This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Monday June 8 2015.
Lessons for Sri Lanka?
As Sri Lanka’s foreign minister voices doubts about the value of this country’s long-standing commitment to the Non-Aligned Movement and the US Secretary of State takes a strong interest in moving Sri Lanka away from China and into the US orbit we should pay heed to what happened to Gough Whitlam.
Booker Prize winner Peter Carey has been in the news recently because he was one of the six authors (including Michael Ondaatje) who protested about PEN International giving an award to Charlie Hebdo magazine. Salman Rushdie was not impressed and wrote an article entitled “Six authors in search of a bit of character”.
Carey has a new novel out called Amnesia. Critics drew parallels with a previous Carey novel (which I have been re-reading) The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith, published in 1994. Amnesia’s central figure is Felix Moore, who describes himself as “Australia’s last surviving left wing journalist”.
Governor General Sacks Prime Minister
In 1975, the governor general of Australia, Sir John Kerr, the unelected representative of Queen Elizabeth II, removed Labour Party leader Gough Whitlam from the office of prime minister and replaced him with Malcolm Fraser, the leader of the opposition Liberal (conservative) Party. Felix, like many others in real life (among them John Pilger) described this as a coup. Before the coup, there was a concerted campaign of disinformation and manufactured scandals designed to show Whitlam in a bad light. Rupert Murdoch was a major player in this campaign.
In Carey’s 1994 novel Tristan Smith, Efica is Australia and the US is Voorstand. “The alliance between the parliamentary democracies of Voorstand and Efica is built on three areas of joint co-operation—Defence, Navigation, Intelligence—DNI.” The Labor Party is the Blue Party, the conservatives the Red Party. Tristan footnotes his autobiography with explanations of the events leading to Whitlam’s ouster —the concocted scandals, the VIA (Voorstand Intelligence Agency), the DoS (Department of Supply, a version of the Australian spy service ASIO). The two services worked closely at all times, it sometimes being said that the DoS’s loyalty lay with the VIA, not with the elected government of Efica.
John Pilger, veteran Australian investigative journalist and polemicist (I do not know if Carey had Pilger in mind when he created Felix) has written extensively about the CIA’s role in engineering Whitlam’s ejection from office. The coup against Whitlam is described in full in his book, A Secret Country (Vintage), and in his documentary film, Other People’s Wars, which can be viewed on http://www.johnpilger.com/ Whitlam’s government had provoked the US by withdrawing Australian troops from the Vietnam War. He also opposed nuclear weapons testing, and made a nuisance of himself by querying the purpose of the Pine Gap signals intelligence centre near Alice Springs.
An Independent Australia
Pilger wrote: “Australia briefly became an independent state during the Whitlam years, 1972-75.” Whitlam challenged US values and interests with radical reforms pushed through in less than three years between 1972 and 1975. He also challenged Britain. Whitlam moved Australia towards the Non-Aligned Movement.
The Whitlam government abolished the death penalty for federal crimes. The government established offices in each state capital. It abolished university fees, and established the Schools Commission to allocate funds to schools. Whitlam founded the Department of Urban Development and, set a goal to leave no urban home without sewers. The Whitlam government gave grants directly to local government units for urban renewal, flood prevention, and the promotion of tourism. Other federal grants financed highways linking the state capitals, and paid for standard-gauge rail lines between the states.”Advance Australia Fair” became the country’s national anthem in place of “God Save the Queen”. The Order of Australia replaced the British honours system in early 1975.
Whitlam campaigned for indigenous rights creating the Aboriginal Land Fund to help indigenous groups buy back privately owned lands, as well as the Aboriginal Loans Commission to help establish indigenous-owned businesses, pay for health and education expenses, and for the purchase of property with a view to home ownership.
Opposition Blocked Funding.
Although Labour had a majority in the House of Representatives, the Liberal-dominated senate refused to release the funding to enact the reforms on which he had been elected. Whitlam asserted the primacy of the House of Representatives and his right to govern so long as he retained a majority there, whereas Fraser claimed that a government denied Supply by the Senate should resign. Whitlam had already won two elections so apart from the Liberals refusing to bring the budget bills to the vote was there should have been no need for an election. Whitlam went to the polls in 1974, only 18 months after winning power in 1972 to resolve the deadlock. He was re-elected. Whitlam had sufficient supply to run the government for another two weeks.
The Whitlam government looked for foreign loans from the Middle East, rather than from traditional American and European sources, to finance its development plans. Just as the Sri Lankan government upset the US by turning to China for development assistance, Whitlam put American noses out of joint by preferring Middle East backing. Whitlam attempted to secure financing before informing the Loan Council (which included state officials hostile to him), and his government empowered Pakistani financier Tirath Khemlani as an intermediary in the hope of securing US$4 billion in loans. While the Loans Affair never resulted in an actual loan, according to author and Whitlam speechwriter Graham Freudenberg. In the end, no loan was ever obtained, no commissions were paid, but the government was made to look reckless and foolish.
The Opposition believed that if Whitlam could not deliver supply, and would not advise new elections, Kerr would have to dismiss him. Supply would run out on 30 November. In October 1975, the Opposition, led by Malcolm Fraser, determined to withhold supply by deferring consideration of appropriation bills.
Whitlam and his ministers repeatedly claimed that the Opposition was damaging not only the constitution, but the economy as well. Whitlam told the House of Representatives on 21 October, “Let me place my government’s position clearly on the record. I shall not advise the Governor-General to hold an election for the House of Representatives on behalf of the Senate. I shall tender no advice for an election of either House or both Houses until this constitutional issue is settled. This government, so long as it retains a majority in the House of Representatives, will continue the course endorsed by the Australian people last year.”
After he was ousted Whitlam made a speech: “Well may we say “God save the Queen”, because nothing will save the Governor-General! The Proclamation which you have just heard read by the Governor-General’s Official Secretary was countersigned Malcolm Fraser, who will undoubtedly go down in Australian history from Remembrance Day 1975 as Kerr’s cur. They won’t silence the outskirts of Parliament House, even if the inside has been silenced for a few weeks … Maintain your rage and enthusiasm for the campaign for the election now to be held and until polling day”.
At the ensuing election, Fraser’s conservative coalition won a resounding victory. The Australian publican public forgot its temporary aberration of not electing a Liberal government, decided that change was too disturbing and went back to boozing and sunbathing.