Conspiracy theories about dismissal obscure more important things

Shocking revelations seem easy to get a hold of these days.

Historian Jenny Hocking says leading conservative politicians were on the phone before the sacking of the Whitlam government. I’m aghast. Oh, and they had a special phone for affairs of state. Consider my gob thoroughly smacked.

Peter Barbour, who was director-general of ASIO from 1970 to 1975, tells us that Gough Whitlam gave the organisation oral rather than written instructions about talking to the CIA. This is sneaky, but working in the public service taught me that “avoiding leaving a paper trail” goes on all the time.

These mini-revelations will feed the ever-present conspiracy theories surrounding the dismissal. And that’s a problem. Not that the conspiracies weren’t present. But the chatter they arouse obscures more important things.

Let’s travel back to a moment after the June 1975 Bass by-election. Whitlam was still in office, but Fraser was on the offensive and the economy was in trouble. Labor’s primary vote dropped 17 percent and the Liberals won the seat 60-40 on a two party preferred basis. After minerals and energy minister Rex Connor’s resignation in October in the wake of the notorious “loans affair” coming to light, Fraser felt confident enough to block supply in the Senate and bring on a constitutional crisis.

At this point, according to Paul Kelly, “Fraser spoke with senior newspaper executives from at least two of Australia’s three newspaper chains … Almost without exception the press supported Fraser’s decision to force an election”.

Meanwhile, the government met obstruction at every turn in trying to resolve the supply crisis. When Whitlam sought a half-Senate election, conservative state governments refused to cooperate. When he sought temporary finance from the banks, they refused to extend it, which in turn gave John Kerr a pretext for dismissing the government.

In October, Queensland governor Colin Hannah and Robert Menzies joined the fray with a statement endorsing Fraser’s actions.

There are elements of conspiracy in all this. But much more important was Fraser’s ability to mobilise social forces. A mobilisation of social forces is not the same as a conspiracy, nor was there monolithic unity in the anti-Labor camp.

In fact, in the weeks before the dismissal, ruling class sentiment was fairly volatile. Shortly before Connor’s resignation, the Sydney Morning Herald questioned Fraser’s credibility: the opposition leader had begun hinting that “extraordinary or reprehensible” circumstances were not required to legitimise blocking supply, and the Herald suggested this new tack was itself “reprehensible”.

After Connor’s demise, the Herald changed its tune and declared “Fraser must act”. Yet even then, he did not have an easy run. As Whitlam sought to tough out the supply crisis, the Liberal leader had a grim battle of his own keeping control of skittish backbenchers, while the breakaway Liberal Movement condemned his actions.

Sections of the media also remained nervous, the Age urging the Liberals to back down and the Brisbane Courier-Mail pleading repeatedly for compromise. W.J. Sharp, managing director of Jennings Industries, thought the political uncertainty bad for business confidence, telling the National Times:

“I am in favour of passing supply … I believe the story that the business community was urging the opposition to stop supply was a complete myth and ought to be scotched. If a survey of business people had been done one month ago, I am convinced that the vote would have been overwhelmingly against the Liberal Party doing what it did. My own recollection, from conversations in the last few weeks with dozens of businessmen, is that only one executive was in favour.”

Among the media, there was a growing belief that Fraser had missed the boat. The Bulletin portrayed him as the “man in a muddle”. The British Economist thought blocking supply had “begun to look like a smart tactic which went astray”.

What overcame this ruling class fragmentation was not any of the conspiracies running at the time. It was Fraser’s determined mobilisation. We’re used to the idea that our side in the struggle must mobilise or face defeat – “If you don’t fight you lose”. But the other side faces the same imperative.