Two volumes on one of the nation’s most controversial prime ministers should be a landmark event in Australia’s political historiography. Unfortunately, Jenny Hocking’s second volume, appearing some four years after the first, completes a disappointing double.
When it was published late last year, the key selling-point of the second volume was that it contained important revelations about the dismissal of the Whitlam government in 1975. Hocking is the first to have done extensive research in the archives of Sir John Kerr and thus claimed to have unearthed dramatic new evidence about the role of the so-called ‘third man’, Anthony Mason, who advised Kerr in the lead-up to 11 November 1975.
Her revelations about Mason’s role in advising Kerr were described as ‘significant and stunning’ by Paul Kelly in The Australian, but, as Gerard Henderson and others pointed out, this material was not completely new. Th e identity of Mason as the ‘third man’ had come to light in 1994, initially revealed by Sir Garfield Barwick in a television interview and augmented by Henderson at that time, making public some information Kerr had told him in the 1980s.
Nonetheless, Hocking deserves credit for her archival digging and the fact that the publicity prompted Mason to go public with his version of his role, which in part disputed some of the details contained in the notes in Kerr’s archives. Thus, the net effect of Hocking’s research provides a valuable contribution to dismissal studies.
Given her research on the topic, it is probably no surprise that Hocking’s book has a heavy weighting towards the dismissal with the narrative taking from page 240 when Malcolm Fraser’s blocking of supply is announced to page 362 when the crisis concludes. Hocking’s account is nothing if not partisan, being totally sympathetic to Whitlam, aggressively antagonistic to Kerr and letting Fraser off far more lightly than the Left used to, before he became one of their own.
One striking omission from her account is the fact that the Labor Party, when it had been in opposition, had regularly asserted the right of the Senate to block supply. This cannot be from ignorance on Hocking’s part, as one of her previous biographical subjects, Lionel Murphy, had been the most vehement in asserting the Senate’s right to block money bills. She oft en exaggerates to make her case: for instance, she writes that Liberal Party members in South Australia were against blocking supply—no doubt some were, but she implies it was all of them.
Yet, even though Hocking’s treatment of the dismissal is flawed, it is at least lively and interesting. It is the best part of the book.
There is too much material about ASIO, UNESCO and the Sankey case, counterbalanced by some extraordinarily light treatment of some other events. The 1975 election campaign takes up a mere six pages, but even this is a lot better than the 1977 one which merits a mere two paragraphs. One might think that this was Hocking trying to gloss over elections where Labor was thrashed, but even the 1972 campaign gets sparse treatment, largely falling between the two volumes. Anyone interested in how Whitlam campaigned, what innovations he brought to campaigning, which aspects of it he enjoyed and which he did not, and how campaigning changed during his career will be disappointed. There is a bit more on the 1974 election campaign, which Hocking irritatingly refers to more than once as the ‘forgotten election’. ‘Forgotten’ by whom one has to ask. Her lack of interest in, or understanding of, electoral matters is exemplified by her comment that the Senate which Whitlam faced in 1973 had ‘not been called to an election’ in 1972. She implies that this was a matter of choice, but a half Senate election could not be called until after July 1973, as the new Senators could not take office until 1 July 1974.
Hocking’s attitude towards the competing political parties is reflected in the adjectives she uses to describe them; generally pejorative ones for those representing the Liberal and Country parties, while she writes of one Whitlam speech that it was ‘electric… meticulously researched, hard-hitting and riveting’. She paints Whitlam as the benign victim of malevolent opponents, claiming that Whitlam, being ‘the son of a disinterested public servant first and a politician second’, imagined he would have to deal with a constructive opposition, rather than one that actually opposed what he was doing. In Hocking’s view, opposition to the Whitlamite program must always be due to improper motives rather than conviction. For example, the medical profession’s objections to Medibank are described as a ‘scurrilous campaign’.
Hocking recognises that economics was not Whitlam’s forte. It is seemingly not hers either as she struggles to provide a coherent critique of the Whitlam government’s handling of the nation’s finances. In the lead-up to the extraordinarily profligate 1974 budget, she dismisses Treasury advice to moderate spending as ‘a conservative political manifesto masquerading as economic strategy’, but paradoxically is also highly critical of Treasurer Frank Crean for failing to aggressively push the Treasury position in Cabinet and of other ministers for seeking to make the budget even more expansionary. The 1975 Budget is only mentioned belatedly and briefly in the context of the dismissal, rather than in its own right as an important sign that reality had finally struck the government.
As well as Whitlam’s lack of economic competence, Hocking occasionally recognises other flaws in her subject such as his failure to handle his caucus well, verbosity, volatile temper, and poor judgement in relation to political realities and people’s character. She describes Whitlam’s decision to resume his European tour, after returning to Australia in the wake of Cyclone Tracy, as one that ‘defied comprehension’.
However, even if the book is not a complete hagiography to Whitlam the person, it is very much a hagiography of the Whitlam program, or at least the Whitlam program as Hocking imagines it.
Hocking’s blindness to the reality, as opposed to her idealised version, of what the Whitlam government actually did is underlined when she describes the unwinding of its policies by the Fraser government. She claims that under Fraser ‘the total immigration intake plummeted to its lowest level since World War II’. In reality, one of the first decisions of the Whitlam government was to cut the planned immigration intake for 1972-73 from 140,000 to 110,000 and by the end of their period in government it was down to a mere 50,000. So, yes when Fraser came to power it was at a modern low. However, far from cutting, as Hocking implies, the Fraser government gradually increased numbers back to almost 120,000 in 1981-82. Whitlam was a virulent opponent of letting Vietnamese refugees into Australia, only allowing in one thousand in 1975 (the year of the fall of Saigon) and telling Cabinet in 1975 that he was ‘not having hundreds of f—— Vietnamese Balts coming into this country’. There is an argument that Whitlam was the most anti-immigration prime minister between Scullin and the present day, but that does not fit the Hocking image of her hero. Of course, her hero would also not have sold out East Timor to the Indonesians, so she is at pains to defend him from any such accusations, from the Left or Right.
The book maintains the pattern of the first volume by making lots of silly factual errors which tend to reduce the authority of any opinions that the author expresses. In the first volume, my personal favourite was Whitlam’s father catching a train across the Harbour Bridge before it was built. Here, a typical example is Edward Heath being given the title Sir when he met Whitlam in 1973. In fact, he refused such an honour until 1992 but, in Hocking’s world, all tories are undoubtedly titled in some way.
Perhaps even more of a problem than the bias and the sloppy mistakes is that, at times, this book is dull. Making Gough Whitlam dull is quite an achievement given his larger-than-life character and the drama, colour and scandals of his government. If you want to get the true flavour of the Whitlam era, reading one of former Labor politician Barry Cohen’s books of anecdotes might be just as informative, and certainly more entertaining, than Hocking’s effort.