in an implied criticism of sir john kerr, governor general sir paul Hasluck indicated for the first time that he would have solved the 1975 crisis with Whitlam...

hasluck's private thoughts on

the dismissal.

 

“…if I had stayed (as Governor General) only for two years, probably the history of Australian politics would be quite different from what it is.” – Sir Paul Hasluck.

 

[A briefer version of this essay by Bob Wurth was published in the Sydney Morning Herald on January 2, 2010.]

Long after his death Sir Paul Hasluck revealed for the first time that the most dramatic political event in Australia’s parliamentary history – the crisis surrounding the dismissal of the Whitlam Labor Government on November 11, 1975 – probably would not have happened had he remained as Governor General.

In taped interviews with oral historian Clyde Cameron released by the National Library of Australia on January 1, 2010, Hasluck said he had wanted to remain as Governor General beyond 1974, as requested by Prime Minister Gough Whitlam.

But his wife Alexandra wouldn’t agree to stay on at Yarralumla. Hasluck - a Liberal Party Minister between 1959 and 1969 - in the tapes recorded in 1985 also, for the first time, roundly condemned the Liberal Party for causing a constitutional crisis by blocking Supply in the Senate in 1975.

The Senate, he said, didn’t have the function to completely block anything and it was irresponsible ‘to obstruct the working of government’, although he thought delays for debate were acceptable.

In a separate interview also released on January 1, former Liberal Prime Minister Sir John Gorton said the Liberal’s action in 1975 had placed the whole future of parliamentary government in Australia in doubt. The tapes with Hasluck and Gorton were privately recorded in 1984 and 1985 by oral historian and former Labor minister in the Whitlam Government, Clyde Cameron.

Cameron, Hasluck and Gorton are now deceased.Gough Whitlam sacked Cameron from the front bench as Minister for Labour in 1975.In the Cameron tapes, Hasluck - a senior Liberal Party minister and Governor General - says Prime Minister Gough Whitlam tried hard to persuade him to stay on as Governor General for another two years, and he was willing, but Hasluck’s wife wouldn’t permit it.

Hasluck admitted that he got on well with his former political rival: “My relations with Gough were always friendly and correct, and that Mr Whitlam behaved with scrupulous correctness in his relations…when I was Governor General.”

Hasluck’s comments on what became known as The Dismissal, for 25 years kept under lock and key in the most secure basement vault of the National Library, are detailed and controversial. The former Governor-General died in 1993.

Hasluck's implied criticism of Governor General Kerr

Hasluck’s comments represent a thinly veiled condemnation of the manner in which his successor as Governor General, Sir John Kerr, a former High Court judge, handled his vice-regal role during the 1975 crisis.

Hasluck had been a Liberal Party minister from 1951 to 1969 and then Governor General of Australia from April 1969 until his retirement in July 1974. Labor Prime Minister Gough Whitlam came into office in late 1972 until sacked by Kerr in 1975.

In the Cameron tapes, Hasluck said that when Whitlam came to office he asked Hasluck to defer his retirement plans and remain as Governor General:

“I said to Gough ‘I would be prepared to serve for another couple of years if there is any difficulty in finding a replacement.' Whitlam wanted Hasluck to stay on as Governor General, more of less indefinitely. “And I was willing to, but my wife (Alexandra) objected very strongly and wouldn’t stay on.

"And when I conveyed that to Whitlam, that I couldn’t stay on without my wife, he tried to persuade me to take just two years.He said ‘Well, will your wife agree just to two years if I say it won’t be longer than two years?’… and I think (he) had some disappointment that I would not prolong my term.

“But my wife (pictured above) was just adamant. She said ‘You told me you were getting out after five years. And you’ve got to get out after five years. I’m not going to stay here any longer.’ And I just had to tell Whitlam that. My wife was a strong woman too and I just couldn’t stay. And he was disappointed.”

Alexandra Hasluck, author and social historian, was appointed the first of only two Dames of the Order of Australia in 1978 several years after Australia’s constitutional crisis. She died in 1993 aged 84, just five months after her husband Paul’s death.Dame Alexandra’s steadfast refusal to take on another term at Government House at Yarralumla wasn’t the first time that Alexandra Hasluck had intervened against her husband’s will in major career choices.

Hasluck’s wife in fact wanted him to retire from politics in 1967, he told Cameron. Hasluck said that on December 17, 1967, the day Harold Holt went missing at Cheviot Beach near his holiday home at Portsea in Victoria, Gorton asked him if he would be a contender for the Prime Ministership.Hasluck said he responded: “I couldn’t say, my wife is very keen for me to retire, so I’d have to talk to her before I knew whether I’d be a candidate.”

Hasluck expected to win the leadership vote, but lost narrowly to John Gorton.

Alexandra Hasluck’s often lonely public life...

The reality of public life was that Alexandra Hasluck, while leading a full and energetic life, was often lonely. But the description comes from the son, not the father.

In his oration at his mother’s funeral Nicholas Hasluck said that his mother, known as Alix to friends and family, had carried out her duties with aplomb; “at home and abroad, in the ante chambers of the United Nations, in the wilds of New Guinea, in the corridors of power in Canberra and in the precincts of Admiralty House and Yarralumla.”  

He said his mother wrote many of her books in the early hours of the morning before starting her daily round as a mother and political wife. “It was a lonely life at times but that seldom showed.”

Hasluck in 1985 revealed to Cameron in his series of interviews that in 1975 Whitlam had difficulties in finding a replacement Governor General and sought his opinion on the sort of person best suited for the job.

The initially discussed the names of two Labor politicians; Kim Beazley, Whitlam’s Minister for Education (and father of the current Australian Ambassador to the United States, Kim Beazley) and Frank Crean, Whitlam’s deputy Prime Minister at the time of the dismissal.

According to Hasluck, Kim Beazley was dismissed with contempt by Whitlam: “Oh, he said something like: “He’d just fill Government House with Oxford Groupers!” or something of that sort… he was not impressed by Kim’s performance as a minister.”

Hasluck believed that Frank Crean was just not interested. Hasluck said the only other name mentioned was Sir Roden Cutler, the New South Wales Governor, but “Whitlam didn’t think the category was the right one and didn’t think the person was the right one. “And we finally came down to the question of Chief Justices and people occupying that sort of position… and Kerr was at the end of the line when he’d arrived at the fact that it probably had to be one of the Chief Justices, and the New South Wales Chief Justice was perhaps the best.”

Clyde Cameron said he had been told by Lance Barnard, Whitlam’s deputy from 1972 to 1974, that Whitlam offered Barnard the job of Governor General, but only if Sir John Kerr would not take it.

Hasluck: “I’d have thought that that would be a final disqualification of Barnard; his wife was a very strident person.”

Cameron: “She certainly was a strident lady and would have been quite a change I would think at Government House.” 

At one point during his privately taped conversations with Cameron, without mentioning names, Hasluck called some High Court judges - while eminent lawyers - “pretty dim in their understanding of Australian government.

Clyde Cameron commented: “It seems that some lawyers who’ve never been in government haven’t the foggiest idea of what the difficulties of government are.” Hasluck agreed.

Hasluck suggests that as GG he would have counselled Whitlam in 1975 crisis, but not spoken with Malcolm Fraser.    

Hasluck refrained from directly criticising Kerr, but pointed out forcefully that he would have handled unfolding events in 1975 very differently through discussion with and advice to Prime Minister Whitlam, and probably no-one else. 

During the constitutional crisis Sir John Kerr received advice on a number of occasions at Government House from both Whitlam and Opposition leader Malcolm Fraser.

Hasluck intimated that the Governor General taking advice from Malcolm Fraser in 1975 was improper.

“I think the situation would have been that, if I had been Governor-General that at a much earlier stage there would have been discussions between Whitlam and myself, and some indications (from me) to Whitlam that certain matters needed reconsideration. For instance, on the (overseas) loans affair, I would not have been out of the country when something like that was happening.”

Hasluck was referring to Prime Minister Whitlam’s extensive overseas travel during the period of growing political crisis in Australia. Between late 1974 and September 1975 Whitlam visited Europe, Indonesia, Peru, Jamaica, the United States, Tahiti, Singapore and Papua New Guinea.

In the Whitlam Government’s overseas loans affair, the Minister for Minerals and Energy, Rex Connor and others attempted to raise $4-billion using an irregular Pakistani broker, Tirath Khemlani, for major Australian natural resource projects. Connor was forced to resign after continuing his discussions with Khemlani, even after his authority had been withdrawn by Whitlam in early 1975.

After Connor’s resignation as minister Malcolm Fraser announced on October 15 1975 that the Senate would defer passage of vital Supply Bills until Whitlam called an election. Whitlam refused and the crisis came to a head. After the Coalition parties in the Senate used their numbers to block the government's Supply Bills, a tense three-week constitutional impasse followed before Kerr dismissed Whitlam.

Fraser would have been cut short In his talks with Hasluck, then 80, Clyde Cameron raised an essay by Malcolm Fraser in The Bulletin magazine on Fraser’s meetings with Sir John Kerr during the constitutional crisis.

Cameron quoted Fraser as saying to Kerr in 1975: “Now, if this thing somehow ends without an election, without the people of Australia being asked to make a judgement, I will have to say that I believe the office of Governor-General has let the people of Australia down.”

Cameron suggested to Hasluck: “Fraser would not have dared to threaten you with exposure if you didn’t do certain things, either.”

Hasluck (laughing) replied: “Well I don’t know whether he’d have dared. But the interview would have been cut short if he had.” Cameron: “I put it higher than that; Fraser would know you – all of us who served with you in Parliament would have known you well enough not to have even dared to do it.” 

Hasluck said he wasn’t privy to the details, but added, “Let’s assume that there was a confidential discussion between Fraser and Sir John Kerr. I don’t think it is correct custom for Fraser to disclose his half of the conversation, unless he has done so with the concurrence of the Governor General. And I don’t know.”

Hasluck said that when looking at the past, “you think of what might have happened: If my wife had not insisted on going… and if I had stayed, only for two years, probably the history of Australian politics would be quite different from what it is.”

‘Governor General only has one adviser...’

Sir Paul Hasluck told Clyde Cameron during their interviews that he doubted whether he would have had any discussion on the crisis with the then Leader of the Opposition, Malcolm Fraser, or anyone else but Prime Minister Whitlam.

Fraser in 1975 had been advising Kerr on several occasions, as had Whitlam, and Fraser subsequently was sworn in as Prime Minister. Hasluck in the 1985 tapes indicated that Sir John Kerr probably erred in taking advice from Fraser or anyone else but Whitlam:

“I think the Governor General only has one adviser at any given point of time”, he said referring to the Prime Minister as the vice-regal adviser.

“And although he has to inform himself, and take whatever steps are necessary to inform himself, I think the Governor General has to be careful …the function of the Governor-General is not to be the honest broker in political situations.

“So, I just have some doubts in my mind whether there would have been any conversation between me and Mr Fraser at that stage of events.

In their separate interviews with Cameron, Sir Paul Hasluck condemned the Senate acting as a blocking chamber to make government impossible and Sir John Gorton, himself a former senator, was even more outspoken.

Hasluck told Cameron: “I think the commonsense of government is that a House of Review, a second Chamber, has the function of delaying, ensuring that there is review and reconsideration of measures, but it doesn’t have the function of completely blocking anything.”

He said it once was the convention that the Senate should not use its power in respect of money bills unreasonably or in an obstructive manner, but this had changed.“And I still (think) that that situation when the Senate did refuse Supply (in 1975) was still pre-eminently a political situation, to be solved by political management within Parliament, not by proposing amendments to the Constitution.”  

Hasluck in 1985 maintained that it was irresponsible behaviour for any Opposition with a ‘chance’ majority in the Senate - with half the senators elected at a previous election under different circumstances - to obstruct the working of government.“…I think the political wisdom, and the general idea of acceptable political behaviour in Australia, is that you don’t oppose to the point where you bring down governments; that us, that you make government impossible.

"You only oppose when there is some major principle at stake, or when there is some major challenge on policy, and you don’t just obstruct. And for an opposition to be merely obstructive is against the whole spirit of our system of government.”

Gorton warns on Senate: “It can happen again”.

Sir John Gorton, who died in May 2002 and who was Liberal Party Prime Minister from January 1968 to March 1971, expressed to Cameron on tape fears for the future if nothing was done to prevent an Opposition in the future from blocking supply in the Senate:

“It’s thrown the whole future of parliamentary government into doubt. Now, at the moment (in 1984) we got Democrats in the Senate, and they’ve undertaken never to agree to refuse Supply to any government. And so the situation doesn’t arise. But once they’re beaten – if they are beaten – and one side or the other has a majority, then the whole thing is thrown open and can happen again." #

Prime Minister Gough Whitlam hears of his dismissal on the steps of Parliament House.

Governor General Sir John Kerr

Prime Minister Whitlam with Governor General Sir Paul Hasluck.