Gough Whitlam

The Truth of the Palace Letters by Paul Kelly and Troy Bramston & The Palace Letters by Jenny Hocking

by
January–February 2021, no. 428

In April 2011, the landmark High Court victory of four elderly Kenyans revealed a dark episode in British colonial history. Between 1952 and 1960, barbaric practices, including forced removal and torture, were widely employed against ‘Mau Mau’ rebels, real or imagined. Upon the granting of independence in 1963, thousands of files documenting such atrocities were ‘retained’ by the British authorities, eventually coming to rest in the vast, secret Foreign and Commonwealth Office archives at Hanslope Park. Now a small portion of that archive was opened to scrutiny, and a tiny ray of light shone on one of history’s greatest cover-ups.

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In 1975 the governor general, John Kerr, removed a democratically elected Labor government, amid great intrigue and subterfuge. The dismissal of the Whitlam government remains one of the blights on our democracy – perhaps the most controversial event in Australian political history. And yet the full record of what happened in the weeksand months leading up to the dismissal is still unavailable to Australian citizens because of the intransigence of Queen Elizabeth and the expensive lengths to which the National Archives of Australia have gone to suppress access to John Kerr’s correspondence with Buckingham Palace.

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The dismissal of the Whitlam government by the governor-general, Sir John Kerr, on 11 November 1975 was one of the most tumultuous and controversial episodes in Australian political history. The government had been elected on 2 December 1972 and returned at the May 1974 double dissolution, with Whitlam becoming the first Labor leader to achieve successive electoral victories.

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On his first day in Australia's foreign service in 1961, Stephen FitzGerald was told to learn the language of the enemy: 'a country we have no diplomatic relations with, which our government denounces as an aggressor, instigator of subversion in Southeast Asia and major threat to Australia.' He took on the assignment with apprehension. China was completely foreign t ...

‘I have never met an Aussie I didn’t like.’ The half-compliment was the best President Richard Nixon could muster during a restrained exchange with Prime Minister Gough Whitlam in the Oval Office in July 1973. After the turbulent build-up to this meeting, rivetingly conveyed in James Curran’s history Unholy Fury: Whitlam and Nixon at War, one almost e ...

Susan Mitchell’s fifteenth book is a biography of the Whitlams, published shortly before Gough’s death in November. As a broadcaster, journalist, and author who has examined the lives of prominent Australian women, Mitchell tells the story mainly from Margaret’s perspective. This is not surprising: Mitchell had already amassed a huge body of research for her book Margaret Whitlam: A Biography (2006), and had known her since the late 1970s. And, compared to his frank and affable wife, Gough was less willing to share his personal recollections.

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Gough Whitlam’s famous words during his impromptu speech after the Dismissal in 1975 remain a potent symbol of the excitements and turbulence of the Whitlam era. As Troy Bramston’s collection of ALP speeches since 1891 reminds us, political speeches can capture a national mood or sentiment at a particular time in history. Indeed, a carefully crafted set of words can become a treasured part of our national self-image. They can also boost or destroy a politician’s reputation. In an age when the media has become uncritically obsessed with gaffes, Twitter banalities, polls, and sound bites, it is worth remembering that a good speech can elevate the national conversation and appeal to our better instincts.

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Jenny Hocking concluded the first volume of her Whitlam biography (2008) on the eve of her subject’s electoral victory in December 1972. Gough Whitlam had been the most effective and creative opposition leader in Australian history: since 1967 he had dragged a protesting Labor party into the second half of the twentieth century; provided the party with a contemporary social democratic agenda; broadened the appeal of the party beyond its historic working-class base; and seen off one Liberal prime minister, with another to follow. The challenge for Hocking in this second volume is to explain how this promise turned to dust and ashes within three years, with Whitlam’s dismissal by the governor-general, followed by electoral repudiation. Meticulous and thorough research, a broad understanding of both the personal and structural factors underlying his government’s failure, and a commanding narrative drive enable Hocking to meet the challenge. There is no better account of how the triumph of 1972 turned into the catastrophe of 1975.

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Edward Gough Whitlam bestrode the Australian political stage like a colossus for over a generation: first as federal Opposition leader, then as prime minister, and finally as martyr. A legend in his own lifetime, this last role threatens to turn him into myth. More books have been written on aspects of his short and turbulent government than on any other in Australian history. There are already three biographies: a competent quickie by journalist Laurie Oakes in 1976; an eloquent political biography by his speechwriter Graham Freudenberg in 1977; and a psychobiography by the political scientist James Walter in 1980, which depicts Whitlam in terms of a particular personality type – the grandiose narcissist.

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The careful media management accompanying the Australian National Archive’s release in January 2004 of cabinet papers covering the first year in office of the Whitlam government underlined the interest of the ageing ex-prime minister and his supporters in safeguarding his status as an Australian icon. It was a success: most analysts agreed that the papers showed that in 1973 the newly elected Labor government performed with exceptional dynamism and transparency.

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