Gough Whitlam Gough Whitlam

Gough Whitlam, the Australian Social Democratic Prime Minister deposed by Elizabeth II has died aged 98

The former Labour prime minister of Australia, Gough Whitlam, has died aged 98. In a long life one event stands out; his dismissal as elected prime minister by the direct representative of Queen Elizabeth II.

Whitlam opposed the US war in Vietnam and Australia’s participation in it. When he took office in 1972 he wrote to US president Richard Nixon urging a de-escalation of the war and then criticised the US bombing of civilian targets over the Christmas period. Whittlam had presided over Labour’s first federal election win since 1946. Key to that victory was his promise to end Australian involvement in the Vietnam War, to end conscription and to release those jailed for refusing the draft. This sent Nixon into a frenzy of anger. He described Whitlam’s stance as an “absolute outrage.”

In addition Whittlam had promised to normalise relations with China, having visited Beijing in 1971 (unknown to him Kissinger was secretly visiting the Chinese capital at the same time). It would be Nixon and Kissinger who in 1972, after a dramatic flight to Beijing, ended Washington’s refusal to recognise the People’s Republic of China, itself tribute to the stinging defeat the 1949 revolution had inflicted on US ambitions in the Far East. This supposed triumph (aimed at isolating both Russia and North Vietnam) did not stop the US wanting to stop Australia moving closer to China.

Before he was forced to quit the US presidency, before being impeached, Nixon wanted to break security co-operation with Australia. In a flurry of diplomatic cables President Nixon described Whitlam as a “whirling dervish” and a “peacenik, who was putting the Australia on a very, very dangerous path”.

Tape recordings from the White House, uncovered during the inquiry into Nixon’s bugging of his US presidential opponents election HQ,  have Nixon and his Secretary of State Henry Kissinger agreed they would “freeze” Whitlam “for a few months” so that he would “get the message”.

More chilling are the words of a CIA officer, Victor Marchetti, who had helped set up the US Pine Gap base (equivalent to GCHQ), who told John Pilger, “This threat to close Pine Gap caused apoplexy in the White House. Consequences were inevitable… a kind of Chile was set in motion.”

The reference is to the build up to the 11 September 1973 coup in Chile which overthrew the left wing government of Salvador Allende, resulting in the murder of him and 30,000 leftwingers.

Under the rule of the Liberal (in truth Tory) prime minister, Sir Robert Menzies and his successors Australia had been the most loyal of the loyal allies of both Washington and London, employing anti-communism with a zeal during the 1950s. Now Whittlam seemed to be taking the country in a different election.

The Australian elite were unsettled by Whitlam’s implementation of some of the measures in his manifesto – free university education, the withdrawal from Vietnam, land rights for the indigenous population, equal pay for women and so on. Most of this happened early in the government.

The right controlled the senate and used this to lock government legislation and then funding, forcing Whittlam to call another election in 1974 which he won, albeit with a reduced majority. By now the country was swept by the first global post-war recession and the Whittlam government, like its Labour and Social Democratic counter-parts elsewhere, seemed helpless in its face.

Sensing the tide might have turned against Whittlam Washington appointed a man known as the “coupmaster,” Marshall Green as ambassador in Canberra. He had played a central role in the 1965 coup against President Sukarno in Indonesia during which the Indonesian army butchered up to a million communists and nationalists, using lists supplied by the CIA and MI6. By now MI6 was bugging cabinet meetings on behalf of the CIA and US operatives were present in the upper echelons of the Labour Party and the trade unions.

One close CIA ally was the governor general of Australia, Sir John Kerr, Queen Elizabeth II’s representative (the Queen was and is head of state of Australia). On 10 November Kerr visited the headquarters of the Defence Signals Directorate (the equivalent of the NSA) for a security briefing; afterwards he spent 20 minutes on a secure phone talking to someone unknown.

The next day Whittlam was set to announce the extent of CIA infiltration of the Australian state machine and government in parliament. Before he could do so he was informed by Kerr he had been sacked as the elected prime minister. Kerr was using the powers vested in him as representative of the Queen. The Queen still has the power to appoint and dismiss the prime minister of the United Kingdom, and the governor general in Commonwealth countries where she remains head of state exercise that power.

In her “Gough Whitlam: A Moment in History,” Jenny Hocking points out that two months earlier Kerr had discussed the possible dismissal of Whitlam when both attended Papua New Guinea’s independence celebrations, and the heir to the British throne reported back on this conversation to Buckingham Palace.

After Kerr announced Whitlam’s sacking and the appointment of the Liberal leader, Malcolm Fraser as premier, workers downed tools, marching to protest rallies, and laying siege to the parliament building in Canberra.

In Melbourne it was reported that “more than 50 policemen engaged in a running battle with demonstrators” who “clambered over the police cars, kicking and denting panels, smashing lights and brawling with uniformed and plain clothes police.”

According to the Australian, “seamen walked off the job, tying up ships around Australia, waterside workers struck for 24 hours from midnight, metalworkers in factories throughout the country held spontaneous strikes and employees in railway workshops in Sydney and Newcastle also walked off.” In New South Wales coal miners struck for 24 hours. A number of NSW coal mines stopped for 24 hours, with the Miners’ Federation leadership calling for pit-top meetings nationwide. There was talk of union bans to stop ballot papers being printed for an election many saw as undemocratic.

Protests continued on the next day with protesters storming the stock exchange in Sydney. Twenty four hours later after another trade union rally the crowd marched on the headquarters of Rupert Murdoch’s newspaper empire – Murdoch had backed the coup – only to be blocked at the front entrance by police. The workers then got in through another entrance and began throwing bundles of papers off their delivery trucks and setting fire to them.

The biggest protest was in Melbourne, where the unions called a four-hour stoppage on Friday, 14 November. 400,000 workers walked out.  50,000 thousand rallied in City Square. After growing impatient with the speeches 10,000 followed the lead of the revolutionary left in marching on the state parliament and then the stock exchange.

The Melbourne paper, The Age, warned, “business leaders fear that a new Government might not be able to govern”.

The head of the trade union federation, a future Labour prime minister, echoed this saying “cool it.” Trade union leaders warned against any indefinite strike, and importantly Whitlam added his voice calling for restraint. He demanded a general election demanding energies be focused on “the campaign for the election now to be held and until polling day.”

The radical left was calling for a general strike but it was too weak to deliver. Whitlam, Hawke and the other trade union leaders were able to carry the day. Faced with a virulent campaign against him, with warnings of economic chaos if Labour were returned, Whitlam lost that election.

Looking back he was a right wing social democrat who believed in welfare and alleviating poverty, and understood Vietnam was a disaster. That was enough to earn the hatred of the Australian ruling class and Washington. The coup which removed him is a warning of where power lies in society, that the British monarchy is not some neutral presence and was one of the key moments when the ruling class began to recover from the scare inflicted on them by the world working class and the national liberation movements between 1968 and 1974 and began to plot their revenge. We’ve been living through the years of revenge ever since.

Chris Bambery

Chris Bambery is an author, political activist and commentator, and a supporter of Rise, the radical left wing coalition in Scotland. His books include A People's History of Scotland and The Second World War: A Marxist Analysis.