis — nothing in the constitution said the Senate couldn’t do this. The question then arose: If the government’s appropriations bills were rejected, could it continue without an election? Through September and October 1975, the political war continued. It was not merely the supply bills that were held up; twenty-one social and institutional policy bills that would have created, in Kerr’s words, “a social revolution” in Australian society, were also being obstructed.

This constitutional spat became wildly more complicated when Whitlam’s staff sought to go on the attack, using foreign policy and the threat of independence. This involved the presence of three US spy bases in Australia — particularly Pine Gap, near Alice Springs, which monitored the USSR in ways the USSR could not reciprocate, and which also pioneered mass surveillance of civilian communications.

The leases for these bases were expiring on December 9, 1975. Normally a purely formal renewal, Whitlam put the issue front and center. Even better, his staff had discovered that the base’s first director, a CIA agent named Richard Stallings, was still residing in Australia, but his name had been left off the list of in-country CIA operatives that the United States provided to friendly governments. Stallings’s name was out and about; what was still under wraps was that he had been listed on a second, secret list, provided only to the spy agencies, and to the permanent head of the Defense department.

In the first week of November, the Liberal opposition blocked supply in the Senate for a third time; Whitlam decided to reveal the secret CIA list when parliament resumed on Tuesday, November 11. It was a busy time. In the preceding weeks, the head of ASIO had resigned (over an affair), and the head of ASIS had been sacked for running a front political party in the newly independent East Timor. Whitlam, by inclination a pro-US liberal, was being moved decisively to the left by the simple pressure of events.

“Our Man” Kerr

As the crisis developed through September and October, attention swung to Sir John Kerr, a former state chief justice whom Whitlam had appointed as governor-general. Kerr was an extraordinary figure: a working-class scholarship boy and a Stalinist sympathizer who became Trotskyist-aligned in the 1930s, in World War II, he had joined a shadowy psyops unit called “The Directorate,” which liaised with the Office of Strategic Services, among other things.

By the late 1940s, he had become an anti-communist and a prominent member of CIA front group the Australian Association for Cultural Freedom. By the 1960s, his career was in the doldrums, and he was rescued by a group of Liberal Party operatives — including Malcolm Fraser — who arranged for him to become a state chief justice. The one-time radical became enamored of establishment trappings. When Whitlam, an old friend of his, proposed him as governor-general, other Labor figures warned that he was no longer even vestigially a Labor man and would betray them.

Kerr’s long association with US intelligence bodies left no one in doubt that, in Christopher Boyce’s words, Kerr was, for the CIA, “our man.” But as the letters in the cache show, he was also playing up his Commonwealth loyalties to Buckingham Palace, filing long letters updating them on the Australian political situation and the mood of the public. What is very significant, however, is that in those letters, Kerr never mentions any part of the Australia-US security crisis to the Palace, despite its broad political importance. Furthermore, through October 1975, Kerr is of the opinion that the government could continue in funds until the end of November and that the political drama would play itself out until then.

But this changed dramatically in the frenzied final week before the Dismissal on November 11. Kerr received a briefing from the government’s chief scientist, John Farrands, the details of which are unknown, but which seems to have been a full explanation of Pine Gap’s role and importance in the United States’ global surveillance system. Then, a few days before parliament was set to resume on November 11, Kerr was shown a telex sent by Theodore Shackley, head of the CIA East Asia desk, to his ASIO counterpart. Shackley states explicitly that if Whitlam were to reveal the “two-list system” in parliament on Tuesday, intelligence sharing between the United States and Australia would be in jeopardy.

That never happened. On the morning of November 11, Kerr summoned Whitlam to his residence and terminated his commission as prime minister — despite Whitlam having a majority in the House. He then appointed Malcolm Fraser as caretaker prime minister, ahead of an election on December 13. The House, unsurprisingly, selected Whitlam as prime minister once again (by a confidence vote), at which point Kerr prorogued (suspended) parliament until the election. When Fraser was elected, one of his first acts was to renew the leases on the US bases.

Cold War Empire

All of this is a matter of public record. The non-Australian reader might ask how Whitlam’s dismissal could be understood as anything but a soft coup, a bloodless version of what had been done to Salvador Allende in Chile in 1973. In the Australian case, a former CIA client sacked an elected prime minister who was threatening to end the US alliance. It was a crackdown on a government of a one-time sycophantic ally that now dared to show a moderate degree of independence. So why not call it what it is?

The unwillingness to do so has been a result of several factors. Australia, with great left-wing currents and highly unionized, was, in the 1970s, willing to hear propositions about CIA interference, but these were often overhyped. There was enough evidence to go on — a telex threatening Australian spy forces with being left in the cold — but this was often portrayed as a direct CIA instruction to terminate. As elsewhere, US security agencies worked through the cultivation of people who shared their values.

Following the Whitlam dismissal (and Whitlam’s loss in the subsequent election), the ALP was consumed by a brutal war between right and left factions, much of which centered around its positions with regard to the US alliance. When the right wing emerged victorious in the early 1980s, they made two things clear: they would maintain the US alliance, and there would be no seeking of money outside conventional capital markets, nor socialization of foreign-owned resources. With that guarantee given, the dominant Murdoch press softened its ceaseless war on Labor. In 1983, Labor was reelected, led by Bob Hawke, a former trade-union body head, whose close relationship to US officials was well known.

There has always been a section of the Australian left — to the left of Labor, but non-Marxist — that has preferred to see the events surrounding Whitlam’s dismissal as indicative of a struggle purely between an old British establishment on the one hand, and progressive Australian forces on the other, who were trying to create a democratic nation. The fact that the country was bound up in Cold War shadow play, and that it had more in common, in this respect, with interfered-in and manipulated US client states, has always been unwelcome to these figures. For decades, this left-liberal grouping had substantial control of the narrative, and they excluded consideration of the US role even when it was in plain sight. Part of that was connected with the push for an Australian republic, a favored cause of the left-liberal forces, which required a focus on British institutional power.

But as that group fades from history, and as Australia’s left-liberal institutions decline, and the country becomes a capital- and Murdoch-dominated province, a more worldly interpretation will return. With books like The Jakarta Method bringing attention to the way in which the United States maintained its Cold War empire, an understanding of Australia’s role must come to the surface. Because without comprehending Australia’s contradictory character — as an Anglo settler-colonial society that has dominated its region while also being utterly dependent on foreign powers — there can be no clear-eyed, radical vision of its possibilities.